“Iyasee”: A Traditional Oromo song from Nekemte

Today’s post marks a new series on cultural music from Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia. After a 5am start, 3 buses, and an entire day of journeying, I made my way northeast from Gambela to Nekemte, stopping in Metu to pick up Emanuel, our research associate and consultant for everything Western Oromia.

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A real, authentic Oromo chicken, discovered on the walk from the hotel to the cultural bureau. Photo courtesy of the author. You’re welcome.

Emanuel and I visited Nekemte’s cultural bureau and found some very talented musicians there who were kind enough to share with us their knowledge and talents. Today, we’re featuring a Wellega Oromo song called, “Iyasee,” brought to you by multi-talented performer, Nuredin Abas Adem.

We’ve mentioned the Oromo people before. They are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (around 34% according to the 2007 national census), and Oromia region covers a significant portion of Ethiopia’s land mass. Of course, with such a large population covering such a large geographic area, there are variations in the styles of music and dance, repertories, cultural practices, and even the language. Since I’m doing my research in Nekemte, we’re going to focus mainly on Oromo music as it is practiced and known in Wellega (although Wellega musicians usually know other styles of Oromo music, such as Shewa, etc).

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Nekemte (marked by the red bubble), courtesy of Google Maps

“Iyasee,” an old geerarsa song (a genre of Oromo music related to working and hunting, and more lately used for political purposes; may also be spelled gerarsa or girarsa), has been passed down through the parents. Now, its original author has been forgotten, and it is considered collectively as a song of the Oromo people. “Iyasee” was originally sung for working: hunting, farming coffee and maize, and building houses. Nuredin said that some Oromo still sing this song while working together, even in urban areas when they are building houses.

Let me start my singing this song (2x)
A geerarsa of my inside pain
Harassment is a headache
Non-stop harassment
Which is affecting me to the bottom of my heart
I am screaming loud like a lion of the jungle
I can’t tell, I have nothing to tell
I can’t tell, I have nothing to tell [I don’t want to say anything]*
I can’t finish if I start [because there are so many things to say]
That time, that one time
My pain has no end
My flesh is not dead [this pain is not killing my body but is killing me on the inside]
For my clothes are worn out, why am I mixing them with Jiirbi?
For my clothes are worn out, why am I mixing them with Jiirbi?**
For my soul is to die anyway, why am I scared [of my enemies]?
Why would I make my citizens to lose their good name?
Iyasee
I missed you, my sweet
So it is, Iyasee
Iyasee lulee…iyaa***
I miss you
I missed you all the night
Like the desert snake
Screaming like a hyena
When I miss you
I will start singing
I will not stop eating or drinking [for I must sustain myself]
My heart is crying tears
Eat the leaf of geshe****
What did you hear? Why didn’t you miss me?
Come close and sing, don’t stand far

* The bracketed portions of the translation depart a bit more from the original Oromo text but are helpful to clarify the intended meaning
** Jiirbi is a kind of material used for expensive clothes
*** “Lulee” is is a term of endearment
**** Geshe is a type of tree which is used to make alcohol

These lyrics reference the banning of the Oromo language and oppression of Oromo culture that occurred during the Imperial Era, which would place the composition of particular song in the 1940s or later. During this time, Emperor Haile Selassie (who ruled from 1930-1974) promoted national unity through cultural homogeneity: specifically, the Amhara culture of northern and central Ethiopia. While the Amhara culture is certainly rich and worthy of promotion, Ethiopia as a nation includes many other ethnic groups. Selassie’s cultural unity project often oppressed these, particularly in the latter part of his reign after World War II. The only way other ethnic groups could hope to advance in education and better their lives was to assimilate into Amhara culture. The line that asks, “Why am I mixing my old clothes with Jiirbi?” alludes to this assimilation and those who left Oromo culture to improve their livelihood and standing in society.

The latter part of the song (“I missed you, my sweet…”) is a typical characteristic of geerarsa: it has a dual meaning. On the surface, it appears to be addressing a woman, but it is actually addressing the Oromo people. The last line, for example, appears to be encouraging the woman to come close to him, but the less overt meaning is that it is telling the Oromo to stand up for themselves, not to stand by and do nothing. (Actually, this dual meaning is also characteristic of much Amharic music, as well, called semina werq, “Wax and Gold.” You can read more about this on our page about Amhara music.)

After Selassie fell in 1974, the communist regime that followed at first encouraged cultural performances by the Oromo but soon began to fear the possibility of growing pan-Oromo ethno-nationalist sentiment as a threat to their power. Thus, Oromo performances were later forbidden, and some musicians imprisoned. (And, if I may interject here, I must note that, although the Oromo have considerably more freedom in performing their cultural music today, some musicians still face censorship and even imprisonment under the current government.)

At any rate, there is still more freedom in these performances than in the past, and this difficult history makes the performance of Oromo cultural music and its transmission to future generations that much more significant. Now, when Nuredin performs on the stage, he sees everyone singing this song and speaking the Oromo language. “The big issue is [that] culture is your identity and the way you explain yourself,” Nuredin said. “So, as our forefathers were struggling to bring this culture to us, they sacrificed themselves. We have to keep ourselves, our culture, safe and take it to the coming generation.”

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A Display of Oromo Culture (source)

When Nuredin sings this, he imagines the hard times that the Oromo language and culture faced in the past. He indicated that this song is now also performed as a symbol of Oromo culture, saying that he “feels his identity” when he sings it. Despite its age, “Iyasee” is well-known even amongst young people, since parents are encouraging their children learn about their culture and be aware of their Oromo identity.

Nuredin also had the opportunity to visit some military camps to perform “Iyasee” and inspire the soldiers. Even when there were no Oromo in the camp, many of the soldiers enjoyed his performance and even danced in the Oromo style. Nuredin said that he sometimes cries from happiness when he sees others, who don’t even know the language, are dancing his tradition. Often, one hears mainly about the ethnic tensions within Ethiopia, so Nuredin’s story is a great reminder that such prejudices are certainly not ubiquitous amongst the population. Many are respectful and understanding of each other’s cultures and traditions.

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Green, mountainous Nekemte

*** Many thanks to Emanuel Ayalew for translating this interview and song text and providing cultural context to the lyrics!

Bibliography

Mollenhauer, Shawn Michael. 2011. “Millions on the Margins: Music, Ethnicity, and Censorship among the Oromo of Ethiopia.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California Riverside.

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