Of Cattle-Keeping and Oromo Heroes: “Wedu Horrii”

Today, we’re featuring another Oromo song, “Wedu Horrii,” recorded in Nekemte last July. This particular rendition is offered by Diriba, a singer with Nekemte’s cultural troupe. Diriba grew up in a rural area, where he was surrounded by music on a daily basis, and he credits his background for his proficiency in Oromo songs and musical styles. “When working together, you learn from each other, from others,” he said.

“Wedu Horrii” does not have a known author and is likely pretty old (although, based on the names in the text, I would place it sometime in the latter half of the Imperial era or later). The lyrics span two topics: cattle herding and Oromo nationalist heroes. These subjects seem a bit of an unlikely pairing, but, such is the nature of songs: they tend to have a life of their own, passing from person to person who each adds his/her own lyrics, leaves out lyrics, forgets lyrics, et cetera. It is also possible that this may have had some sort of double meaning, like “Iyasee.” I welcome anyone else to weigh in who is familiar with this song and its history.

Oh, my cattle, oh, my cattle, everybody sings for you, everybody shouts for you, but my song is special
Why am I singing the whole day? I must take them to graze
Let me take my black cows out to graze
With the other cattle
I’ll herd them the whole day and take them home
With their calves
Until the corrals are full of cows
I will milk them until my bucket is full
“May the bulls fill your corrals,” is a blessing from our fathers
“May the morning Itete bless you with many cows,” is a blessing from our mothers*
I’m introducing these blessings to my people
So, stand and bless me (3x)
Children of my country,
Let us sit together
Let us hear from each other

Ishoo!
Ishoolee, Dangashe**
Kashashu kashashu, Dangashe***

Gogorri of the forest
My lovers, my friends, Dangashe,
Three of them, three of them, Dangashe
The bulls of our area, Dangashe
You know, Filee Mondo, Dangashe****
The one with the meat, Dangashe
You know, Bishee Garba, Dangashe
Who kills many on his way, Dangashe
The one whom Garba raises, Dangashe
Who kills many enemies, Dangashe

The big Dangashe on the top [above the rest], Yaadangashe
Ishoolee Dangashe

Leka will not damage the caree, Dangashe*****
But rather saves them for the future, Dangashe
A friends’ story cannot be finished [people won’t get tired of the Oromo heroes’ story], Dangashe
It will be new every morning, Dangashe
You know, Bokii Jambee, Dangashe
Mekonen Jambaree, Dangashe
He starts [fighting the enemy] on Monday, Dangashe
And stacks the dead bodies together on Friday, Dangashe
You know, Dhuge Jaldoo, Dangashe
Dhugumaa Jardessoo, Dangashe
You know, Abdisaa Aga, dangashe
The monster to his enemies

The big dangashe on the top [above the rest], yaadangashe
Ishoolee dangashe
Ishee ishee
Ishoolee dangashe

Dangashe, Borana, Dangashe
You know, Filee Mando, Dangashe
You know, Tadee Biruu, Dangashe
The one from Ambo, Dangashe
My Agarri Tuluu, Dangashe
It is Agarri Tuluu, Dangashe
Who burned the enemies, Dangashe
Like boiling maize, Dangashe
You know, Waqoo Guttu, Dangashe
If they see his eyes, Dangashe
The enemies die where they stand, Dangashe

The big Dangashe on the top [above the rest], Yaadangashe
Ishoolee Dangashe
Ishee ishee

My calves, my white calves
My calves, my tri-colored calves
Let us go home, my black cow
Let us go home, my white cow
Enemies are quick to go home
Please, follow the line of cows home
Instead of going home
It’s better going home
I’m walking downhill
I don’t want to trip
I’ve killed mother and son
I pray that I haven’t sinned

Ishee ishee

I can’t sleep, I will not
I’d rather lay down and see things
I will not behead you [my cattle]
Rather, I will protect you
Emoo yaa, black cattle******
Let’s go home, my black bulls
Let’s go, my black bulls
What are you waiting for in the forest?
Let’s go and sit inside the Ilfinyi*******
I don’t need you to be tired in the desert
I will take you to the top [politically; you’ll be in charge]
I don’t need you to walk by foot
That is why I carry you on my head
The heroes’ families cannot hate them
But enemies do
Hate knows those who are not sad when you are sad
When I get out of my house
My cartridge becomes empty,
the cartridge in my gun
When I kill and get home,
My family welcomes me
My family is those who are my [fellow] citizens
The traitors among my citizens hate me
My groomsmen sing for me
So, you also sing for me
If you don’t know me, hate me…observe this, my children
If you know me, sing for me…I said this and left home without telling anyone
Hiding from everybody that I am going

* Itete is a spirit from indigenous beliefs
** Ishoo is a sort of interjection, could be translated “yes.” Dangashe is a name
*** An onomatopoeiac device, imitating the sound of the gogorri bird stepping through dry grass
**** Filee Mondo is the name of an Oromo hero; this song calls out the names of several heroes throughout
***** Leka is the name of a place. Caree is a type of bead that a man gives to a woman’s family as part of the bride price; it is a symbol of Oromo culture
****** This is a nickname, term of endearment
******* Ilfinyi is a place where respected people sit

I asked Diriba some of his thoughts about this particular song, and he responded, “The main thing is this song keeps the unity of Oromo. The second thing is it keeps our tradition of keeping our cattle safe and honoring our heroes from one generation to another generation.”

Oromo songs such as this one have, indeed, been part of building a pan-Oromo consciousness and unifying the Oromo peoples. As we have discussed before, Oromia is a big region with fairly diverse people groups, and they didn’t really start to come together until the latter part of the twentieth century. The main factor that in unifying the Oromo was the oppression of their culture and language during the Imperial Age. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, as they say. Oromo nationalist songs by the likes of Ali Birra and Zerehun Wedajo no doubt have reflected and shaped a pan-Oromo sensibility. Still today, songs like Belfaa’s “Denaboo” appeal to all Oromia, and Belfaa also told us that the different Oromo subgroups are exchanging their music with each other: Oromo from Wellega are teaching Oromo from Shewa their musical styles and vice versa. No doubt such exchanges have become easier with technology.

References

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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Religious Songs of the Nuer

Today we’re featuring some religious songs from the Nuer, brought to you by Nyanchan Gatkuoth and James Chuol, both attendees at a Nuer church in Addis Ababa around Megenagna.

We’ve mentioned the Nuer before: originally from the southern Sudan, the first Nuer group to migrate to western Ethiopia’s Gambella region were the Jikany in the latter half of the 19th century. Most Nuer, however, came from the 1960s onward as a consequence of the Sudanese Civil Wars. Now, many Nuer are born Ethiopian citizens, although plenty are still resettling from Sudan (now South Sudan). The South Sudanese Nuer and Ethiopian Nuer I’ve talked to consider themselves pretty much the same: the language, cultural practices, et cetera are quite similar across the border. The Nuer speak a Nilo-Saharan language and are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, with cattle forming an important part of their everyday life and society. That being said, you find many Nuer now who are quite educated, living and working in urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, the United States, and Europe.

Nyanchan is originally from Nasir in South Sudan but has lived in Ethiopia for the past few years. She first came to Gambella and now lives in Addis Ababa. Her father is living in the United States, and she is currently in the process of trying to get her visa so that she can reunite with him. Nyanchan is a singer in the church and shared some of her favorite songs with us after the service.

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The lovely and talented Nyanchan just after the church service

One of the songs she sang is translated from a very well-known western hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” Many Nuer Christian songs, actually, are translations of Western hymns, and I heard several familiar melodies throughout the church service I attended (stylized, of course, according to Nuer music aesthetics, with different vocal timbre and altered rhythms). Nyanchan learned this particular song when she was still a child, only twelve years old, in Sunday school.

I asked her why this song was her favorite, and she said, “This song is about a promise. Once I decide to do everything in the name of God, I don’t go back…[These songs] changed my life. Especially when I get into temptation, I sing a song, and that makes me very strong.”

Our second featured musician, James Chuol, sings and also composes original music. He is from Ethiopia, born in Gambella and grew up in the Newland neighborhood of Gambella town. About five years ago, he moved to Mekelle (in northern Ethiopia, Tigray region) then Addis Ababa in pursuit of his education. Just last Saturday, he graduated with his bachelors in accounting and finance. That is quite an accomplishment, and we congratulate him!

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James Chuol, church composer and singer

James first became interested in music while he was living in Gambella under the tutelage of two music teachers, one from Kenya and one from Ethiopia. He didn’t start composing, however, until 2013. “It came like a dream,” he said. “I slept at night in my bed, [and] the song came…I woke up and I remembered that song, and I sang it…The spirit inspires me to sing, the spirit of God. Because there is a spirit that makes me not to forget that song, so when I wake up, I remember [it]…[and] sing it…to praise the Lord.” He still remembers the first song that he composed was about, “All the opportunities that God gives to us…if you put your faith in God and you praise God in song, then God opens the door for you and he will give you all the opportunities that you need…When I sing a song, just, I feel, it inspires the people. It makes people to think about how they praise the Lord.”

James has some recordings that use keyboard and other technologies, but, unfortunately, had left them in Gambella. Much to our benefit, he agreed to sing some of his compositions for me to record during our interview. The song we are featuring today is, in Nuer, “Cien bi dier mi wa guath koor, kahoo taa luak mi leny ti dial,” which, in English, means, “If you go to war, our power is Jesus Christ.”

I asked James what kind of war the song refers to, and he said, “That’s the war by the devil or physical war…if you go to physical war, just put your faith in Jesus, then you will be saved.” He wrote this song about two years ago and described his inspiration, “So, something happened in 2013…in South Sudan. There was big fighting in South Sudan. My brother was there, my youngest brother. So, at that time, he was killed. He was a soldier in there…that was what made me to write this song.”

Probably many of our readers are vaguely aware of the Sudanese Civil Wars that occurred post-Sudan’s independence, but are perhaps less aware of the most recent conflicts in South Sudan. Initially, South Sudan and Sudan were one nation, but South Sudan became its own country in 2011. In December 2013, another conflict broke out in South Sudan between President Salva Kiir’s and former Vice President Riek Machar’s forces. It is unknown the exact number of casualties that have occurred throughout the conflict, but it is likely in the hundreds of thousands, including civilians, women, and children. Gross human rights abuses and war crimes were committed on both sides (see the AU’s Commission of Inquiry or HRW’s reports). Many have fled to refugee camps for internally displaced persons and across the borders to Ethiopia and Kenya. Although a peace agreement was signed in August 2015, renewed clashes broke out in Juba in July 2016  and, in fact, were ongoing during the time that I interviewed Nyanchan. There were many tears during the church service as people worried for their friends and family members in Juba. The situation has hardly improved since then, with worries that ethnic cleansing on the scale of the Rwandan genocide may be poised to take place. And, as with Rwanda (and Aleppo and Darfur and the Rohingya…among others), the world looks on and hasn’t been of much help. UN officials couldn’t even manage to vote for an arms embargo (thanks, guys).

At any rate, we’re glad Nyanchan managed to escape safely and wish her all the success in the world as she tries to reunite with her family members in the US. And, James’ transformation of the pain of his brother’s death into a song that can now encourage others is certainly an inspiration to all of us who may have experienced adversity. To close, we’ll leave you with the English text of this song, translated from Nuer with the assistance of the illustrious Kunen Nyak.

I will not be worried when I go to war in this world, because God is my helper
I have one who helps me: Jesus Christ is fighting hard for me
We must believe in righteousness and put on our shoes to fight Satan
We must stand strong, because our protector is Jesus Christ,
He is helping us in our fight against Satan
We are not fighting against flesh and blood, we are fighting a spiritual war against Satan
We must be wary of anything that leads us to temptation
We must fight for the kingdom of God.
God is the one who has the water of life,
We can fight for the kingdom of God in Jerusalem
When the Lion of Judah becomes angry, the whole world will fear him and run away
The only thing you can do is fight the spiritual war, and God will be there to help you
The only thing you will do as a believer is fight in righteousness, and God will be there to support and help you
We are not fighting against flesh and blood, we are fighting a spiritual war against Satan
Satan is tempting us to join the devil
Prepare yourself, because the coming of Jesus Christ is near, and we must be alert
The coming of Jesus Christ is near
Let us go to God, and let us not involve ourselves in the devil’s issues, in worldly things
Let us fight this war—our protector is Jesus Christ
Do not rely on the traditional spirits, believe in Jesus Christ
We are not fighting against flesh and blood, we are fighting a spiritual war against Satan
Let us be alert and keep ourselves away from all temptation that diverts us from Jesus Christ
I believe I have a protector named Jesus Christ.
I will not worry, because he will protect me from any kind of problem in this world
My weapon, Jesus Christ, will fight for me
Jesus Christ also tells us not to worry: I am together with you, do not worry, brothers and sisters
Fight this war, stand strong with Jesus Christ: I am together with you
Our protector is Jesus Christ, and Satan will not be against him
In our fighting, God is there to help, because all our strength comes from God
Did you know that we are not fighting against flesh and blood? It is a spiritual battle against Satan
Let us be alert and keep ourselves away from all devils that are tempting us

*** This post also would not have been possible without the help of Gatwech Koak Nyuon, who assisted me in finding and interviewing Nuer composers living in Addis. Gatwech is from South Sudan and is a prominent peace ambassador and commentator on issues relating to the young, war-torn nation. We thank him for his efforts!

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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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“Denaboo” – Original Oromo song by Belfaa

Today’s post features an original song by Belfaa Mosisa, one of the singers and composers at Nekemte’s Cultural and Tourism Bureau. Belfaa is originally from Adugna, a town in West Wellega.  He learned Oromo cultural music quite naturally as he grew up, since the people in his community constantly sang the songs and practiced these activities in his home town.

Belfaa kept cattle as a child and, to entertain himself, he would imitate some of his favorite Oromo singers. As he was in the countryside with his herd, far from home, he imagined what it would be like if he were to become a professional singer like them, performing on the stage and producing records.

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Animal husbandry is common across many parts of Ethiopia. The Oromo call this type of cow the sanga (source)

Thus, when he heard about a position opening up for a singer in Nekemte’s cultural troupe in 2007, he traveled to town and auditioned. He not only got the position but has proceeded to win medals in various competitions and travels to other regions of Ethiopia to perform. He even went to Gambela to perform for the Nation and Nationalities Day last December.

Belfaa has been composing for the last nine years. I asked him about the inspiration behind his songs, to which he responded, “My culture was hidden for a long time, and, still now, because of religion and others integrating into the region, this culture is about to disappear. So, I’m trying to keep this culture to not be hidden, to not disappear. And that is my motivation.”

We already talked in our previous post about the oppression of Oromo language and culture during previous government regimes. Belfaa also alluded to religion being a problem in preserving cultural music. In Ethiopia, Protestant Christians in particular make strict divisions between sacred and secular music, and listening to or performing secular music is forbidden. As Protestant Christianity grows, there is less and less space for cultural music to flourish. I recently discovered that even some Orthodox Christians (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded in the fourth century A.D. in the regions northeast of Nekemte) in Oromia cease to practice Oromo cultural music in favor of focusing on mezmur, or devotional songs. (Although, if you talk to the Amhara people, they consider the Orthodox church to be the origin of cultural music…so, it depends on where you are and to whom you are talking). Many Muslims also prefer to sing their religious music rather than cultural songs (with the exception of those like Nuredin, of course.)

At any rate, Belfaa wrote this particular song that we’re featuring (“Denaboo”) about two years ago. He wrote it with a pan-Oromo sensibility in mind, invoking many cultural elements that are shared across different regions of Oromia. He derived his inspiration for this song from sitting and listening to his elders, and said, “For the coming generation, this must be sustained. When I feel to write this song, I feel I have to sustain this thing…which is not taking place now.” Belfaa has won several awards for this particular composition.

Translation:

Ayee

God of creation, creator God
God of Wolabu, God of all Raya
God of the five Leka elders
God of the seven Gudaru elders
God of the five Iluu elders
God of the four Gida elders
You kept us safe this long night, and keep us safe the whole day
Keep us from sin and keep us from wrongdoing
Make us healthy inside and out, our cattle, our farm
Give us wealth and health, protect the wealth that you give to the owner

Ayee [yes]

The eyes of God are merciful, the earth is also merciful
Our elder men are merciful, our elder women are merciful, our young ones are merciful
Our virgin girls are merciful, our gadaa is merciful
Leka is merciful, Oromia is merciful
Odaa is merciful, Wellega is merciful

Ayee

Now, let me bless you
Be the light on top of the mountain
Be above everything
Be the winning lion
Don’t be absent from the family sitting around the fire
Have good dreams in your sleep
Be successful when you go out
Have the fruit of your farm, may your farm be blessed
Be profitable merchants, be intelligent students
Be as numerous as the sand, and you will not die out even if you are separated
Your truth must be seen

Ayee, ayee…Our gadaa is a blessing. Be blessed.

Denaboo yaa gadaa lubba Abbaboo [Our gadaa system is blossoming]
Denaboo darab Abba Makoo*
Denaboo, gadaa of Oromo
Denaboo, gadaa is ours
Denaboo, gadaa is for everyone
Denaboo, it is good that you reached this day
Denaboo yaa gadaa lubba Abbaboo 4x
Denaboo our gadaa is like a buffalo
Denaboo it [the gadaa] grows together
Denaboo the father of heroes
Denaboo who fights for us with guns
Denaboo the father of lazy son
Denaboo when will you speak the truth? [if your sons are lazy, you will lie, because you can’t rely on your sons to fight for you]
Denaboo go to the caafe
Denaboo address the gadaa of your father
Denaboo yaa gadaa lubba Abbaboo

Wolahin, wolahin, wolahin
Gabarin, gabarin, gabarin**

Denaboo yaa gadaa lubba Abbaboo 4x
Denaboo, the leader of Gibe
Denaboo, you brought the season of plentiful harvest
Denaboo the leader whose name I call
Denaboo you brought a time of no famine
Denaboo a leader of Kilole
Denaboo dance your cultural dance
Denaboo the season is good for you
Denaboo yaa gadaa lubba Abbaboo 2x

Wolahin, wolahin, wolahin
Gabarin, gabarin, gabarin

The leader of Qarsa
It is your responsibility to keep the cattle safe for eight seasons
Take the cattle to the pastures
The leader of Qarsa
You’re the one who keeps our farm green
The leader of Qarsa
The leader of Irreecha
The leader of Qarsa
The leader of Shashi, reward us***
The leader of Qarsa
You should not escape from such a leader
The leader of Qarsa
It is your responsibility to keep the cattle safe for eight seasons 2x

Wolahin, wolahin, wolahin
Gabarin, gabarin, gabarin

Our gadaa is blossoming, blossoming
The season of gadaa, be merciful to us, be merciful, be merciful

* Abba Makoo was a gadaa leader from a long time ago
** “Gabarin” and “Wolahin” are groups in the gadaa hierarchy
*** The shashi is a scarf used to cover a woman’s hair—there was a leader who was known for putting this scarf around his head that would be called to give blessings, so he was known as “Shashi”

Many of the names in this song refer to places around Oromia (Wolabu, Leka, Iluu, Gidu, Qarsa…you get the idea). Belfaa also frequently refers to the gadaa (may also be spelled gada) in the lyrics, which is an indigenous Oromo system of democratic governance based on age-sets. Gadaa is not as widely practiced as it once was, but many scholarly studies have been devoted to it, and many Oromo people evoke to it as a hallmark of cultural pride (Belfaa is not the first to include it in his song lyrics, either; famous singer Ali Birra also includes gadaa in his lyrics). The gadaa is a sophisticated system of checks and balances that prevents the accumulation of power by any one individual. There are eleven age sets, separated by eight years, and each age set has a certain set of responsibilities and social roles to fulfill. As one grows out of his age-set, he passes into the next age-set and assumes the next set of responsibilities.

Belfaa also mentions “Odaa,” a tree which has held spiritual and ritual significance for Oromo in the past and has now become an especially important symbol of pan-Oromo identity.

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Odaa Tree (source)

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You can also see the Odaa tree represented on these flags as Oromo in London protested against the Addis Ababa Master Plan

The lyrics also reference Irreecha (may also be spelled Erecha), which is an annual festival that takes place at the end of the rainy season. Oromo gather near well-known bodies of water to celebrate the holiday, such as Debrezeit (in Shewa) or Sori (around Metu). Originally, Irreecha is linked with indigenous religions, but Emanuel tells me that people of all faiths celebrate it. Likely, it has lost some of its religious significance for Oromo following the Christian or Muslim faiths but has acquired cultural significance. This festival was banned until the latest government regime came to power in the 1990s.

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Oromo gathered for Irreecha celebration (source)

Like any holiday, of course, it is accompanied by song:

 

Belfaa is currently working to gather some video clips of his performances and make a VCD to preserve and disseminate this cultural music. He said, “[My] message is for everybody to not forget this culture, this identity, which comes through generations, which comes through many [sacrifices].”

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Belfaa Mosisa, composer and singer for Nekemte’s cultural troupe

 

*** Again, many thanks to Emanuel for his hard work in translating interviews, song texts, and providing additional information on the culture and history of the Oromo people!

Bibliography:

Hinew, Dereje. 2012. “History of Oromo Social Organization: Gadaa Grades Based Roles and Responsibilities.” Star Journal 1 (3): 88-96.

Jalata, Asafa. 2012. “Gadaa (Oromo Democracy): An Example of Classical African Civilization.” Sociology Publications and Other Works 5 (1): 126-152.

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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“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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