Rap Music from Gambella

Good news, Africa music fans! After several long months away, we’re back in Gambella, discovering still more of the exciting music-making happening along Ethiopia’s western border.

Today we’re featuring Kamal and Athurkare, two talented young rap artists from the youth music collective Many Bëënyö (Many Bëënyö, in the Anywaa language, means “Looking for Hope.”) They compose lyrics aimed at inspiring and advising their fellow youth to work hard for their future and to get along with one another.

Without further ado, here they are performing live for us in Gambella town:

Kamal and Athurkare’s musical style and the way they dress is inspired by rap artists such as 50 Cent, but they have made the genre their own by rapping about subjects that are relevant to their own community. “What inspires me is [American rappers’] style, and the way they sing,” Kamal said. “What I don’t like about them, some of their songs, is when they insult or attack people.” Clearly, Kamal and Athurkare’s message is quite the opposite, in fact.

Athurkare and Kamal have written other songs intended to make a positive impact on their community, such as the rap that Kamal wrote to encourage people to work hard for their success. “One of the problems that I see or I know with my community is they are ashamed of going to work,” Kamal said. “You know, making their own business and get something from it. They are ashamed of that…So, for me to give them a lesson, I decided to address that work is not really bad…It’s good for us. We have to dedicate ourselves to work so that we can succeed in our life.”

Such messages for the community is one of Kamal’s main motivations for becoming a musician. “I think, the best way for me to address the entire community to compose a song and address the problem that is happening with my tribe, or in my community,” he said. “So, this is one of the reasons why I decided to compose my own song and be an artist.”

Clearly, Many Bëënyö boasts some impressive talent and a great message for the their fellow Anywaa. It’s going to be exciting to see where their music takes them in the future!

As per usual, we have the wonderful Mr. Ojho Othow to thank for his excellent translation. For those who are interested, here is the complete transliteration (written in Anywaa) and the English lyrics:

Manna nyooth dëël
We’re putting on a show
Manna nyooth dëël o jøø
Check it out
Manna nyooth dëël
We’re putting on a show
O jøø cøøa wïï (2x)
Friends, I hope get us

Ba keri köö ni mooi teeng dööta ngi, cøøa wïï (2x)
Don’t say, “What kind of trash is this?”, we hope you get us
Nyooth dëëri nø, këël ki tïïc mari, keel ki ngaap mari
Show yourself, your work, and your life’s struggles
Poot gääbö jïri
All these things are good for you
Manna nyooth dëël
We’re putting on a show
Manna nyooth dëël o jøø
Check it out

Manna nyooth dëël
We’re putting on a show
O jøø cøøa wïï (2x)
Friends, I hope get us

Aana K nyilaar G,
I am K [Kamal] from G [Gambella]
ni näk maa akuyï,
If you don’t know me
ngäca kany,
Now is the time and place to know me
wala pëëyï ki dhaanhø ni manø anga, bëëde kaa,
Or ask someone next to you where this guy is from
ba ni näk mii manya kar bëëte mara ö i kaläp Many Bëënyö,
If you want to really know where I live, just join Many Bëënyö
Many Bëënyö bee kanyo rïïa yie,
Many Bëënyö is where I spend most of my time
bee kanyo mätha yie,
It is where I eat and drink

Ba ni näk mo i manya paac, ö i Bëëthi-Naam town, di nyootha Akway Caam Jïri,
If you want to find me, just come to Bëëthi-Naam town, Akway Caam will show you where it is*
ba apaa ngatta angeem, jwïëya paa jwïëa angeem, yea angäya bëët raap
I’m not against anyone, I don’t have this kind of attitude, I just love the rap style
ki ngeethø, ki mëër, amëër ki jiy bëët , ni bung nyi-män jïra
I have a good time, and I accept all people; I don’t make enemies
oranga dëëra, dëëra patha dëëra ageem
I don’t see myself as being against other people
nyenga paa nyenga ageem, yah
My reputation is not one of opposition
aano ngäädhö ki jwïëy møa ni jwïëc kwääk,
I’m confident enough to joke around
aano ngäädhö ki jwïëy møa ni jwïëc ngeethø
I’m confident enough to have sense of humor
aano ngäädhö ki jwïëy møa ni jwïëc mëër
I’m confident enough to have an attitude of love
Ok, nee ngøla yie, aana dhaanh mëër, atut man bëëda yie bee atut mëër,
Ok, let me be brief: I’m an accepting person, just like my village
Jaay ø caarø ngø? Manyø bëët mëër,
Guys, what are we spending our time thinking about? Let us pursue peace
Nøø pïëö i caae mooi tïïya bëët mëëri.
Peace is the reason that we’re here today
Kwäägö naa ciel, jaay kwäägö naa aciel, bee dwør mëër
Let’s get along together, guys, let’s get along together, this is what love’s all about

Ba keri köö ni mooi teeng dööta ngi, cøøa wïï (2x)
Don’t say, “What kind of trash is this?”, we hope you get us
Nyooth dëëri nø, këël ki tïïc mari, keel ki ngaap mari
Show yourself, your work, and your life’s struggles
Poot gääbö jïri
All these things are good for you

Manna nyooth dëël
We’re putting on a show
Manna nyooth dëël o jøø
Check it out
Manna nyooth dëël
We’re putting on a show
O jøø cøøa wïï (2x)
Friends, I hope get us

Keri duu dëëra o jøø, i ranga mar coka
Don’t be against me, friends, I consider you as brothers
Nøø bëëdö ni ø mëër o jøø bee man manya.
Friends, what I want is to live with you in peace
Ba keri köö ni mara mwøl, man bee bëëta
This doesn’t make me foolish, this is just my attitude
Keri koorø bääta thøw, i pera riemmø buuta
Don’t make fun of me, I will just ignore you
Ni bung caae jïra
I don’t have time to tolerate this kind of attitude
Moabëënö manna tïïc mari tïïyï jïra, kiper ï ena bäät bïït cooth manøgø ngää,
Moabëënö, this is your work, do it for me, I know that you’re always making beats**
Ni näk mo kuyyu wäät-jaay, man bee dwøra,
Guys, if you don’t know, this is my message for all of you
Uuna pwøøa kiper mana wïnyu mara, yah
Thank you for your attention, yah

* Bëëthi-Naam is the village where Kamal and Athurkare live (in the English transliteration, you may see “Vetinam.”)

** Moabëënö is one of the music producers in Gambella region.

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A Brief Venture in Music of Guinea-Bissau

Today we’re going to take a brief digression from music in Ethiopia to music of Guinea-Bissau, all the way on the other side of the continent in West Africa. Why the sudden geographic shift, you may ask? Last year, I actually met several Bissau-Guineans who were living in Addis Ababa to pursue opportunities in higher education. One of them, Daniel Soares Tavares, is an especially talented musician, and has a lot to tell about the music of his homeland and his own creative pursuits.

Before we get into more about Daniel and his music, let’s first learn a bit about Guinea-Bissau. It’s a small nation in West Africa, nestled between Senegal and Guinea, with an extensive coastline and an impressive collection of small islands.

Guinea-Bissau, West Africa

Before the Portuguese established a trading center in region in the 1400s, the area of what is now Guinea-Bissau was part of the Malian Empire. Portugal later colonized Guinea-Bissau in the nineteenth century, and Guinea-Bissau won its independence in 1974 after an 11-year war. Now, much of the population still speaks Portuguese, although kilion, a creole language that mixes Portuguese and local languages, is more common. Guinea-Bissau’s residents also speak their local indigenous languages, so, if you are keeping count, that means it is common in Guinea-Bissau to speak a minimum of three languages (and many speak even more). Most of the population follows either Islam, Christianity, indigenous beliefs, or some syncretic combination of the three.

As for Daniel, his background is in the Christian church, and many of the songs he shared with us reflect this. He moved to Ethiopia four years ago to study theology at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, and he is just now graduating with his degree and ready to return to his home country. He started writing his own songs about eight years ago, although he was at first resistant to the idea of becoming a musician. “Actually,” he said, “this guy discovered my gift when we had a youth campus. We were in the same group, and I was with them practicing the songs that we were going to present in the youth campus. So, this guy, he was telling me that, ‘You have a nice voice, why don’t you join choir, why don’t you sing with us?’ I said, ’No, I don’t like to sing.’ And then he was encouraging me, and, every group that we had, he called me. And, from there, I start to feel love [for] music.”

Daniel’s musical knowledge and output are prolific, but let’s start with one of the latest songs he recorded in the studio, called “Unity,” which is calling citizens of Guinea-Bissau to unite with one another and work together for the future of their nation.

While I was in Addis last year, I had also asked if he could sing a few songs for this post that are generally well-known amongst Bissau-Guineans and that would be pedagogically accessible for any of you ensemble leaders out there looking for new music to teach your group. The first two songs he sang have simple lyrics and so are ideal for teaching in schools, world music ensembles, or churches. If you teach these, of course, make sure you also educate your students or choir members about the culture and history of Guinea-Bissau, where these songs originated.

This first song is in the lento style. Dani believes it has most likely been excerpted and adapted from a hymn, so there is no particular author. This song is well-known and is especially used in “adoration time” (for worship and prayer), since the lento style, “Helps you to pray more,” in Dani’s words. The portions that Dani sings between the “Iyaboso Jesus,” are typically improvised by the song leader.

“Eyaweh sta ku nos” is in the gumbe style and is sung in the kilion. Dani grew up hearing this song, and he believes it has also been taken from a hymn, as reworking songs from hymns is common practice. This song is especially popular amongst the older generation, although young people also enjoy it. According to Dani, the energetic gumbe style encourages people to dance, which, in turn, gives him more power to sing when he is leading church services.

The lento, gumbe, tina, and zuk music styles are widely known and performed by all Guinea-Bissau’s people groups, but each ethnic group also has its own style, such as balak, jembedone, and so forth. Gumbe is the national style, and Dani used to sing this style with Guinea-Bissau’s national band. Although he sings mainly in the church, the musical characteristics of church music and secular music are virtually the same. This is true for both local and international genres (e.g. rap can be used in church music as long as the lyrics are religious in nature).

This next song is another one of Daniel’s originals, which he recorded at a studio in Guinea-Bissau. It is in the zuk style, a style also found in Cape Verde and Angola. The lyrics are in Portuguese, and the title of the song, “Dificians,” means, “Disabled.” In Guinea-Bissau, those with disabilities are often stigmatized or discriminated against, and people may avoid interacting with them. These lyrics say that those who are crippled, blind, and deaf were born that way: they received their sickness from God, so we should love and respect them.

Daniel has a lot more original songs and has spent a lot of his time in the studio in the past few years. We’ll be looking forward to hearing more from him in the future as he continues to compose and release new music!

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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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