Introduction

Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was just 34 years old when he was assassinated on June 29, 2020 in the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (Finfinne). Haacaaluu was a gifted singer and activist who was committed to justice for the Oromo people from his youth.  As a teenager, he was taken from high school and spent five years in prison for participating in a peaceful demonstration against the authoritarian rule of the EPRDF government. While in prison, he devoted himself to studying Oromo oral traditions which can be viewed as an archive of the history of the people. He understood how the repression and marginalization that his generation faced at the hands of the EPRDF mirrored the oppression that had been carried out against the Oromo and other groups by successive Ethiopian regimes since the time of Menelik’s military conquest.  The oral history his work stored and recounted distilled the experience of the Oromo nation using powerful and unforgettable images.  It was during his time in prison that Haacaaluu began to compose songs that connected the contemporary plight of the Oromo people with the suffering of previous generations.

Once released from custody, Haacaaluu rose to prominence as a young artist capturing the voice of his generation by aligning it with the long trajectory of the Oromo nation’s extended struggle.  He was exceptionally talented, powerful and mesmerizing. His music placed in historical context the youth’s yearnings for free expression, self-determination and democracy.  One of Haacaaluu’s greatest gifts was his ability to frame current issues, sufferings and longings through song and poetry using familiar, yet complex and deeply resonant metaphors that tugged at the heartstrings of young and old alike.  His work empowered a full-blown pro-democracy movement among the youth who were outraged at the injustices they faced. This movement demanded that the constitution of Ethiopia – which actually enshrined democratic federal governance as part of its provisions – be honored rather than violated.  The pro-democracy youth movement which became known as #OromoProtests, demanded an end to land dispossession, especially the massive confiscation of farmland around the capital called the “Addis Ababa Master Plan”. The youth movement didn’t stop there.  They condemned the economic, political and cultural marginalization of the Oromo and other similarly subjugated peoples in Ethiopia and demanded equality.

The songs and performances of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa provided inspiration. They also communicated a vision that drove what was a relentless nonviolent movement to achieve self-expression through democracy that was promised in the 1995 constitution, but not yet delivered.  All of Haacaaluu’s music was composed and performed in the Oromo language. His messages were not accessible to the ruling group who were consequently taken unawares by the strength and determination of the youth movement that spanned the entirety of Ethiopia’s most populous and fertile region, Oromia, and it was later joined by youth from other regions.  Interestingly, the government could not find or understand the source of the youth’s inspiration though Haacaaluu’s songs were playing on every radio and cell phone in Oromia.  He touched the soul of the nation, and left an indelible longing in the hearts of the generation who sacrificed for their rightful place in the country, the region, the continent and the world.

Although a year has transpired since Haacaaluu’s killing, no one has been brought to justice for his murder. It is a widely held belief among the Oromo and in other civic and political circles that he was assassinated by the Ethiopian state when its leaders realized that the criticism contained in his songs also applied to the injustices carried out by their own government led by Abiy Ahmed.  Abiy’s claim to an Oromo identity did not absolve him from the clear evidence that his regime was not delivering on promises to meet the youth’s demands for democracy, rights and self-rule.  Haacaaluu’s messages pointed to the failure of Abiy’s government.

In his honor, on the anniversary of his assassination, we would like to share a translation of one of the songs he performed using an ancient form of Oromo music called geerarsa.[1] This art form acts as a way of remembering and interpreting collective history.  Each artist who performs geerarsa embellishes it by adding the experience of the singer’s era. Geerarsa articulates the Oromo dilemma within Ethiopia as a multinational country.  Haacaaluu’s geerarsa frames the challenges that the Oromo face as one of many nations that want the autonomy to manage and develop their own resources. They point to the restrictions the Oromo face and call to dismantle the legacy of oppression that was put in place by those who gained the upper hand through conquest. Throughout the retelling of shared Oromo history in these songs, there are many references made to the subjugation and loss of sovereignty and dignity that the Oromo and other southern Ethiopian peoples experienced. The particularly poignant style of geerarsa that Haacaaluu performed inspired the youth to demand an opportunity to participate in creating an equal and democratic union through a federal arrangement which is written into the constitution, but which has yet to be practiced in Ethiopia since its adoption nearly three decades earlier.

The Oromo protests of 2014-2018 were peaceful, powerful and unstoppable.  Haacaaluu’s music has been repeatedly and rightfully called “the soundtrack of the Qeerroo youth movement”.  This nonviolent movement eventually led to the ousting of the ruling EPRDF government led by the TPLF.  This successful pro-democracy movement was a remarkable feat and should have been championed worldwide as an historic achievement.  It is a travesty that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his supporters turned against the movement, targeted it to be dismantled and attempted to decimate it. A large blow against #OromoProtests took place immediately after Haacaaluu’s killing. Tens of thousands of youth were arrested across Oromia within hours of the news of his assassination.  Leaders and young aspiring candidates for election were rounded up and have been detained for a year. Instead of leading a transition to democracy and inclusive governance following the change of regime that the peaceful movement accomplished, Abiy’s administration completely betrayed the promise and even waged wars in the Oromia and Tigray regions of the country.  The sham election that took place only days before the one-year anniversary of Haacaaluu’s life being snuffed out coupled with a frontal attempt to dismantle the peaceful youth movement was another effort to disenfranchise the Oromo people.  Yet, those who think that this movement is eliminated still do not grasp that his music lives on because it is folded into the oral history of the Oromo people through geerarsa

Historical/Cultural Context

Geerarsa is one of the many genres of songs and chants in the Oromo culture. There are geerarsa for bravery, for grief, for speaking against oppression, for resistance, for speaking truth to power, for hunting, for war, and for honoring heroes – to name the few. Generally, geerarsa is a call-and-response performance where several lead singers take turns chanting verses while an ensemble chants the refrain.  Geerarsa has also been used as a tool for national consciousness raising and for mobilizing people. Addisu Tolessa’s (1999) work argues that geerarsa has been utilized in the Oromo national liberation struggle and he discusses how it constitutes Oromo national literature. Traditionally, geerarsa is performed by men with women chanting the refrain in ensemble. However, women have also claimed geerarsa both historically and contemporarily. Today, Oromo women like Ilfinash Qannoo, Hanisha, Hawi Tazarra and many others have taken up geerarsa.

The Situational Context of Geerarsa – Haacaaluu’s Performance at Millennium Hall, December 9, 2017

Haacaaluu sang a memorable geerarsa as part of a performance at Millennium Hall in the Capital City on December 9, 2017.  At that time, the qeerroo youth movement was having a profound impact and change was in the air.  Everyone in Millennium Hall knew that the government could not continue in the direction it was going.  In the audience were government officials and aspiring leaders of Ethiopia. In a later interview, Haacaaluu revealed that he had come to that event knowing the power of his message and the resistance/revolution that it represented.  He understood that EPRDF government stalwarts, including those to be in attendance, would be highly offended by his gerarsaa, but the youth would be inspired.  He was committed to conveying the message for the people and especially for the youth in the audience.  He was always prepared to face the consequences of exposing unjust conditions.  The performance rocked the house.

Haacaaluu’s chant, in this particular context, combines several genres of geerarsa. He recites and he incites, he grieves, and he inspires. He chants bravery and delivers a strong call to action. He speaks truth to power. Everyone listening in person and to the livestream as well as later recordings knew that there were important government officials in the audience. The message was addressed to them as much as to qeerroo and to the larger audiences. Haacaaluu used geerarsa as a political instrument to speak for the Oromo people.

He starts by calling “asham asham asham asham…” He comes out of the wings onto a stage in front of a fired-up audience. People are full of energy; they are brimming with passion. There is so much anticipation in the air, so much excitement. Something significant is about to happen, about to be said and Haacaaluu is calling attention to it. There is a call to action.

“Asham, asham, asham” signifies both greeting and encouragement. By chanting this, Haacaaluu seems to be gathering his courage and challenging the audience to gather theirs. He continues, asking the audience: Jirtuu? Jirtuu? Ijoolleen Booranaa jirtuu? Ijoolleen Wallaggaa jirtuu? Ijoolleen Arsii jirtuu? Ijoolleem Tuulamaa jirtuu? Ijoolleen Macaa jirtuu? Eessa jirtu? He calls on all the major Oromo collectives and asks where they are.  But he isn’t just taking a roll call; he is alluding to the range of participants and advocates, casting the net wide.  He is calling out to everyone in a show of inclusivity and recognizing their crucial contribution. He is reaching out to everyone as if to say, his is something we do together, not leaving out anyone. It will require youth from Booranaa, Wallaggaa, Gojjam, etc. His call is electrifying, and the audience erupts into response, joining in the call-and-response genre of geerarsa.

The question itself is highly politically charged. Jirtuu? Eessa jirtuu? Are you there? Do you even exist?  Where are you? And the response is, “We are at Boolee!” There is a sense of reclaiming the land they are standing on, the land of their ancestors, the place, even claiming the Millennium Hall, reclaiming Finfinnee. This entrance, this situational context, is vital to understanding the power and the impact of the message: We have arrived to claim our space!

Haacaaluu’s Geerarsa – Transcription and Translation

Geerar geerar naan jettu

You challenge me to sing geerarsa, songs of the brave

Mee ka’ee itti haleeluuree

Shall I go ahead?

Badi badi naan jettu

You dare me escape and disappear

Mee ka’ee qajeeluuree

Should I give in and go away?

Ani maalan geerraraa

What shall I sing about?

Anoo yaadan yeelalaa

I have so much to lament

Dhiirri geerraree hin quufne

The brave youth are the ones who should be singing

Hidhaa qaallitti jira

But they reside in Qaallitti prison

Dhiirri geeraree hin quufne

The brave youth who could sing of glory

Hidhaa  qilinxoo jira

Are confined to the dungeons of Qilinxoo prison

Dhiirri geeraree hin quufne

The brave youth who should be singing in the place I stand

Hidhaa  karchallee jira

Are detained in Karchallee jail

Karchallee  Amboo jira

They are in lockdown in Ambo’s prison cells.

Ani maalan geerara

So what shall I sing about, then?

Anoo yaadan yeelalaa

Let me release the lament in my heart. 

Yaa ijoollee banneerrakaa

Oh, my brothers, beware!

Gurra abbaa ganneerrakaa

We have abandoned our forefathers’ legacy. We have left it behind.

Oromoon maalum godheree

What did the Oromo do wrong?

Maalum gochuu dideree

Did we not do everything that was asked of us?

Yaalle hamma dandeenyu

We tried to our utmost.

Kana caala maal goonuuf

What remains to be done? What more can we do?

Xinnaas gabbarree guddaa

We have bowed and submitted to the great and the small

Akka wajjin bubbulluuf

Just for the sake of co-existence

Obsuun waanuma jiru

Patience is not new to us

Obsine hamma obsaa

But we have tested the limit of our tolerance

Erga sodaa fakkaate

Since our patience is being mistaken for fear!

Ka’een ishitti cabsa

Let me deal with this. Let us demonstrate our fearlessness!

Nan dhowwinaa nan dhaqa

Don’t restrain me! Don’t hold me back as I go to

Iddoo yartuun nu nyaarte

Those who have dared to ridicule and poke fun at us.

Hamma isheen geessun laala

Let’s size them up. Let’s show them what we are made of

Akka lamuu nu nyaarretti

So they will not mock us again.

Biyyeetti ishii dabala

Let’s overcome them once and for all.

Yaa ijoollee biyya kooti

My countrymen/brothers

Hundumtuu haadhoo kooti

You are all as dear as my closest family

Sa’aa keenya ishee burre

The prize milking cows from our livestock

Ishee ribbiif kennine

That we allowed them to borrow for milking and calving,

Gaadi’aniit elmatu

They strapped and milked

Elmatan bara meeqa

They ruthlessly milked them dry.

Nuuf galchuu didan male

We saw none of the milk and yet they refuse to return our cows to us!

Yoom beekne dubbii keessaa

They hid their real intention

Akka ramacii ibiddaa

Like live embers that hide under ashes

Irra keessa dibanii

Lurking behind a deceptive surface

Nu gubuuf akka yaadan

Masking their intention to destroy us

Rabbumaaf turre malee

Only by God’s grace have we survived!

Rabbumaaf jirra malee

Only by God’s grace are we still here!

Harargeen mancaa qarraan

Harargee sharpened its mancaa (hoe which can serve as a weapon)

Tuulamni farda leenjise

Tuulama trained his horses

Roorroon daangaa dabarraan

When they crossed the line, our grievances spilled over!

Qeerroon falma murteesse

Qeerroo rose in unwavering resolve. Enough!

Addaggeen safuu hin beektu

The shameless scoundrels do not respect any limit, nothing is sacred to them.

Yaa qeerroo

Oh, qeerroo!

Addarra dhaaban malee

Resolutely and ruthlessly stand your ground! Vulgar people know no shame unless you stamp it on their forehead when they come for you.

Falmadhu qeerroo si’ii

Qeerroo, do not be moved! Defend yourself to the end because you are…

Abdiin sabaa yoomillee

…the hope of the nation.

Nu beekuuf bar shororkaa’u

They know us. And they fear us – because they know our potential

Kanaaf garaa jabaatu

That’s why they are merciless

Irreef humna qabaniin

With all their might and power

Ijibbaata falmatu

They fight desperately, with all they have, holding back nothing.

Nuun miti farda keenya

Not just our bravery, but the reputation of our horses

Hin beeku bareechanii

They dread because they intimately know our power

Gaafa gaarreen Aduwaa

What gallantry we displayed and what obstacles we overcame in the mountains of Adwa [implied: They don’t want this collective power turned against them].

Gaafa Maqalee sanii

They remember our triumph at Maqalee

Nansobee? 

Did I lie?

Nansobee, ijoollee Oromoo? 

Did I lie, you children of Oromo out there?

Here Haacaaluu brings the message home.  He is not just providing a history lesson.  He is making a connection with the very day and hour of their event, saying in effect, “Here we are in the present moment! Now is the time!”  He begins to rally the momentum to elicit a thunderous response from the audience by connecting history with the present, saying, Am I not telling it like it is?  (Nansobee?) Am I lying?  Have I deceived anybody here?  Hey, you Oromos out there, am I speaking the truth? (Nansobee? Nan sobee ijoollee Oromoo?)And the audience erupts into rousing response.

And here the climax: By reciting history and aligning what is happening to the Oromo in the current day with the patterns of the past, the artist applies the power of geerarsa by inspiring the audience to affirm the comparisons. The section below appears to be addressed especially to the government officials in the audience.  He dares the young people to take the challenge all the way to Arat Kilo the seat of political power, claiming that Oromo rightfully stand on their own ground. This is the call to action, the call to end the patient waiting and commit to energetic defense.

Gameessa koo yaa abbaa daamaa

My wise one, owner of a strong horse, Daamaa

Oromoo koo yaa abbaa daamaa

Oh Oromo, riding Daama

Yaa abbaa daalee yaa abbaa shaanqoo

Oh, you mounted on Daalee and Shaanqoo  

Soori farada kee qopheessi

Feed your horses, get ready

Eeboo kee qarii soroorsi

Sharpen your spear and stand ready

Gaachana fannoorraa buusii

Take your shield from the wall

Roorroo didee sirra marse 

The agony of injustice has rained down on you

Maaliif duuta mana teessee?

Why should you die in your own home?

Alaa eegaa…

Are you waiting for liberators from abroad?

Alaa eegaa hin abjootin

Don’t dream of a savior from elsewhere

Abjuu hin taane 

That is a futile dream

Kaafaddhu farada keen loli

Rise up and fight on horseback

Araat Kiilootti situ aanee

Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours

Kaafadhu bullookeen loli

Rise up and fight on your horseback (on Bulloo)

Araat Kiilotti situ aanee

Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours

Kaafadhu eebookeen loli

Rise up to defend with your spear

Araat Kiilotti situ aanee

Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours

Kaafadhu mancaakeen loli 

Raise up fight with mancaa tool to break the ground

Araat Kiilotti situ aanee

Arat Kilo (seat of power) is rightfully yours

 This geerarsa is about preparation for what lies ahead: feed your strong horses, sharpen your mancaa, take out your shield, stand unmovable on Araat Kilo itself in the heart of Finfinnee, let alone the other sites under contention. Don’t wait for salvation from outside, don’t dream, don’t get lost in unachievable visions, get up and do what you can and fight with what you have and assert your rights even over the seat of government! This is a declaration of readiness.  This call must be seen in light of the history recounted of abuse and overreach by the adversary.  Otherwise, the whole picture and the power of the moment and the message does not come through.  Without making these connections, it is not possible to understand what brought the house down in Millennium Hall with enthusiasm. It is the mix of historical and current events that moved the audience to a booming endorsement.

Conclusion

Haacaalu sang this geerarsa at a critical moment in Ethiopian history. We are now living in what appears to be the wake of what was a truly revolutionary movement. However, the change which was to bring about the liberation the people longed for has yet to arrive. The very fact that Haacaaluu was chanting such geerrarsa for such a huge audience in a lofty hall, reflects the spirit of liberation that fired up both those in the audience and those watching it from around the world. Now his voice has been silenced and his courageous performances ended.

As advocates for the rights, the democracy, the self-determination and the well-being that the youth sacrificed for, we think that it is important to understand the power of Haacaaluu’s message.  Art plays an important role in interpreting events. Its call for reflection is pivotal. The songs he developed were inclusive as they shared elements of the collective Oromo experience. His work represented a comprehensive narrative that informed listeners about the connections they had with one another across time and space as it related to their experience as a marginalized people in Ethiopia.

Geerarsa is clearly an effective way to reach and to empower the masses. Oromo songs, particularly geerarsa, have been at the heart of Oromo life for centuries. They are an important art form that continue to interpret personal and collective experiences. Through the qeerroo, these songs were placed at the center of Oromo experience in the current era, making them urgently relevant. They have become central in the struggle to keep and develop Oromummaa, their way of life. Haacaaluu was a master at this art form and his stirring and powerful performances will forever be seared into the minds and hearts of the Oromo who loved him and his music. We honor his memory while acknowledging that the Oromo culture and wisdom that produced him cannot be extinguished with his death. Haacaaluu Hundeessaa will live on through his art.

 We would like to thank Dr. Martha Kuwee Kumsaa for her contribution to this piece.

Reference

Tolesa, Addisu. (1999). Geerarsa folksong as the Oromo national literature: A study of ethnography, folklore and folklife in the context of the Ethiopian colonization of Oromia. Edwin Mellen Press.

[1] An alternative spelling for geerarsa is geerrarsa

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