Arts / Culture & Lifestyle

Ali Birra – the Universal Ambassador of the Oromo Language and Culture

By Mekkonen Taddese

Ali Birra is a virtuous creative singer. His melodies are rooted in Oromo culture. His lyrics are deeply philosophic. His vocal talent is amazing. He is rich in words. That is why Ali Birra’s songs are liked by many – be it those who speak the Oromifa language/Afaan Oromoo/ or those who don’t. He has a good command of the different dialects of Afaan Oromo. His songs are rooted in the Oromo culture. He uses the language, melody and beat of Oromo music to convey his message.
The virtues of Ali Birra’s songs are many. Among them are the following: .

1. Likeable Vocal – He has a likeable vocal.
2. He writes philosophic lyrics for his songs.
3. He authors most of his own melodies.

Ali Birra writes great lyrics and composes melodies liked by many without losing their identity.

His songs raise questions about many issues such as love, hatred, politics, and life in general. The lyrics convey vital meanings to listeners. They have philosophic virtues. The themes of his lyrics focus on various issues ranging from love to separation, friendship to education. Take, for example, ‘hinyaadini‘ meaning “don’t worry.” He touches on hot issues of politics and segregation.

Ali Birra’s songs have very interesting virtues among which are the following:

He is an ambassador of the Oromo people. He lends his mouth to his people. He speaks on their behalf on many topics. He communicates the socio-economic and political problems of his people. As a result, he is a popular figure. He follows the public interest and expresses it very well. The contents of his lyrics show that he is wise and of high intellect in his culture.
As a member of his society, he has a courageous and confident character to speak his mind. He has passed through many ups and downs because of his views.

As a person, he has also a likeable character. He lives a simple life. May be this is the result of the way he grew up.
He speaks of great ideas fluently in many languages. Among them are Oromifa, Somali, Harari, Arabic, Amharic, and English languages fluently. He has sung in different languages at different times.
Ali Birra is a singer known for his songs in Oromifa. But his fans come from diverse cultures and languages. His fans may not speak Oromifa. But they like his vocal and the way he sings. One Tigrigna speaker who used to listen to his songs in Axum, Tigray in the 60s and 70s expresses how he likes his songs as follows.

“Since we liked Ali Birra but couldn’t hear his lyrics, we changed the lyrics that goes as ‘Eshurururu yaa burtukaane woo

Dayme walalaa be’an sifudheen gala’
‘Eshurururu yaa burtukaane woo
Endabagabir tsubuk suwa neyru.’

I remember a graduate of Unity University describing how he enjoyed with his Oromo friends at a party with Ali Birra’s songs, especially, ‘Sin barbaada hoggu’. His friends told him “Only if he spoke the language and understood the meanings of the lyrics, he would have liked him even more”. They said so because when one listens to his songs, they teach a lot about life, friendship, family, etc.

Ali Birra is not selfish. He sings for the grand causes he believes in. He doesn’t crave or work for money. He lives and works for his passion. If one has many of his songs, s/he must be fortunate to have most of his songs. But no one can confidently say s/he has all of his songs. This is because of his nature. He is not a man that worries about money and benefits or fame and whatever. He could have produced so many albums and sold them to capitalize on the financial gain from being likeable and famous. But he never did that. The people who lived and know him closely witness that he doesn’t worry about money. He is so generous. One can say that he is a man of his people through his music. He is close to humans with humane feelings. He is empathetic in singing about the issue for others.

As an Ambassador of the Oromo Culture through his songs, he integrates the vast culture of the Oromo people. He uses varying dialects of the Oromo spoken in different areas. Let’s see how he does this. In so doing, I find a virtue which I rarely find in most of the contemporary singers of ours nowadays.

Ali Birra uses new words in different localities to widen the vocabulary and knowledge of his audiences. Take for example Rabbi and Waaqaa, Bikka and Eddo, baredaa and Midhagaa, Hiriba = handhura (Efi refa bulta hiriba, handhura mi’awa) . Often, at least one is a new word to most listeners who didn’t have the chance to visit other areas. He sings using words like Nin gagabe’e, Nindhufaa – Harar. He also uses Nangagabe’e , Nandhufaa as spoken in Shewa, Arsi and Wellega.

Ali Birra intentionally uses different words of the same meaning interchangeably. For example, in Kobaa koo nadhiftee, he integrates the language and culture:

Maalin sit-dhaamadhaa yeroon sigaggeessu
Maalin sit-dhaamadhaa ogaan sigaggeessu
He also uses Rabbi (Harar, Shewa…) = Waaqaa (Wellega, Shewa and other areas) to mean God.

One could see through the timeline of his songs that as he grows in knowledge and gets exposed to the other Oromo dialects and areas, he does the integration more effectively and efficiently. If you compare what he sang while he was only in Dire Dhawa and how he did it after visiting other places, you see his effort to bring those dialects and cultures closer to each other. He keeps key aspect of the song but changes the lyrics and other things. A good example is the song Awash.

He sings about ‘Rigaa’ in his early songs. Rigaa is a culture of the Harar Oromos. It means a natural toothbrush from a healthy tree. Giving it to someone symbolizes expression of love. He uses ‘rigaa’ in his early songs about Awash. But he changes the lyrics in his late songs of Awash for the more integrative lyrics like bishaan addis ababbaa, but retains the typical hindunee nangagabe (Shewa, Wellega and other localities). He sings ‘Yaa magaalee shaashin nahafarsi’ (Harar and Arsi) – typical to the Muslim culture. He opts for and also takes the horse culture of Salalaee Oromos and asks ‘Salaalattin gulufa Jimmatti nabaasa karaan kuni – nulachuu alagumaa maa walitti nubooya garaan kunii?’. He keeps the Shegoyea beat and words “Ajabaa, Ol godhu, Akkana….’.

Let’s see how he does all these in his songs:

Awash is an ideal for its multi-faceted virtues – for not only it crosses so many areas of differing cultures (Just listen to Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s poem – Awash) but also is one of the rivers to pass through so many places and serve people for different purposes like irrigation, fishing, and day to day uses like washing, grazing etc. May be, it is the only river in the region that is useful to all around it while others take the rich soil to neibouring countries. He names Wellega, Jimma and other places in Awash. He praises the good seasons. He sings for a beauty from Wellega that is so beautiful as follows:

‘Harageassa Wallaggaa, Wallaggaara teesse sindarbaduu
Ati bareedu taanan namu sidaawata sinabdadhuu.
He says this to mean he couldn’t be confident on the loyality of his lover for so many people gaze at her for her beauty and that he can’t afford the tender. He sings of Dire Dhawa in the same song:
Alaatin Dire Dhawaa fon malee lafee hinnyaatina jeti
Magaleen Dire Dhawaa na malee hindubbisinaa jeti
Mind you, he used harageessa and Alaati for Wellega and Dire Dhawaa respectively. In so doing he brings the two dialects of Oromifa together. He uses the local words (eg. nindhufa vs nandhufa) to express the same thing.

In Awash, he also sings about the temptation of beauty – singing for betraying his wife preferring a more beautiful lady:

‘Kalee manni gubatee
Utubaa warqii shantu gubatee
Anaan mal ja’ee nanjataa
Kasirra bareedutu nafudhatee.
He maintains the ‘Shegoyea’ beat of Harar through Awash
Awaash nama shookkisaa,
Yanni hiriyaa nama boochisaa,
Awaash nama hinshookkisuu,
Yanni hiryaa nama hinrafisuu,
Silaa Shaggarin bahaa Shaggaritti koora fannisani (X2),
Silaa Sibiraan dhufaa,
Sibiratti jolee lakkisani
ijooleen hindubbattu
Shurubbaa lash gotee nandhunggatuu?
The whole lyrics of the Awash song have the following translation:

The Awash River never threatens flowing low,
Missing a loved one takes one’s sleep with a yearning blow.
Come here, come here to the river my lover,
The harvest is good, the time is brighter.
The Awash River threatens flowing high,
Missing a loved companion makes one cry.
Flood of Addis Ababa – the Water of Addis,
Come and take me with you…take me with you please,
Oh my beauty…
Oh my beauty… I have lost my consciousness,
But I am not dead yet,
Ventilate me with your veil…
Kindly help me regain my thought.
Let me gallop to Salaale,
This route will take me to Jimma too,
We have no relation… so different,
Why do our hearts beguile…beguile to each other yet.
The crow of Wellega…
You being there my beauty….
Never will I give you my trust?
For your beauty attracts too many,
And endow you with insincere lovers a lot.
Won’t help to find you with effort,
The eagles of Dire Dawa …
The eagles of Dire Dawa will advise,
Advise all to eat flesh,
Never to eat bone,
The beauty of Dire gets angry…
When one visits another girl and is gone.
I wish to go to ‘Sheger’,
In Sheger they hang the saddles,
I would have liked to come to your place,
Kids are playing not disturbing us and don’t notice,
Not sayin a word in spite of their presence,
Come show off your long hair…
And get me lost with your kiss.

1. Bishaan Addis Ababbaa
Bishaan Addis Ababbaa ira taa’ani kula maranii
Magaalee biyya ormaa hinjjarjarani suuta baranii
Lensuu yaalensuu tiyya
Birgitaa Birgitaa tiyya akkam nagumaa yaa jaalalee tiyya.

Here he sings for the one he loved. He felt that they are different from the setting they are in. He speaks of the wisdom required to live in a society so different and new. He attempts to absorb the cultural shock in moving to new places. On one hand Harar (where he was born and grew up) and Addis (where he lived when he sang that song) are so different for him. He faces challenges in conforming to the culture of Addis. On the other hand (and more importantly), he has now loved and is being loved by a foreign diplomat from an exotic culture. They are both new to the place. To find comfort in each other here is a great success for both. But he is cautious and also warns his lover of the same even mentioning name. The diplomats name was Brigitta Alstrom who was working at the Swedish Embassy in Addis. This culture is new for both. I guess they found comfort in each other living together. But he advises:

Bishaan Addis Ababbaa ol xuruuran moo gad xuruurani
xuxuuxii nadhungadhu Duratu maka nurra tuulani
Leensu yaa leensu tiyya
Akkam nagumaa jaalalee tiyya.
Birgita Birgita tiyya akam naguma ya jaalellee tiyya.
He sings:
Bishaan addis ababbaa Yaagelaana koottu nadabarsi (X2)
Hindunee ningagabee yaamagaallee shaashin nshafarsii
Lensu yaa lensu tiyyaa
Akam nugumaa jaalalee tiyyaa.

Here, it seems that he wanted to convey his aspiration to cross the ocean to escape the prevailing situation in the country with the help of his lover. But, he didn’t openly say what hemeant. Rather he used gold and wax. Galaana means flood. He is asking the flood to take him away. But he didn’t say it in an open way.

He sings “they will give us a bad name anyway. So keep on kissing me deep. Don’t refrain from expressing your love but do it in a cautious way.

He uses the workd ‘gaggaba’. ‘Gagabaa’ is a word that Amharic borrowed from Oromiffa. It means being unconscious in emotion or the senses.

2. Obsi Yaa Onee
As a human being, we all have experiences. Let me take just two lines of lyrics from one of his songs ‘Obsi’.

He sings:
Obsi yaa onee obsaan warroomani
Waahalle nyaatan malee waahalee hindubbatanii’
The meaning is one may eat whatever he finds but never does s/he speak whatever s/he thinks. It advises one has to slowly and cautiously learn how to live with others and learn to mix and become a family member.

3. Haamileen kiyya sumaa
Yaada keetin shoorarkaawee
Haammam takkaan daadarkaawee.
Si dhabnaan dhaamayawee.
Numaan obsa yoon wayyawee
Sin yaadadha an galgaluu
Oggaan chisee garagaluu.

In this song, he declares he is normal but nominally. This is because he is virtually abnormal because of the thoughts of his loved one. He thinks about her day and nights. He sings he has no sickness except longing for the one he loves. But he is optimistic that he will get better one day. He confesses it is what he misses that make him sick sometimes.

4.Opera in Afaan Oromoo
Ali Birra sung Opera back in the 60s in Opera style. One prominent example is ‘Yaaboontuu’.

5.Amma lalee
Amma lalee was sung by Ali Birra with its varieties like Moahamud’s ‘Mela Mela’.

Turu hinbulee shaggaa turu hinbulee
An yaada kee waanbullee
Bishaan bishaanumaa adiin waa hinjiranii
Jaalatan tokkumaa wayaa intala qalbii maa hiranii.

At one time, a singer sang Ali Birra’s song. He sang ‘….Jaaletan takkuma qalbii waan hirani’ rather than ‘jaalatan takkumaa qalbii maa hirani’. The two are different as ‘maahirani’ asks for the reason while ‘waan hirani’ commands. I had to call two of my close friends from my area. One is named Harar. I asked her which one he says. She said he sung ‘maa hirani’. I was not convinced even if I was not sure. I called the other friend who likes his songs very much as much as I do. He also said Ali sings ‘maahirani’. I was inpatient. I went home and checked. I confirmed Ali Birra sings ‘maa hirani’. This is important for me as Ali Birra doesn’t command but asks as a passing thing why somebody loves two rather than one. For me, at least asking why one loves two is better than commanding him/her to love one. After all, love/passion/emotion has often no logic.

He sings:
Kottu adare bunaa way algee luqqifanna.
Nulachuu daa’imaa yaa boontu intalaa way waluuguddifanaa…

Here, he invites his love to visit Harar locally called ‘Adere’ to enjoy time together. He proposes and asks his lover to let themselves grow together and marry one another.

6. Waasillee hindararuu (Reggae beat)
Sijibbee hinjanee usteetti challiftaa (X2)
Ani rabbumaan qabaa Baayyee jijjiramtaa, Danuu jijjiramtaa
Baayyee = Jaboo = Danu … to mean a lot
Bikaan jiruu ka’ee jaalalaa nafidee
Eddoon Jiruu ka’ee jaalalaa nafidee
Haaya numaan obsaa rabbumaa namudee, rabbumaa namudee.
Bikkaan jiru ka’ee = iddoon jiruu ka’ee… to mean I came from where I am for love

In this song, he uses the different dialects of Oromifaa to convey the same meaning. He says he has so many ups and downs because of his love. Only if he knew the final decision, he wouldn’t trouble his love for anything.

7. Maaltu Adaan Nubaasee
He expresses the divisive political puzzle within the Oromos as follows:

Waamalli nudhibee janna bitaa mirgaa (X2)
Karaa sirri dhifnee maaliif deemna moogaa
Rabbi moo namuumaa kan seera jalliisea
Haati teeyna takkaa maaltu adaan nubaasee
In this song, he is crying for Unity and integration of the Oromos. He advises all to discuss, remove hatred and choose the way of reconciliation.

To counter the divisions, Ali Bira integrates the diverse cultures and languages within the Oromos without losing the peculiar features of each. He brings dialects together.

8. Na jaalatte gama ketiin
Social status and class difference exist in almost every society. So do they in the Oromos. They co-exist. But, often individuals from differing classes clash for various reasons. In this song, he sings about conflicts between lovers from different social status and class. Ali Birra sings about such conflict between a lover and his lover’s families. The lover is poor while the loved one’s families are rich. In an analogous context, Teshome Mitiku’s song ‘Bejochea eyedasesku endalachawitish, sew kemaydersibet gara sir new beatish’ describes a love of the mismatches. This could be in academics, riches or politics or whatever. Ali Bira’s Song ‘Najaletea gama ketiin’ conveys the same message. As ‘gara sir new beatish’ of Teshome Mitiku describes high class, so does Ali Birra’s ‘Soreesa’. He sings for his lover and asks what her snobbish parents feel. He assures his lover that he doesn’t doubt her love to him. But, only if her snobbish family agree to his/her/their proposal for marriage.

Na jaalatte gama ketiin yoo hawwan kee taatee malee
Kan ati feteen fadha ani dureeysa taanaani malee.
He sings:

“Love is blind…
It doesn’t differentiate between the poor and the riches,
Nor does it choose this one or that when it catches,

He sings:
‘‘Jaalelti ballaadha deega sooreessa hinfiltuu,
Waa sindhabuu akittu,
Yoo rabbin taate helatuu.
To mean:
“I won’t miss you anyway,
If things happen the Creator’s way!!
He sings:
Yoojiraatte wal jaalachuun
Gaarii miti waldhooyfachuun
Jalli lamaan wal argachuun
Zalaalam taati gamachuun.

He advises lovers not to hide anything from each other. If they are frank, their love will be a success and eternal.

In addition to the aforementioned virtues of his songs, Ali Biirra is a singer for different occasions like graduation (Eg. Barnoota), wedding etc.

For wedding, he sings:
A. From the brides side: Gamachu fudhaa kan heerumaa, kan hin iraanfatamne yoomumaa (We are so happy for you (our guests) share our joy on our wedding day).

B. From Friends feeling the nostalgic pain and saying goodbye: Based on the cultural song of the Harar Oromos sang by the female friends of the bride as ‘Heelle’ during her wedding day, he sings:

Guyaan naaf hindhiihu
Haalkan naa bariihu
Koottu mee yaaboontuu si malee naantahu (2)
Way hoobi hoobi hoobi adasoo libaanataa
Way boontu kalloo kalloo hiriyoo imaanataa
Way nagaya naan jia’i hiriyoo tadhaamataa
Way e’aghu e’agnu e’agnu hiriyo neyadet.

C. From family and guest side: Hawwii (Aka odaatti jajabaadhaa…)

Ayaanni Hiriyaa faana itti haatoolchu walitti,
Dabaale kaysan, Mixirii hiddidhaa haatahu ininni – blessing in the oromo culture, Firaafi alagaan kan fagoo kan dhihoo, Mukaa citaa dhagaan isiniif haatahu dahoo, Arrustichaafi yaa arrustittii faana issin haatoolchu walitti.

Some of the strong phrases from his other songs include:

‘Halaalaan wal jaalanna jaalala halleettu hinmoofoynee’ (Let’s love each other far from one another as love at a distance lasts longer)

‘Garaan ilma namaa biyyarra ball’aata, jacha namaa dhiisii waaheddu baadhata’ (The human stomach is more accommodative than even the earth as the human character is suited better to see and just pass it for the better)

‘Namni hiryaa hinqabne sablataa’ (A man without a friend is mean and always a stranger)

He also poses contradictory positions in love. For example, he sings:

Dhagaa lama darbii tokko irra fageeysii
Nam lama jaaladhuu tokko irra jabeysii
Meaning: ‘Throw two stones, but one afar,
Love two, but finally choose the better.”
He also sings:
Bishaan bishaanumaa adiin waa hinjirani
Jaalatan tokkumaa kalbii maa hiranii.
Meaning: “Water is water, it has no white color,
Why go to dilemma loving two,
while one is sufficient and better.”

In my understanding, the two are contradictory but they convey their own meaning. In my view, the first advises trying the two at one to test a candidate in passing the taste of time and character before the final decision.

He sings about Shagooyyee – Maramii – Fash godhii lash godhi Walchinaan nuraafgodhii, Marimee mamarimee – describes an Oromo beautiful young girl (eg. ije kulaa nyaareen walbira, akka waan qooramee), Yaadalasalasii Baritii, dhufeen silaala, biyya koo dhufeen silaala

He teaches about the obligation to respect cultures as in:

‘Seerri hiyeeysa hinqabu’ to mean “No culture is poor. Nor is there right and wrong in culture. No any culture is superior to the other. That is what he teaches. Respect your culture and that of others.

He also sings about class oppression. He sings:
Maal ja’ani mee maal maal ja’ani i
Ogga yaadaan chinqamani
Jiruu afaan walaalani.
“What did the tenants say,
When thought of winning a bread left them astray,
With too much worry, the oppressors took their produce,
And kept them at bay.”

The question I often ask is “Who is the right heir?”

2 thoughts on “Ali Birra – the Universal Ambassador of the Oromo Language and Culture

  1. Thanks guys. Thanks Mr. Mekonnen Tadesse…lots of input for my study of the great Ali Birra’s (Ali Mohammed) and others’ songs during the post 1991 G.C.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I cannot express my gratitude enough. Thanks a lot from the deepest place in my heart! For many years, I’ve been searching for Opera songs that are in Afaan Oromo. I accidentally came across a song for Ali Birra which I don’t know its name (untitled). It’s the only song I found so far, plus the one you mentioned in your article “Yaaboontuu” which I couldn’t find it anywhere, unfortunately. If you have any Opera songs in Afaan Oromo, I’ll be indebted to you if you could post them here or direct us to where we could find them. Many thanks again for the article, it’s truly an incredible work!


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