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In Memoriam: Ali Mohammed Bira: Life, Liberty, Legend

The late Ali Bira. Picture Credit: Empire Pictures

Ezekiel Gebissa @egebissa

In July 2012, I visited Ali Mohammed Bira, a pioneer Oromo music artist—singer, composer, and poet—who essentially reinvented Oromo music, in his home in Pickering, Ontario. Ali has a recliner perched on a landing at the end of the first flight of stairs to the second level of his home to watch television. While having a conversation about the embedded meanings of his lyrics, we talked about how his biography must be written. Finally, he and I agreed that his authorized biography should be titled: Ali Mohammed Bira: Life, Liberty, Legend.

On the day of his passing, the Oromo nation celebrates his life, pays homage to his musical career which revolved around the theme of liberty for the Oromo people, and mourns the legend that now left us.

Ali Bira the man lived an extraordinary life. Ali Bira the artist built a career that is the stuff of legend. Two qualities distinguish him from his cohort and successor song artists.

His lyrics always speak to the moment, explaining events and processes, counseling restraint when times are tough and encouraging protest when political impact seems possible

The first is the musical style he pioneered. Early in his life, Ali played the Oud, a fretless stringed lute-like instrument. When he joined an Ethiopian military music band, he played guitar that he tuned as an oud. This innovation laid the foundation for Ali’s unique music that combined Oromo traditional diatonic scales with Indian sounds and Arabian beats, thus blazing a new path for the tone, tenor and texture of contemporary Oromo music. As such, he helped create Oromo music that blends a rich and variegated tapestry of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian tones and expressions.

The second distinctive of Ali Bira’s music is his culturally embedded lyrics which he deployed to inform, educate, mobilize and lead the Oromo nation into unity, liberty and cultural pride. His lyrics always speak to the moment, explaining events and processes, counseling restraint when times are tough and encouraging protest when political impact seems possible. The theme of Ali’s songs always focused on the exaltation of the Oromo nation and the liberation of the people from oppression. As such, his lyrics celebrated everything Oromo: the nation, the land, and the indigenous cosmology. Here is the English rendition of some of his influential songs include:

Galma adda kenya eega seenaa keenya:

The repository of our culture, the protector of our history

The vanguard of our unity, and foundation of our liberty

The Oromo language, the root of Oromo identity.

Barnoota, barnoota ammas barnoota:

Knowledge, knowledge, and knowledge again

Self-knowledge is the Oromo destination

Authentic knowledge is rooted in history

Its source is our national heritage and the shared culture

The Oromo language is the center pole and the peak

It is self-knowledge that will set us free.

Karaan Galma Abbaa Gadaa Eessa?

Asabalehoo, gurraamaleho, which path leads to Abba Gadaa’s courtyard?

I yearn to go there and fortify it, and then sit down and narrate its history.

We were impoverished when we gave up our culture, our history, and our language

When the ill-informed made us a laughing stock, our sages saved us with their wisdom

Someone else’s scepter may break, but Abba Gadaa’s scepter would never

We left our story untold, not because the pain we suffered is minor

We left our story untold, not because our history was dreadful.

Farewell, my adeero, my hero, Ali Mohammed Mussa Abdalla Mohammed Roobaa Torcoo Laftoo. You now belong to the ages, but your music and lyrics will live on.

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