Ali Birra - Ammalele
With the western world's recent access to the Ethiopian music of the 1970's, the focus has been almost solely on the Amhara music of Addis Ababa. The Oromo people, the largest ethnic group, hasn't been equally represented. Ali Birra, the biggest Oromo star and a hero to his people was so beloved that he did break into the Amhara dominated record market. Learning how to play the guitar using the tuning for an oud, the sound is as much Arabic as Ethiopian. After two years singing in the Imperial Body Guard Band alongside Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse, and a brief hiatus from music, he made these recordings backed up by the Aduu Birra Band. With a prevalent joy and catchy sing along style, Ali sings songs of love, misery, and beating the oppressor. Comes with liner notes and translations of the lyrics from Oromo to English, housed in a tip-on sleeve. A co-release of Domino Sound and Mississippi/Little Axe. http://littleaxerecords.com/
Themesmerizing and unparalleled sound of Ethiopian Music of the 1970s has recently become more available to the western world. As terrific of a glimpse as this may be, the focus of the recent releases has been primarily Am- haric Music of Addis Ababa.
With more than 80 languages and as many cultural groups, the rich variety of Ethiopian traditions has been largely overlooked in these recent releases. The Oromo people, making up the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, have never had a seat at the table within the government structure that is based in Addis Ababa. Throughout the 50 year Amhara-centered reign of Haile Selassie, the Oromo culture was not to be spread, promoted, or supported in any way.
In Dire Dawa, 1962, the first Oromo musical group using modern instru- mentation was formed. Named Urji Bakkalcha, or “Morning Star” (the bright one at five in the morning), the ensemble consisted of accordion, saxophone, drums, and tambourine. The elders of this band soon inspired a junior band, made up of enamored and enthusiastic teenagers of Dire Dawa. Among them was a youngster by the name of Ali Birra. (born May 26, 1948). At an annual performance celebrating the end of Ramadan, a young Ali was invited to come on stage with the elders and sing a song, and the performance was met with great applause and adulation for this fourteen year old. Ali was thus promoted to Urji Bakkalcha as a singer and tambourine player, and started to perform with them regularly.
In the calm, tree lined town of 60-70,000 people there was but one oud, be- longing to Ali Ahamed Ali. Ali Birra and his childhood friend Ali Shebbo, also a fellow member of Urji Bakkalcha, became intrigued. Ali Ahamed Ali took the two youngsters under his wing showing them how to tune the instrument and play it. This opened their minds, and the new avenue of music was further ex- plored by the two young Ali’s when they remembered a dusty guitar at the Urji Bakkalcha practice space. Tuning it to the same scale as the oud, this newfound instrument revolutionized their musical scope, sound, and excitement.
Influenced by Indian and Arabic music, Ali first crafted songs by setting Oromo poetry to traditional Arabic tunes. The poetry of Abubakar Musaa, the pioneer for modern Oromo lyrics, was especially moving to Ali who responded strongly to the revolutionary message. Naturally fearless and creative, Ali started to experiment with writing his own music on guitar, to accompany the lyrics of Mussa.
Musaa’s poetry was used by all of the great Oromo singers of the seventies, including Ali Shebbo and Hallo Dawe, until his tragic and untimely death.
The war between Ethiopia and Somalia broke out in 1977, and suspicion and paranoia were heavy in the air. One evening, walking home after celebrating his promotion at his job at the radio station, Musaa was shot by a guard. There was no apparent reason.
The government did not condone Urji Balkkalcha’s promoting of Oromo culture, and propagated the absurd myth that Oromo music was literally explo-
sive, going as far as to say that any device used to play it would spontaneously combust. With some caution used near a radio or reel-to-reel, the myth itself was exploded. The music proved to cause no physical shrapnel nor malfunction of equipment: simply Oromo music coming through the speaker in a normal peaceful manner, sans explosions.
Towards the end of 1964 Urji Balkkalcha disbanded, a split brought on by the formation of two different camps: one that drank alcohol and one that abstained. The annual stage show celebration didn’t come together. Eleven members of Urji Balkkalcha fled to Djibouti, as the barring of Oromo cul- ture became an increasing stress on their lives. Ali, along with three friends, returned on New Year’s Eve 1965 and were immediately imprisoned for their outspoken promotion of the Oromo people. After release from prison, Ali
was not allowed to leave Dire Dawa for a full year, and upon completion, Ali moved to Addis Ababa.
While Ali was singing at an oft visited friend’s house in Addis Ababa, a colonel from the neighborhood took notice of his unique voice. This informal musical session led to a turn in his musical career. Impressed by Ali’s sound, the colonel recommended Ali to audition for Haile Selassie’s Imperial Body Guard Band. A summer audition resulted in an invitation to join the band, his debut concert with them being Ethiopian New Year’s (September 11, 1966). Thus began his 2 year stint with the Imperial Body Guard Band, in which he performed alongside the likes of Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse.
In 1967 a businessman approached Ali, Ali Shebbo, and Abdi Booh about recording a 7” single. Ali agreed. Scheduling a weekend trip to Dire Dawa for the recording, he sat down in a room with the others and mouthfuls of chat to record with tambourine, tom tom, and oud on a reel to reel. Two songs were recorded with lyrics by Musaa: a love song, and a parting plea for peace and goodwill amongst the now disbanded Urji Bakkalcha, “Wajijin Nyanee”. The recordings were taken to Greece and pressed on vinyl. In those days noth-
ing could be marketed without passing through an obstacle course of censors. Being Oromo, the recordings stood no chance. To avoid this certain rejection, the records were smuggled back into Ethiopia on the backs of camels. These records were never marketed or put on the shelves of shops, instead heading directly to the black market.
After a few years the discipline and military element of the Imperial Body Guard Band wore on Ali so much that he decided to quit, throwing away his musical career. He took a job with the railroad in Awaash, hired as a technician to work with the water pumps, a profession in which he had no experience.
The next two years of no music became a haunting hell to him, and he woke up
every morning with tunes swirling in his head. Unable to take the absence of music in his life, Ali returned to Addis Ababa and got a job at Harambe Hotel to accompany the evening diners with music-guitar, tom tom, and tambourine- for the next year. During this period in Addis, Ali recorded many songs but he found no label to release them. He gave copies to his friends and people he met until some record labels realized that they could sell his music, resulting in the release of a handful of singles and one LP on vinyl.
In 1976, Ali was backed up by the Aduu Birra Band, a group from Dire Dawa, for tours to Oromo towns. The songs you hear on this record are from that period. After the recordings made on this release, they went their separate ways.
Ali and his wife Lily currently live outside of Toronto. He occasionally performs at weddings, will put on concerts, and releases CD’s. Enthusiastic as ever about the power of music, he said : “Music is an expression of any people in the world, how they express themselves for their happiness, sadness, what- soever. I as an Oromo, an oppressed person, want to express my feeling of my existence and my people. I’m one of that people. It is a way that I can express the life I’m living, and that my people are living. Music is a weapon to me. It’s a weapon, but it’s a weapon of peace.”
-Matt Knowles, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia,2012
Thanks to Dr. Kay Kaufman Shelemay for use of her 2009 interview, Kaethe Hostetter for assistance in modifications to this text, Kidus for interview assistance, and Ali and Lily Birra for their warmth, hospitality, and time.