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Born on September 29, 1947 Ali Mohamad Musa officially known as Ali Birra, which translates to “Ali the Spring”, got his nick name after his first on stage song called “Birra dha Bari’e”. Ali is known to perform in multiple languages and he is getting ready to celebrate his 50-year love affair with music. The artist who is referred to as the ‘Father of contemporary Oromiffa music’ has collected over 50 awards for more than 260 songs he has produced to date.
Capital’s Groum Abate sat down with Ali and talked about his 50 year long career, his philanthropic works, and his health troubles that led him to quit professional music for ever. Ali now resides in Toronto Canada; Excerpts
Capital: You recently celebrated your 50th Anniversary in your musical career in the U.S, as well as in Canada, how do you see your past 50 years’ experience?
Ali Birra: When I look back at the years I spent on music I am very happy and satisfied with my achievement. When we started celebrating this achievement, our plan was to start the celebration here in Ethiopia, but the organizing committee established here needed more time; so we were not able to start it here. The committee in the U.S had already finished its preparations, so on July 4th this year we celebrated it with a concert. It was the same thing in Canada as well. In general, the celebratory events were really wonderful.
Now I am here and we are preparing to launch the celebration in Ethiopia and we are working really hard to make it a wonderful experience and we are very excited about it.
Capital: How do you plan to celebrate it here? How long will it take and what will the celebration consists of?
Ali: It all differs. For example, when it was celebrated in the U.S, it was only held in one city, similarly in Canada as well. But here, the program is bigger. Our plan is to do it in three cities: Addis Ababa, Adama and Dire Dawa. There are plans to do it in more cities but that is something we are just thinking about for now.
The event here, for sure, is going to be bigger than the previous events in the other countries. The celebration will include a photograph exhibition of my 50 years involvement in music. It will also include the display of my music videos, the different awards that I have received over the years, different books written regarding my work will also be presented and of course there will be a stage performance that will be done alongside different Ethiopian artists who have already set their commitment to support the event.
Capital: So you will also be performing with the other artists?
Ali: Yes, I will be performing as well along with young and upcoming Ethiopian artists and renowned artists who used to work with me.
Capital: It has been a while since you have released an album, why is that?
Ali: There are many problems; one is that singing in Oromiffa does not attract a lot of sponsors. We, most of the time, try to do it using our own financial sources but even distributors do not put in a lot of effort to promote the music, so it is very difficult. For a long time, I produced music using my own money. I released my last album in 2010 and that album too I produced and distributed with my own money. Distributors just take maybe 10 or 20 copies and sell that; and those who buy it will then simply duplicate the album and sell it on the streets and make their own profit.
Capital: I heard that you will put together a number of your songs and release a new album soon.
Ali: Yes, that project is still in progress. There are a lot of songs that we have not released on the market during all those years. The technology for producing music has changed and grown so much and we want to be able to redo some of the songs. We are thinking about working on 10 songs; 2 from each decade that I performed. The aim is to release the album during the celebratory events.
Capital: When will the events begin?
Ali: Well, we are planning to start the celebration along with the Nations and Nationalities Day that is to be celebrated soon. The plan is to start the 50th anniversary celebration a week after the Nations and Nationalities Day is celebrated.
Capital: Do you have plans to work on new songs?
Ali: Like I said, there are a lot of songs that I have not released to the market. When I count, there have only been seven albums released locally and seven abroad to date. But there are so many songs that I have written and I have over 264 songs I made. So those are the songs we want to incorporate in the upcoming album.
But concerning brand new songs, my plan now is retirement; I have to make way for other young artists, so I do not think about working on new songs again.
Capital: What do you think about those who copy your music’s without your permission?
Ali: I didn’t really have that much of a problem with it back then. But now when I look at things, I understood that it causes a lot of damage. I have no problem with those who sing my songs on stage. But when it is actually produced as an album for a marketing purpose, without even consulting with the artist, that is very wrong. They never ask my permission, they just go ahead and do an album and even a music video.
Capital: What is your view of the Ethiopian music industry?
Ali: I think it is better than in the old days. In the old days it was difficult, it was sort of about whom you knew in the business and the opportunities were slim. Now it is slightly better, at least now there is a copyright law, so we can say there is a slightly positive change and hopefully it will get better in the future.
Capital: How do you feel about the past 50 years you spent in the music industry?
Ali: I have enjoyed my profession and my career immensely. Sure it is not all happiness, there have been a lot of ups and downs but I thank God for giving me all the years.
Capital: You are involved in charity work, tell us about that.
Ali: Currently my wife and I have established an NGO called Birra Children’s Education Fund that works with vulnerable children. The NGO works around Dire Dawa. We did a pilot project and then we launched it last year. After the celebration, I will be giving all my focus to this project.
Capital: Have you always been a full time musician or did you participate in other ventures?
Ali: Well there were some things I started such as a night club and a restaurant in Canada, but that was too hard so I just left and went into the music fully. I toured a lot of countries throughout my career and now my plan is to put a stop to that and focus on my charity work.
Capital: You have never held a concert for the general public in Ethiopia why is that?
Ali: It all goes back to the sponsorship issue, there is nobody willing to sponsor a show and I cannot do it on my own that is the only reason.
Capital: Don’t you plan to conduct a concert anytime soon?
Ali: What I want to do after the celebration is to just retire. I will not be doing music as a profession, maybe I will become a consultant for other artists. So I don’t have a plan to perform in a concert. I will not be a professional musician, there may be chances to perform as part of some event where I may perform, but as a profession, I am finished with that. I just want to focus on my NGO. For those who want to see me live, maybe they will…once In a while.
Capital: Do you participate in any kind of investment in Ethiopia?
Ali: I did not invest in anything. I just built a small house to live in but other than that there are no other investments.
Capital: There was a time when rumors circulated that you were dead, what do you think about that?
Ali: Yeah, some people just like spreading rumors. Some said I have died, some say I was severely sick and in a comma…etc. Sure, I had cancer but I survived. I had to have surgery to remove a tumor from my brain. I also had lower back surgery because I was having problems with my legs. But now I think I can run as good as Haile and Kenenisa! That is how good I feel.