This paper was presented at the 2009 Oromo Studies Association conference in Atlanta, GA.
Across this planet, people have used music in diverse ways. For many, music is not only an expression of merely one’s culture; it is also a vehicle for vocalising social and political outcries. Music has been used to artistically protest against unacceptable conditions and treatment such as oppression and state repression, to communicate, to relieve psychological or physical stress and strain, and to relay significant political messages to the general masses. From the “We Shall Overcome” musical outcry of the Civil Rights Movement in the US to the music of anti-apartheid movements in South Africa, music has become a vital mode of social relief and political expression.
Today, I would like to particularly look at revolutionary musical artists from two Oromo music bands that formed in the early 1990s when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) joined the transitional government of Ethiopia. Called the Hawwisoo Caffee Gada Band and the Bilisumma Band, these bands and their artists were pushing forth through their music the urgent need for national self-determination, freedom, and democracy for the Oromo people. Within these bands, songwriters, poets, instrumentalists, musicians, and vocalists came together to create music that not only artistically retrieved and showcased Oromo history and culture, but that also reminded the people of the oppressive and exploitative conditions in which they were living, conditions that they needed to vocally and forthrightly stand against. Particularly, their revolutionary music inspired, agitated, and empowered the Oromo people to not give up their struggle against the tyrannical, murderous Ethiopian regime. Put shortly, these artists creatively developed revolutionary Oromo music to further advance and disseminate Oromuumma—the manifestation of Oromo identity, culture, and nationalism.
From the two bands I mentioned earlier, today I am going to focus on two particular artists and the significant impact their revolutionary music has made on building and developing Orommumma: Usmayyoo Muussa and Ebbisa Addunya. Specifically, I am going to critically examine how these heroic musical martyrs politicized the Oromo identity, culture, and vocalized the Oromo national movement for democracy and independence. Overall, my presentation will be threefold: 1) I will provide biosketches of these three artists, 2) Within these biosketches, I will look at the essence and characteristics of particular excerpts from some of their musical works, and 3) I will, within the biosketches and musical excerpts, examine their contributions to building Oromummaa and developing the Oromo national movement.
But, before I begin, I would like to share with you a short compilation of individuals who were either in the Hawwisoo Caffee Band or the Bilisumma Band and who were murdered by the Ethiopian regime. The reason why I am doing this is because although I am going to be focusing on two individuals today, I want it to be known that there were many, and that my research on revolutionary Oromo musical artists is an on-going process. I am in other words saying that I am not finished with investigating the injustices that revolutionary Oromo musical artists have faced due to the Ethiopian regime.
Oromo artists who have been killed by the current regime include:
Hime Yusuf, singer and musician, Chafe Gada Band, killed in Hararge 1997.
Kulani Boru, female vocalist, Chafe Gada Band, Hararge 1997.
Bonsiso Challa, singer, Chafe Gada Band, Hararge 1992
Hordofa Barento , traditional dancer, Chafe Gada Band, Hararge 1992
Jalal drama producer, Chafe Gada Band, Hararge 1992
Sabontu Barentu, female vocalist, Chafe Gada Band, Bale 1997
Ayantu Borana, female traditional dancer, Chafe Gada Band, Bale 1997
Artists who have disappeared, or in other words, murdered secretly since the present regime came to power include:
Jirenya Ayana, singer, Gada Band, Addis Ababa 1996
Basha Hussein, female traditional dancer, Bilisuma Band, Addis Ababa 1999
Fufa Duguma, poet, Addis Ababa 1997
Darartu Bona, female vocalist, Bale 1997
Abdulhakim (Shefis), singer, Chafe Gada Band, Bale 1997
Adem Wake, singer, Addis Ababa 1997
I would also like to mention that there are several Oromo revolutionary artists who have been imprisoned, tortured, and were forced to leave the country to live in exile. Many of these artists are continuing their revolutionary music and have never abandoned their commitment to musically vocalize the Oromo national movement.
The two revolutionary musical artists on which my discussion will focus on were born in opposite regions of Oromia. One was born in eastern Oromia, the other in the west.
Usmayyoo Mussaa was born in Haaji, Haroomayaa, Hararghe, Eastern Oromia in January 1963 to a father named Musa and a mother named Aashee. As a youth, Usmayyoo did not receive a formal education; he became a merchant who captured and sold fish and other commodities to hotels in Dire Dawa. Those who knew him said that he was always a very social, friendly, kind, and respected person.
But, Usmayyoo had an interest in singing; because of this interest, he soon became acquainted with and close to two singers and songwriters named Kadir Sai’di and Abdi Mohammed (also known as Abdi Qophee). Abdi Qophe was a playwriter, poet, and artist whose song writing not only heavily influence Usmayyoo, but the following artists: Ali Birraa, Adam Harun, Kadir Sa’id, Abbitow Kabbade, Halloo Dawwee, Fandishe Mul’ata (Mhammad Nur), Hirpha Ganfure, Qamar Yusuf, Adnan Mohammad, Shaabe Sheeko, Qasim Adam, Rayyaa Abba Maccaa, Usmayyo Mussa, Abdi Abrahim, Abdi Habib, Callaa Caracar and others.
So, Usmayyoo learned much from Abdi Qophe and eventually began his own singing career. But aside from loving to sing, what Usmayyoo also loved very much was his people, the Oromo people. He could not bear the mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation that the Oromo people were facing from the Ethiopian government. He chose to vocalize his response to the oppression and injustices his people were facing through his music; he became a revolutionary Oromo nationalist singer. To express this love and strong defense he had for his people, he sang for his people by delivering profound messages that relayed his deep commitment and support for the Oromo national struggle for independence. In one of his songs, Usmayyoo sang the following:
Jireenya walaabni mirga dhuumamneefi sarbamenee hin teeynu,
Olaadhaan gabroomne, qabsoon bilisoomna, kenna hin eeganu.
Fafaa gabruumaani badhaane, hin teeynu,Harqoota gabruuma hammaa ofiraa gannuu.
Which translates into the following:
We were born free so we cannot live chained.
We were enslaved by our neighbours, but we will liberate ourselves.
We cannot live with the scar of slavery
We will fight until we get rid of the yoke of colonialism.
With lyrics as such, Usmayyoo wanted to truly commit his life to the Oromo cause. So in 1991, when the Oromo Liberation Front entered the transitional government of Ethiopia, he joined Hawwisoo Caffee Gada, a politically conscious Oromo music group that was participating in the Oromo national movement; he eventually emerged as an outstanding revolutionary musical artist. Famously known for his first song “Bilisumaaf immimman ija koo walmaraa,” which means for freedom, tears will flow from my eyes, and another song entitled “Abbaa Joffee,” Usmayyoo performed on stages in Dardar, Qobbo, Calaanqo, Qullubi, Watar, Baddanno, Burqaa, Dirree-Dhawa, Harawaaca, Jerjertu, Jaaja, Masalaa, Odaa-Bultuum, Baddeeysa, Galamso, Balballeyti, Machaara, Micata, Hardim, Bubbee, Dhummuga, and Darbaa-Kuulo. Consequently, he became both very famous and very much loved by the Oromo people. Along with his meaningful music, his kindness, his sincere friendliness and generosity, his selfless support for others who were facing problems, and his capacity to simply make people smile and laugh made him a beloved and respected artist.
But in 1992, when the OLF was ejected by the Tigrayan’s People Liberation Front (TPLF) from the transitional government, the government sent soldiers to attack and murder Usmayyoo. At a place called Burunqe near the town of Jaajati, Usmayyoo was shot in the leg; fortunately, he survived the attempted assassination. Oromo farmers hid Usmayyoo in a secret place and provided him with medical aid and support. But as soon as he healed, Usmayyoo went to Finfinnee and joined Bandi Bilisumma, another music group that was committed to the Oromo struggle; he was one not to be deterred from fighting for his people. In one of his songs, Usmayyoo displays this determination:
Sodaa lubbu tiiya jedhee,
garba che’ee hin jiradhuu
kan bir tahee
biyya fi biyye toraatin
sabaa fi adaa koo keeysati
haqqa falmachun naa murti.
Which translates into the following:
From the fear of death, I will not run away from my country to become a refugee. I must fight for the rights and freedom of my people with my people in my country, whatever the costs.
Yet, this bravery to express his support and love for his people made Usmayyoo only a larger target of the Tigray government led by Meles Zenawi. He was soon without any justifiable reason imprisoned by Zenawi’s regime in 1998. In an underground prison cell, Usmayyoo was isolated from other prisoners because of his attempts to communicate with them. He was chained at his hands and legs, and tortured for eight years. Here is an excerpt from one of his songs that can be interpreted in many ways, but I think parallels his imprisonment:
Dukkana bara dheera
Naa rakke jireenya koo maraa
Naa bariiteetin hunda arka
Dukkanrra ifaa ba’uu kulka
Ummamaan naan orkanne agartu
Huundataan dawwatee adda naa baaftu
Maaltu guyya koo gadii fageeyse?
Qananiin fiira ana dhagabse
ifa na orke
gaari narra jirjiri
naaf dhi’eesi barii
Which translates into:
Why have I been put in the darkness forever? For many years of my life, I have suffered in this darkness. When, oh when will I be able to see? What has made my days empty? What has robbed me of life? What did I do to deserve this? Oh God, help me, please show me a brighter day.
Regardless of all the mistreatment and brutal torture he received, comrades of Usmayyoo assert that he never bowed down to his enemies. During this traumatic eight-year confinement, Usmayyoo’s wife, Faxumaa Mohammed, was traveling between Dire-Dhawa and Finfinne trying to support her husband while struggling to raise their three children. She was a revolutionary woman who unflinchingly stood beside her husband for the Oromo cause. But unfortunately, the excess of stress and mental and physical anguish that Faxumaa endured in addition to other circumstances of which we do not know led to her very untimely death; she died before Usmayyoo’s release from prison. Usmayyoo sings for her in the following song:
Waa’eella too takka
Haati maatii waati
Naaf osoo fiigtu ti
Abde lubbu siitii
Isii naa raamatii
hadha abba goote
yaatima kan kootif.
My closest friend, the mother of my child, and the protector of our home lost her life while running for me. God please put mercy on her soul; she was the provider of fatherless children.
Usmayyoo was released from jail relatively quite recently, 2006, after which he released a new collection of songs. One of songs says the following:
Yaa rabii, galaani kee kumma kumma
Arrafi Borrulee abdin kiiya sumaa
Namni itti na darbe
Sii na baase keeysa
Fedhin teeti dhibbe.
Thank you, God a thousand times. You are my hope today and tomorrow. Someone threw me into an endless darkness. But You, God, took me out.
But due to the brutal mental and physical torture that he received, the lack of adequate medical care and food, and the other modes of suffering that Tigrayan authorities made Usmayyoo endure, Usmayyoo’s health heavily deteriorated. Consequently, he died soon after his release in the month of March, 2006. Many individuals speculate that Tigrayan agents poison prominent Oromo nationalists while they are in prison. So as soon as their death is close-by, they are released. It is very likely that this happened in Usmayyoo’s case.
Now, I would like to turn my discussion to Ebbisa Addunya. Ebbisa was born in Dembi Dollo, southwest of the Western Wallaga region of Oromia. With two younger brothers and three sisters, Ebbisa was the eldest son in his family. He was a very talented and respected young person. He attended Oliiqaa Dingil Primary School, Qellem High School, and then passed the national examination for Higher Education to attend a university.
In 1991, while waiting for admission to a university, the military regime of Ethiopia was overthrown by OLF, TPLF, and EPLF forces. In Ebbisa’s hometown of Dembi Dollo, OLF forces had set up a strong military base. At that time, Ebbisa was very aware of the deteriorating Oromo condition and the need for self-determination for the Oromo people; hence, to support the Oromo struggle for national determination, he joined the OLF. He was trained to be a cadre (Dabballee) and being exceptional at that, he became a Dabballee/cadre trainer in the Dembi Dollo OLF military camp.
But beyond his abilities within the military, Ebbisa was also musically talented; he played many instruments and was a gifted vocalist. Because of this, he joined the OLF music band and played a significant role in pushing forth Oromo culture, music, and identity. In one song that he sang about his mother and joining the OLF, he said the following:
Haati dhiira boosee
Mucaan koo hin du’ammu
Hin booyin ayyo koo
An diina warranaa
Duddubatti hin hafnu
Waliin waajin kaana.
Which translates into:
As my mother cried, she fell to the floor and asked, “Will my child survive?” I said, “Yes, I will survive; you’re going to hear good news about me.” Don’t cry mother. I am leaving you to fight the enemy. We cannot remain behind. Let us stand together.
Throughout 1991 and 1992, Ebissa travelled through various regions within Oromia (the south, southwest, center, and western) to perform and sing; his songs were not only cultural, but they were revolutionary. They were songs that strongly emphasized the sufferings of the Oromo people and ways through which the Oromo people should demand justice. In one of his songs, Ebbisa sings the following:
Ana falmataa Gadaa
Bonsa sirna Abba Gadaa
Yoo Oromo tokko te’ee
Diina saa baqqee badaa
Olaan kee bilisoommte
Alaabaa shee dhabbaatte
I am the defender of Gadaa, I am proud of Gadaa; If Oromos are united, their enemies will be defeated. Your neighbours are liberated, they have raised their flag. Why have you failed to achieve liberation as well?
On a personal level, Ebbisa was a very kind person; he truly loved and cared for the Oromo people. He provided his assistance and care to individuals, his relatives, his sisters, brothers, etc. to anyone who needed help or was having trouble. Ebbisa was a very popular, well-admired, nationalist musical artist.
Ebbisa was also known to be a very brave individual. Even after the OLF went underground and its leaders were banished from the country, he continued to sing about the criminal activities that the Ethiopian government was heavily engaging in. He was extremely fearless, daring, and publicly vocal about the Ethiopian regime’s terrorist tactics against the Oromo people and continued to also support the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The following song was one that he openly sang after OLF was ejected from the transitional government:
Nuti hinbitamnu, alaagadhaani
Nuti Oromodhaa, haa nuu beekani
Arraabaan soobaa, nun gabroomsanii
Lammuu arraabaan, nun goowoomsanii.
Arrabaan nu sobaa
Meeqaa kan gurramee
Mana hidhaa itii
Badii tokkoo malee
Meeqaa kan qalame
We will not be ruled by our enemies. We are Oromos, let them know this. With their lies, they cannot deceive us and enslave us, they cannot manipulate us. At gunpoint, how many people have been thrown into jail by our enemies? Without doing anything, Oromos have been massacred even in their own homes.
But because Ebbisa was so courageous, so openly vocal about the murders and injustices that the Ethiopian government was committing, he himself became a large target of the Ethiopian government. According to the Oromia Support Group Press Release No 17, a 26 year-old Oromo who was a friend of Ebissa and who was helping him by transporting him to performances recognized clearly that Ebbissa was under government surveillance and was being monitored by government agents. On August 30th, 1996, Ebbissa Addunya was assassinated in his own home by Ethiopian government security agents in Finfinne. The following is an account from the Oromia Support Group Press Release No 14 in October 1996:
Oromo nationalist singer Ebbisa Addunya and his friend Tana Wayessa were shot dead by government gunmen on August 30th [,1996]. They were at Ebbisa’s home in the Shiromeda area, NO 094, Higher 13, Kebele 01, north of the American Embassy in Addis Ababa, when gunmen burst in. Eyewitnesses claim the bodies were dragged from the house and put in a Land Rover with a government license plate. The security men who carried out the murders first cleared the street. Residents who looked out of their houses after the gunfire were told to get back indoors. The bodies were recovered [the] next day from the morgue at Menelik II hospital.
But even after Ebbisa was murdered, Ebbisa’s family became a target as well; they were repeatedly mistreated in the hands of OPDO security agents in Dembi Dollo due to their relation to Ebbisa. His brother Ashanafi has been repeatedly imprisoned by Wayyane and OPDO agents.
What Usmayyoo and Ebbisa musically articulated and passionately wanted to promote was exactly what the Ethiopian government wanted to and still wants to forestall: the building of Oromummaa (Oromo identity, culture, and nationalism) and Oromo political consciousness amongst the majority ethnonational group within the Ethiopian Empire, the Oromo people.
Generally, revolutionary Oromo artists within the Ethiopian Empire have been specifically targeted for several reasons. The first is that with their natural talents and creativity, they were and are retrieving Oromo cultural and political memories—memories that the Ethiopian Empire prefers to omit from history. Second, they were effectively capturing in a simple and understandable form the extensive suffering of the Oromo people under successive Ethiopian regimes. By this, they were also motivating the Oromo people to liberate themselves by armed struggle and by joining the OLF. Lastly, they were revealing to the Oromo people the true essence of Oromumma, bilisumma (or freedom), and walabummaa (or independence) in revolutionary, inspiring ways. All of these effects of their music are threatening to the dictatorial regime of Ethiopia, and that is why these artists were targeted and assassinated. But nevertheless, these Oromo musical nationalists have left an unforgettable imprint on the Oromo national struggle for liberation and sovereignty. And I hope that we not only remember this for ourselves, but that we find ways of communicating this with others or making others aware of Oromo history, the Oromo struggle, and the brutal crimes that the Ethiopian government has committed against the Oromo people.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank my mother, Zeituna Kalil, for inspiring this research project and for sharing sources and contacts. I would also like to thank Tamam Yousuf for his guidance and assistance in gathering sources for this paper.
Editor’s Note: Visual illustrations by Julia Kania.