Tribute: Becoming Ali Birra: the rise from “the little teacher” to a giant music legend

Who is Ali Birra?

Addis Abeba – Ali Birra was born to Mohammed Mussa and Fatuma Ali in the city of Dire Dawa, some 515 km southeast of the capital, Addis Abeba, in 1948. His father, Mohammed Mussa, was from the Ala sub-clan of Afran Qallo Oromo and came from a town called Grawa. Fatuma Ali, on the other hand, belonged to the Jarso sub-clan of Afran Qallo in Jarso sub-district. Mohammed and Fatuma met in Dire Dawa and got married around 1946/7. They started living in Ganda Qore in a quarter called Ganda Kaba, where they got their first baby boy on 22 May 1948 and named him Ali after his grandfather. Ali was left as the only child after he lost his full-blooded brother from an accident. Soon after this incident, his parents divorced and a shari’a court ruled that his father would raise Ali.

Ali’s schooling started with an occasion in which he displayed stubborn behavior as a small child. Hence Ali joined a Quranic school at the age of 5. The Quranic schools used a curriculum brought from Islamic countries and studying the Quran was one of the subjects given emphasis. At the age of 11, he had completed half of the 30 Quran Juuz(parts). In the Islamic school, he was recognized as a very fast and active learner, especially for his command of Arabic. And he was nicknamed Ustad Saghir (the little teacher). Ali continued his education in a public school at Kazira, Leul Mekonnin school, where no Arabic was offered as a subject and the medium of instruction was Amharic. Meanwhile, Mohammed pulled out his son from the school and transferred him back to Quranic school, as he faced criticism from his neighbors for sending his child to a secular school. Then he was offered a position to teach Arabic to grade one students, and was exempted from the three birr monthly tuition fee and was also paid ten birr a month for teaching Arabic.

Ali rode to fame and gained the endearment name “Ali Birra”, coined after the title of the song he played, to distinguish him from the other two Alis of the band. Immediately, he was promoted to the senior Afran Qallo band membership and started performing.

Outside school, Ali had other hobbies. At a tender age, his innate tendency was apparent. He demonstrated his love for music and entertainment. He enjoyed singing and dancing at school and in the local neighborhoods. He recalled that watching movies at cinema houses with his father and playing football with neighborhood age-mates was among his childhood hobbies.

Becoming Ali Birra

Soon after Urji Bakalcha (later renamed as Afran Qallo), a band known for its pride in Oromo language and culture and passion to promote it, was established in the early 1960s, Ali joined the junior division of the band at the age of 13. Ibrahim Mohammed Adam, Abubakar Mohammed Adam, Ali Abdi Jaama, Elias Ibrahim Buroo, Ibrahim Yusuf, Abdosh Abra, Abdusalam Yusuf, Elias Yusuf Adam and Khalid Bakar Usman were other members of the band. Then the first Afran Qallo public show in which Ali took part was staged in 1963 during the Eid night, at which Ali got the opportunity to play Birra dha Bari’e. Then Ali rode to fame and gained the endearment name “Ali Birra”, coined after the title of the song he played, to distinguish him from the other two Alis of the band. Immediately, he was promoted to the senior Afran Qallo band membership and started performing.

Professional career and life abroad

The pressure from the government of Haile Selassie; like censorship and accusations from the authorities on members of Afran Qallo of secessionist claims, led the band members to a collusion with the government security agents. For these and other reasons the band came to breakup. Given the connection between the cultural renaissance and assertiveness of the Oromo which the Afran Qallo band represented, one can not deny the role of the government in the breakup of the band.

Following the disbandment, in 1964, Ali and Ismail Mummad Adam risked entering Djibouti illegally where they were captured and taken to prison. Ali spent one month in prison. He stayed in Djibouti for four months after he got released from prison meeting his old friends who fled to Djibouti earlier than he did. On 31 December 1964 he along with his three friends namely Abubakar Mussa, Mohammed Yusuf and Aliye Ahmad Ali left Djibouti for Dire Dawa arriving on 01 January 1965. Upon arrival, the security forces arrested them on allegation that they had insulted the Emperor during their public show in Djibouti. After daylong interrogation they were taken to Harar and spent four months and sixteen days in Harar prison.

Then Ali went to Addis Abeba on 20 June 1966. After his arrival in Addis, Ali continued to play music at informal places. On 27 September the same year Ali was invited to perform at a music show hosted at Cinema Ras for Meskel (commemoration of the finding of the True Cross). That day’s performance guaranteed Ali’s employment at the Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra immediately. Ali recounted sadly that during those days no bars in Addis Abeba had Afaan Oromoo singers. He performed alongside Ethiopian music legends such as Tilahun Gesesse, Muhamoud Ahmed, and Bizunesh Bekele. He traveled with the group through Ethiopia and Sudan to sing with well-known celebrities like Mohammed Wardi. When he was in Addis Ababa, he would perform in large venues such as the Hager Fikir Theater and Ras Theater.

Soon after his employment at the Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra, Ali established relations with the Mecha-Tulama Association. He participated in the association’s cultural activities, including music and drama. His activity put him in the spotlight of the state’s security. Meanwhile, life in the Imperial Bodyguard had gotten increasingly difficult to Ali, including the formalities and strict discipline. He decided to quit his job after three years and went to Awash Railway Station for work.

After returning back to Addis Abeba, Ali continued his career both as a musician and a composer. In addition to Afaan Oromo, his mother tongue, Ali had the ability to sing in Amharic, Arabic, Harari, and Somali languages. He recorded his first solo album titled “Abbaa Lafaa” in 1975 with Aduu Birra Band, the first in the history of Oromo music. The album contained songs that carry messages of love, revolution, and equitable distribution of land. Among others, the tracks contained on the album are Ali’s hit songs such as Abbaa Lafaa, Sin Barbaada Hogguu and Ushurururu. He then worked with different bands including the Ibex band. He then recorded successful albums including his hit album titled “Ammaalelee”, which was released in 1979. Then he started working with great artists like Muluken Melese at Ras Hotel. He worked at Ras Hotel for seven years before he left abroad in 1984.

The unprecedented emotional outburst, manifested in the form of sighs, tears, clamors, dances, kisses, and hugs during the performance signified participants venting years of suppressed emotions.

He flew to the USA on 27 April 1984 with his then Swedish wife Birgitta Åström. Ali in no time found himself back on stage again. He was later joined by other Ethiopian artists, such as Aster Aweke, Hagos Gebrehiwot and Teshome Mitiku. They formed a group and traveled to different cities. Then he lived in Sweden and Saudi Arabia with his wife Birgitta. In May 1992 he returned to the US for a music tour and ended his relationship with Birgitta. Shortly after, he settled in Canada running a restaurant business and performing his music. During his time in Canada he won the Music Africa Merit Award in 1995.

Ali’s historic return to Ethiopia in 2005 after twenty years of self-imposed exile abroad did not come easy. But he finally returned home by the effort of Mohammed Ahmed (Qophe), the renowned Oromo lyric writer. The Ethiopian government gave him high profile reception. Then followed the most awaited event by many – the “Inauguration of Galma Abbaa Gadaa” at Adama, at which Ali himself performed on stage. The unprecedented emotional outburst, manifested in the form of sighs, tears, clamors, dances, kisses, and hugs during the performance signified participants venting years of suppressed emotions. Then he settled until his death in a house located in Bishoftu city, some 45 km from Addis Abeba, which the then government of Oromia gave him as a gift. Ali contributed five music albums in his life time.

Ali, affectionately called ‘Adeeroo’ meaning Uncle among the Oromo, was seen as a freedom fighter, symbol of national pride and a unifying figure. He was loved and respected for his works and seen as a giant music legend not only among the Oromo but also the entire nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.

After a successful 60+ years of music, he finally passed away on Sunday, 06 November 2022 evening at Adama General Hospital, where he was receiving treatment for a serious illness.

Personal life

Ali has been married to three women throughout his lifetime. He married a Swedish woman, Birgitta Åström, in 1982 and lived with her traveling to many countries until 1992. Then separated from her started a new life in Canada. Then he married a woman called Nujuma Mohammed in 1993. The marriage, however, did not last long and they were separated in 1995. A couple of months after Ali and Nujuma separated, Ali met Lily Marcos through a friend. After dating for some time, they started living together in 1997. They legalized their union by tying the nikah under sharia on July 29, 2007. Then, Ali lived his whole life with Lily Marcos even after returning to Ethiopia.

Recognition and Awards

Ali has received numerous awards (most for Lifetime Achievements) and certificates of appreciation from different organizations in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the development of the Oromo music language and culture. His lifelong commitment to the struggle of the Oromo for freedom are highlighted in some of his wards. Specifically, Ali has received more than 50 awards in the span of 30 years, including honorary doctorate degree he was awarded by Jimma University in 2010. In Adama, a street that stretches from the main Harar highway leading to the Abbaa Gadaa hall was named after him in 2018. AS


Editor’s note: This profile was compiled from Ali Birra’s biography published in 2019

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