Veteran Oromo Musician, Etana Tolesa

Many apologies, my readers, for the long delay in updating. Rest assured, this web site is not dead. I was caught PhD-related activities and simultaneously having difficulty with embedding audio (which is rather important for a music blog). The audio magically began working again today with no changes on my part, so here’s hoping that sticks.

At any rate, today, we’re featuring an original song by Oromo musician and composer, Etana Tolesa. He composed this song around 1977 and sang it for his first performance on stage. Originally, the melody was set to lyrics that propogated socialist messages under the Derg regime. When the government officials around Nekemte gathered for a meeting to discuss the country’s development, Etana changed the lyrics and sang this modified version to entertain them. They liked it so much that they invited him to perform in Addis Ababa National Theatre for an international audience.

The song says, “Mee natty agarsissi ragada Wellega,” meaning, “Show me the cultural dance of Wellega.” As the lyrics indicate, the song is meant to be performed with dancers. The lyrics call out six different areas of Wellega: Nekemte, Arjo, Qelam, Asosa, Gimbi, and Horro. (Note that the new government that came into power in the 1990s reorganized Ethiopia’s regions, so Asosa is now part of Benishangul-Gumuz, not Wellega). After he calls out each, there is an interlude in which the cultural dance from that region can be performed. Let’s listen to Etana singing this and take a look at the lyrics and a translation:

Mee natti agarsissi ragada wellega (Show me the cultural dance of Wellega)
Kan Nekemte keessaa akkamii jama (huyus, huyus) (Specifically, Nekemte’s cultural dancing style)

Mee natti agarsissi ragada wollega (Show me the cultural dance of Wellega)
Isaa Arjo keessaa akkamii jama, hiqass, hiqass, hiqass kome (Specifically, Arjo’s cultural dancing style, come close, come close)

Mee natti agarsissi ragada wollega (Show me the cultural dance of Wellega)
Isaa Qelam keessaa akkamii jama (Specifically, Qelam’s cultural dancing style)

Mee natti agarsissi ragada wollega (Show me the cultural dance of Wellega)
Isaa Asosa keessaa akkamii jama, hina Wellega, hina Asosa, hina Nekemte (Specifically, Asosa’s cultural dancing style)

Mee natti agarsissi ragada wollega (Show me the cultural dance of Wellega)
Isaa Gimbii keessaa akkamii jama (Specifically, Gimbii’s cultural dancing style)

Mee natti agarsissi ragada wollega (Show me the cultural dance of Wellega)
Isaa Horro keessaa akkamii jama (Specifically, Horro’s cultural dancing style)

Previously, I had taken some video of Etana demonstrating the different dances. Unfortunately, however, the video has been lost due to a back-up glitch. (Fieldwork…it never goes as you expect it!) As a consolation prize, I went sifting through a bunch of YouTube videos and found one of this Oromo song and dance that appears as though it might be from around Etana’s most active years based on the filmography (although it looks like the dancing styles are from all around Oromia):

Upon hearing about the time frame in which Etana started performing, I was curious about how he had managed to maintain his career as a musician during the communist Derg regime (1974-1991). This era was especially difficult for musicians, who were feared for their potential to contradict the official state rhetoric and incite anti-goverment sentiment. Etana told me the government did not allow them to sing in the Oromo language unless the song specifically had a message that promoted the government’s propaganda. Even when allowed to perform, there was a lot of censoring. One of Etana’s love songs, “Ashama” (which names a woman called Kassalem), was the object of scrutiny. “They were asking me, why are you saying, ‘Kassalem? Who is Kassalem? What is the [underlying meaning]?’” (Remember, also, the practice of gerarsa , which often has a double meaning, not to mention the Amharic practice of semina werq . These lyrical characteristics made authorities even more suspicious).

Even then, Etana spent most of this era in and out of prison. “They need you to advocate their political system, and only the political system…using these songs, but not your culture,” he said. “So, they put you in prison, and, when they need [you], they will release [you] to advocate the system.”

We’re hoping for better days for Etana, although musicians’ pay is currently low in the cultural troupes and veterans such as Etana unfortunately are not given due recognition. Today, musicians still have to be careful about their messages, given the delicate political situation in Ethiopia at the moment (they are still under a state of emergency, and there are ongoing reports of imprisonment in areas of Oromia and Amhara regions).

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