During the military Derg regime of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the motto of the day was “Everything to the Warfront,” Abitew Kebede, a prominent Afaan Oromo singer and song writer of the era was serving in the army. Abitew’s song Yannikoo, Afaan Oromo for ‘my thoughts’, which he wrote for his mother, first came out in the ‘80s and became an instant hit.
A few decades later in 2011 Negusu Tamrat, an aspiring young vocalist known for his music in Afaan Oromo, released an album containing great songs of the past by such legendary artists like Abitew and Ali Birra. Yannikoo, which was featured on Negusu’s album, again became an instant hit all over the country even among listeners who do not understand the language.
Following the success of the album, Negusu saw the virtue of running a nightclub named after Yannikoo in which his fans would come and see him perform. The club became a must go for enthusiasts of songs in Afaan Oromo as it also features other upcoming musicians hand in hand with their well-established artistic heroes who jam in the club from time to time.
An otherwise noble disposition, however, it didn’t turn out to be a triumphant immediately. After a series of trials and errors as well as alterations of partners, Negusu finally met Sisay Lemma Gemechu, who is managing the only nightclub predominantly featuring Afaan Oromo musicians in a city originally home to the Oromos.
“I was a civil servant at the time. And it was not even in my wildest dreams that I would someday run a club,” Sisay told this magazine inside the club, which is now well into its third year. “But when I saw Negusu’s proposal, I was on it. I knew Addis Abeba was lacking in Afan Oromo themed recreational arenas. I remembered how it was only during holidays and occasional weekends that one could find bands and musicians performing in Afaan Oromo.”
Located off Mickey Leland Street, in the busiest clubbing neighborhood commonly known as Chechnya, which is famous for its nightlife, Yannikoo is “as far as I know the only club focusing in Afaan Oromo music,” says Sisay. But it doesn’t mean it presents music exclusively in one language. Contemporary pop songs in Amharic and other languages are also regularly featured. Pictures of great artists of the past and present are posted all over the walls inside Yannikoo giving a glimpse into the history of Afaan Oromo music and those who courageously pioneered it when it was almost impossible.
Yannikoo is located at “a family property,” says Sisay. It used to be leased out for other businesses and it was the intention of the family to continue that way. But that was until Sisay decided otherwise. “It was during that time that I started to help change it into a family business. First we tried to make it a motel. When that didn’t work out, we turned it into a bar. It was then that I met Negusu.”
The partnership between Negusu and Sisay, unfortunately, didn’t last longer than nine months for the pop star went to the US for a musical tour that would take him away for a long time. “Since then I am battling it out alone. Of course I get a lot of support, including financial, from my family. I don’t want it to be closed.”
Addis Abeba is home to the Oromos who affectionately call it ‘Finfinnee or Shaggar.’ But Sisay says he is puzzled by the lack of other similar themed spots. “It befuddles me. If you are interested to find music or dishes for that matter from the Guraghe or Amhara, for instance, or from Tigray in town, it is not difficult to find. But not from the Oromo.”
Sisay Lemma Gemmechu says he doesn’t want Yannikoo to be closed
It was his desire to make the property offer more than music that inspired him to extend the services offered to include traditional Oromo dishes. “We started providing traditional Oromo dishes,” he says with a tinge of disappointment, “but it was difficult. Almost impossible.” Traditional Oromo dishes demand a lot of ingredient, care, time and skilled manpower “which we couldn’t afford to sustain.”
Now the club gives out jams six days a week (except on Mondays) starting from 10 pm. “It is not only the Oromo who are our regular customers. Different kinds of people with different ethnic and language backgrounds come here. And we want more,” Sisay says.
The live performance from the energetic young Oromo singers on the stage mesmerizes the audience who drop by at Yannikoo to chill out the pleasing interruption of the day-to-day hustle. The performances by the singers of popular music from Harar to Boraana; from Wollagga to Arsi and Balee “are so fine, energizing and enjoyable, offering you not only a mix of modern Oromo music but also that of the oldies and goodies; of course together with a spacious dance floor,” said Girma B. Gutama, a well-known Oromo activists and an academician currently in Oslo, Norway. Girma was at the club during his short visit to Ethiopia last month. Girma said he was also impressed by the attentiveness of the staff at the club. “You wouldn’t be left unattended there, even for a while, as the staff are quick and so friendly. They also have a good hot snack menu, to [satisfy] your nightly appetite, for a very reasonable price,” Girma told Addis Standard.
Far from booming
But Yannikoo, admittedly, is far from booming. “We are struggling,” Sisay concedes. “But we will hang in there.” Sadly that is not the end of his troubles. Sisay said “some people, very few indeed, have tried to scratch the surface beyond the purpose of the club; they want to find something that is not there. They sometimes say we have a hidden agenda for running the club.” In April Yannikoo was served with a closure notice from the Kebele officials mentioning noise pollution as a reason. It was a decision that angered Oromo rights activities on social media who didn’t buy the noise pollution charges in a “noise district” of the city, as one activist put it. Luckily, the notice was annulled within 24 hrs and Yannikoo was back into business. No explanation was given.
Dancing the night away at Yannikoo is a well-known Oromo activist and an academician Girma B. Gutama
By the look of things Yannikoo is nothing but a clubbing alternative that reverberates close to the hearts and minds of its customers. “My rough readings of the musical map performed at Yannikoo, as we were chilling-out there with friends, gave me some sense of veracity that the hits turn more and more into the real Oromo voice as a function of time,” said Girma. And Sisay is protective of his club, “our agenda is very clear. Like everyone else we want to do business. Period.”