Abdi Nuressa: taking Oromo music one step ahead
Like millions of his peers in Ethiopia, Abdi Nuressa grew up playing soccer, a habit that followed him thousands of miles across the Atlantic when he moved to the United States in his late teens. It was in 2001 and Abdi was living in Washington DC; he had a team called Lencha (spelled in his native Afaan Oromo as ‘Leenccaa’) with his buddies and they had a match to play in Minneapolis. As luck would have it, their match coincided with a fund raising event held by the tsar of Oromo music, Dr. Ali Birra, for his ‘Birra Foundation’.
“We went there to support and at some point we were sitting in circles and telling jokes,” recalls Abdi. “Then I started singing. That is when Ali heard me and told me I had a good voice. ‘If you love to sing,’ Ali said, ‘use it.’”
Abdi, indeed, always loved to sing. In fact, before he left for the US he auditioned in the oldest theatre in the country, Hagar Fiqir theatre, located in Piasa, the oldest part of Addis Abeba. “I sang and I danced,” he tells this magazine. Abdi got a job as a singer but what he couldn’t get was his father’s approval, without which he couldn’t have pursued the profession.
Abdi left Ethiopia without performing much of the career that would later on define him.
Now, energized by the thumbs up he acquired from a legend he admired, at a place far from home, Abdi decided to revive his career. He began giving out gigs, usually performing cover versions of old Oromo songs. People who have seen him perform at gigs would approach Abdi and encourage him to do a cover album. A request he often declined because, “as much as I loved those distinguished artists, I wanted to put my own signature in the history of Oromo music.”
That signature was engraved in 2009 when his debut album Irree Adda came out. The album, which is subtitled in English The Power of Culture, “[is my testament] on the power culture has in a society and I wanted to express that in my music.”
Doing cultural songs for global audience
One of the songs included in Abdi’s first album, Ayyaana Laalattu (Afan Oromo for ‘opportunist’) put his musical career on the map. Crossing the language threshold, the song was a wild hit both in Ethiopia and abroad among people who speak the language and who don’t; it proved the star’s argument that “if we Oromo artists can deliver quality music, the language can never be a barrier, especially in our time.”
Abdi sees hope in the country’s demography. “We have a lot of young people. And the youth tend to be open-minded.” That is a concept which dominates the making of Abdi’s second album, due for release in any given day from now.
His album, he says, includes a number of distinctively Oromo cultural songs but they are uniquely arranged in way that they can easily appeal to the global audience. For Abdi, this is not accidental.
Abdi is united with the titans of Ethiopian pop music like Abegazu Kibrework Shiota, Tommy T and Girum Mezmur. “There are also artists from places like Jamaica and Nigeria. We have reggae songs; and there are songs in which we tried to fuse West African rhythms and instruments,” he said.
But for all that high class expertise involved in the making of Abdi’s second album and all the heavyweights gathered, there are still challenges to put it out to the market, he confesses.
Many albums released in recent times are financially supported by corporate sponsors, allowing artists to expand more on the production of their works. Abdi tried to score similar sponsorship deals, but to no avail. “As soon as they understand the album is in Afan Oromo, they turn their faces and they don’t even want to give it a chance,” he says. “I understand where that sentiment is coming from.”
Disentangling resistance from Oromo music
Abdi believes one of the reasons for companies to refuse sponsoring Oromo music is the misconception that every Oromo song is revolutionary; a song of resistance. “There is this really absurd notion that Oromo music is all about politics and nothing more,” he says. “But that is not true. There is more. They would know that if they first give it a chance and listen to it. Besides, it is not like there aren’t any songs with political connotations in other languages.”
Companies, therefore, don’t see the marketing value of an Oromo artist for their brand because they assume the art form has a restricted niche audience. “To some extent they have a point. At least in the past,” Abdi maintains. Historically the Oromos are one of the major ethnic groups in Ethiopia whose culture and identity belonged to the suppressed periphery. This forced legendary Oromo singers of the past to focus (most of the time) in producing songs of resistance, and of assertiveness against excessive authority. Their “music didn’t have adequate [audience] because it was never given enough chance. Even Oromo people like myself, who were brought up in urban areas [had no feelings] towards Oromo music,” says Abdi, “but now things are changing.”
This change, says Abdi, must be mastered by contemporary (and young) Oromo artists. “Excellence is our tool. If we do great songs, we can reach out to the Oromo youth, we can also appeal to the young people of different backgrounds throughout the country and far beyond that, we can cross boundaries and find international audience.”
When Ayyaana Laalattu, a song about betrayal in a relationship, hit the airwaves, there were a number of interpretations that deemed the song as having a political under-layer. “Once a song is out there for the public, the public owns the right to attach to it whatever meaning they see fit,” Abdi says.
“In fact the more people understand a song in a diverse way, the better it is” for the song’s chart life.
Yet, growing up Abdi especially had a soft heart for old songs, be it in Afan Oromo or in Amharic that dealt with existential issues. Songs about truth, identity, life, and of course love. “That is what I want to [emulate.] Of course artists should do political songs; that is one part of reality. But we also have a very flexible, lyrical language. We have to capitalize on that.”
It is this approach of Abdi that earned him fame among his fans and the trust that his upcoming album would, once again, take the rank of Oromo music one step ahead.