Addis Abeba – Addisalem Tibebe, a.k.a Kuul Surre, was born and grew up in the Borena zone of Oromia region, in an area called Arero, where his parents also grew up. He attended his elementary and secondary school located in his birth village. Right after high school, he was placed into Dire Dawa University Institute of Technology and earned his bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering. Then he moved to Addis Abeba and worked in Ethio telecom for five years. That opportunity of moving to Addis opened up more studio exposure for him to follow his childhood dream of being a musician.
He grew up enjoying his childhood like every other child, playing cultural games like ‘algagga’, which he later turned into a mainstream music. There are other games which he grew up playing – like hiding, chasing, physical fighting and many more. But the one he used to enjoy and remain in his childhood memory is the cultural games. Ever since he got into music he uses the stage name “Kuul Surre”, inspired by his grandmother. When he was a child his grandmother, Surre, used to call him ‘Kuul’, looking at the blackish color of his eyes. So when he grew up and started music he preferred to use the name ‘Kuul Surre’ as a stage name, adding the name his grandmother used to call him and her name together.
Recently, Kuul Surre released his new EP (Extended play/half album), mostly focused on presenting Borana cultural music in a modern way. He sat down with Addis Standard to discuss his life journey as an artist and his new EP.
Interview by Natnael Fite @NatieFit
Addis Standard: How did you get into music?
Kuul Surre: I started feeling music since I was in grade 7. I usually enjoyed listening to English music. Our area is on the border with Kenya so we had the opportunity to watch Kenyan channels through a satellite dish. That was when I got the exposure to western music. The American rapper and songwriter Lil Wayne especially influenced me a lot. His flows are amazing and shaped my attitude towards music. Not only did he influenced me in a musical way, but also personally. In general, Western music influenced me to even choose my genre as Hip-hop. But even though I knew my feelings towards music, I couldn’t do it so early because there were no music facilities like studios in our area. So I focused on my education and studied Electrical Engineering in Dire Dawa University. Then I got a job in Ethio Telecom in Addis Abeba. That brought me an opportunity to explore music studios based in Addis. I worked at Ethio Telecom for five years, working my music simultaneously as part time. I was covering my music production expenses from my regular job until I could financially rely on music. After I recently released an EP (a collection of seven songs), I stopped my job at Ethio Telecom to fully focus on music only.
AS: As you said earlier, if you are influenced by Western music, how did you decide to do music in Afaan Oromo language focusing on Borana culture?
Kuul Surre: To be honest I was thinking about singing in English only. But motivational videos of successful people I watched when I was a University student helped me to realize that I should be first myself. I understood that if you cannot be yourself, you cannot be successful. This thing triggered a question for myself. I started asking myself questions like “who am I? What kind of culture should I reflect in my music?”. So I was enlightened that in order to be successful I should reflect Borana’s culture to the world, and started digging into my culture. Then I became sure that I can reflect Borana’s culture in a modern way.
AS: Other than the western artists, are there Ethiopian/Oromo artists that influenced you in music?
Kuul Surre: Yes there are. I enjoy Ali Birra and Feyisa Furi’s songs. But mostly we used to listen to Kedir Martu’s songs a lot. I listened to his songs back in my home village.
“Fortunately when we finished recording the song, the event was only a few days away, so we waited for it and recorded the video at the event.”
AS: Tell us about your first music video that introduced you to the music industry?
Kuul Surre: I have one audio music that I previously released, but the notable music video is called ‘Manaya’, which was released in December 2019. It’s a cultural reflection of a love story presented in a modern genre. The video was recorded at a cultural event that will be held once every 8 years called ‘Gadaamoojjii’. This widely known and respected event is a significant part of the Gadaa system. The event is about transfer of Gadaa power to the next Abbaa Gadaa (Gadaa father). As Gadaamoojjii is an event where you can see a whole range of cultural attractions like dressing, plays and many more, we chose the place to record the video. Fortunately when we finished recording the song, the event was only a few days away, so we waited for it and recorded the video at the event. The people featured in the video are all from the local neighborhood of Borana. It was so special. The reaction from the music audience that came after that music video was so encouraging. And also in 2020, this music won an award in ‘best music video of the year’ category at Odaa Award. That was additional motivation to do more cultural exposure in a modern music way. As I know how we work the ‘Manaya’ music, there will be some expectations of winning the award. We even aimed to bring it to the AFRIMA award, but due to communication problems we couldn’t do that. But this award (Odaa award) itself is a great motivation for us.
AS: Tell us about a new EP (extended play) you recently released.
Kuul Surre: Aa I said earlier I was not fully focused on music until I released this EP. I was just focusing on my regular job and doing music as a part timer. Covid-19 outbreak was also one of the reasons I disappeared for a while. There were a couple of singles I featured with other musicians. But yeah, I was a little bit far from music. I started doing the EP in 2020 and it took me like nearly three years to finish it. It has seven tracks within it. It has different ideas and genres. Some have a sad vibe, some are drill music and some are Afro house music. I tried to express my feelings and my life through my songs. Those drill music are more focused on life hardships. For example, you can see one of my songs called “Jiruu Deegaa”, which can be translated as Thug Life. I tried to show my life, when I first came to Addis, in it. I think most young men encounter those hussles at least once in a lifetime. Others are love songs. Two tracks, “In Deema” and “Isiin”, are love songs that are inspired by two Ali Birra songs titled “Nin deema” and “Hin yaadinii”. I did these two tracks in collaboration with other musicians. Young and emerging musicians like Kassmasse and Yohana are featured in these tracks. I met them in the working area, around the studio. As a musician you will get the chance to meet other musicians, share professional experience and collaboration as well. We worked together in that way and they helped me in making a wonderful EP. For now, the EP is available in audio on all music platforms including Youtube, itunes, and spotify. So far, I am getting encouraging responses from the public regarding the EP.
AS: What will be your next move?
Kuul Surre: I am now recording music videos for all seven tracks of the recent EP. I will have some concerts in Jimma, Gambellaa and likes, that I got through sponsorship. And I am planning to organize small concerts with my manager, Mela Muziqa Records.
“I sacrificed my job for music, because I want to grow in music and I saw a better me in the industry.”
AS: In what kind of status would you expect yourself in 10 years?
Kuul Surre: Having my dream in music and what I sacrificed for music into consideration I can imagine myself being a better artist at a better status. I sacrificed my job for music, because I want to grow in music and I saw a better me in the industry. So I believe that if someone is willing to lose everything for something, he will definitely be successful in that. That’s what I believe I am capable of doing.
AS: How do you analyze the progress of efforts to bring Oromo cultural music to an international level? And what is your suggestion on it?
Kuul Surre: It will definitely take time to reach that level. But today the internet is helping the music industry a lot. Everything is becoming so easy to go viral. Globalization affects this generation. So artists should do their best to go at globalization’s pace. It’s obvious that the industry is having some positive progress. And I believe that if the industry is supported enough financially, we will definitely see bigger things in it. As I always say, I want to be myself and I want to show the world Borana’s cultural music in a modern way. I believe the internet will play a major role in that. I will do my job in exploring some unseen cultural plays and presenting it in an attractive, catchy and modern way. If every artist does their job, Oromo cultural music will reach the international level. AS