Ethiopia Lost one of its leading artists – May God Bless Ali Birra’s Soul
By Napoleon Amde
First and foremost, I would like to express my deepest sorrow and extend my heartfelt condolences to Ali Birra`s close family and to the large Ethiopian community who adores the iconic legend. I wish him the best in the next chapter, the inevitable, which is human beings’ final destination.
It never fails for a memorable song to take us back in time to the first place we heard them… more so if they have catchy tunes. They remind us the people we were with when we heard the particular song, the ambiance, the mood of the specific time -sadness (if we were depressed facing rough time) or happiness (if we were in celebration, deep in love euphoric state in cloud nine).
Like millions of Ethiopians, I grew up listening and enjoying Ali Birra`s unsurpassed fantabulous music. Personally, AMALÉLÉ, AWASH and all his HARRARI songs are etched deep in my memory to remain there forever – for me to pull out of the cache at my luxury whenever I feel nostalgic to virtually travel without leaving the comfort of my seat wherever I maybe at the time. I`m indebted to Ali Bira for that.
Understanding the meaning of the word he says in his songs taking the back seat, as irrelevant, we hum or whistle when alone – when in group in tandem we raise our voices loud and sing along in harmony, raising arms up in motion moving side to side. As we speak I`m humming his tune celebrating him.
Ali Birra was a consummate advocate of human rights. He was voice for the voiceless. Through his songs he touched souls, he stirred the dormant creating awareness, goes deep into the conscious of the power to be of the time and demanded fairness while promoting the concept throughout the years he never compromised his love for one motherland Ethiopia.
Personally, while admiring his aforementioned quality besides the love, we share for one motherland we attended the same school even though at different times – in Addis at Nativity Boys school (he was at the high school) and in Los Angeles at Santa Monica College where I took courses in drawing, music and theatre as elective courses along with my other core study courses he studied as his core course music. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Washington DC. Albeit, he departed from his loved ones physically… through his songs Ali Bira will always be with us. Rest in Peace brother Ali Birra – we love you – Ethiopia loves you.
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This is nice from his fellow schoolmate and then I thought what Nativity high school? And then I remembered there was a night shift at that time administered by a popular priest Aba Gebremariam Amente of ‘Cathedral’, one of the most unforgettable and loved characters of the town.
The language was called QOTUGNA and then we learned it was just another Afan Oromo of the East and that QOTU means farmer. My town fell in love with his songs and he was at a club in ‘downtown’ or Saris area. Ali probably owned the band at that time. His style was very fitting to Addis Ababan moody people that get high on slow melodic music. Oromigna songs nearby were mostly the kinds that Tilahun sang on the radio at least once a day and we had some schoolmates from the nearby countryside who could understand that. But Ali’s songs were so exotic and intoxicating and we wanted to know what the words mean. The new classmates couldn’t help much b/c of the difference in dialect.
AMALELE was probably the most adopted song in Amharic of Ali Birra; a lot of singers have sung it over the years and then the duet with Mahmoud was a new high. It was like saying ‘you’ve been bugging us to know the words of this song and here it is’. It was probably the first bilingual duet and was extremely popular. Ali himself sang it in Amharic in the last few seconds of the song when he recorded it by himself back in the 70s, he must have known how much that song meant to the wider audience.
Ali Birra owned a club in Toronto, Canada where you can find Ethiopian restaurants and stores on the longest street of the city and performed there on the weekends. That is where he met his wife, an immigrant like him but from the Philipine. Maybe Ali was impressed by Abegaz’s talent and thought why not have a son like him? That is also where he found out his eyesight was not the best anymore. Canadian Royal police on a horse with bright uniform stopped him on a sunny day and he couldn’t see neither the horse nor the police is just a rumor. Ali was stopped by traffic police and couldn’t read some thing that expired and it was at nighttime, according to himself on his TV interview back home. Canadians have eight months of winter and eight days of sunny days in a year, what are the chances? The other Canadian great friend of Ethiopia, Jeff Pearce’s parents couldn’t afford the light bill and that is why he got into the habit of shaving his head, to be the light, otherwise he has a full head of hair just like Ali Birra.
Two decades later Ali and Mahmoud would sing AMALELE on home soil at Sheraton Addis. Ali was in awe of Mahmoud since he was young and he has also written a song for him; yes in Amharic. That song was one of the most popular songs ever sang. At Sheraton Addis during the long-awaited remake of that nostalgic duet, Ali was very fit and happy and looked like he was 30, happy to be home again with the audience that loves him so much. And It was televised nationwide.
For the following two decades of his life, I think Ali was the happiest. He was interviewed and celebrated all the time. He shared his life experience and often his wife accompanied him on those TV appearances. He also sang duets with upcoming young artists and became even more popular than he was a young man. The charity work he and his wife were doing near Dire Dawa was also given nationwide coverage on national TV.
Ali struggled with diabetics for most of his life. He had a great sense of humor and his jokes on his interviews, especially the one he said about his mother’s reaction to his honorary Ph.D. degree was super-funny and also thought full. With all that stuff of end of war going on, Ethiopian media at home and abroad expressed their sorrow and respect to the great legend.
He came up with the most beautiful songs that appealed even to those who didn’t know the lyrics. He played his guitar and other instruments and wrote the songs himself. He brought joy to the world since he was 14 in four different domestic languages and Sudanese. He got a state-funeral in his home country and was buried in his birth town Dire Dawa.