"Iyasee" - a traditional Oromo song, sung by Nuredin Abas

“Iyasee,” an old geerarsa song (a genre of Oromo music related to working and hunting, and more lately used for political purposes; may also be spelled gerarsa or girarsa), has been passed down through the parents. Now, its original author has been forgotten, and it is considered collectively as a song of the Oromo people. “Iyasee” was originally sung for working: hunting, farming coffee and maize, and building houses. Nuredin Abas, the singer on this particular recording said that some Oromo still sing this song while working together, even in urban areas when they are building houses.

The lyrics of "Iyasee" reference the banning of the Oromo language and oppression of Oromo culture that occurred during the Imperial Era, which would place the composition of this particular song in the 1940s or later. During this time, Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled until 1974, promoted national unity through cultural homogeneity: specifically, the Amhara culture. The only way the Oromo and other ethnic groups could hope to advance in education and better their lives was to assimilate into Amhara. The line that asks, “Why am I mixing my old clothes with Jiirbi?” (jiirbi is an expensive fabric) alludes to this assimilation and those who left Oromo culture to improve their livelihood and standing in society.

The latter part of the song (“I missed you, my sweet…”) is a typical characteristic of geerarsa: it has a dual meaning. On the surface, it appears to be addressing a woman, but it is actually addressing the Oromo people. The last line, for example, appears to be encouraging the woman to come close to him, but the less overt meaning is that it is telling the Oromo to stand up for themselves, not to stand by and do nothing.

Translation (from afaan Oromo)
Let me start my singing this song (2x)
A geerarsa of my inside pain
Harassment is a headache
Non-stop harassment
Which is affecting me to the bottom of my heart
I am screaming loud like a lion of the jungle
I can’t tell, I have nothing to tell
I can’t tell, I have nothing to tell [I don’t want to say anything]*
I can’t finish if I start [because there are so many things to say]
That time, that one time
My pain has no end
My flesh is not dead [this pain is not killing my body but is killing me on the inside]
For my clothes are worn out, why am I mixing them with Jiirbi?
For my clothes are worn out, why am I mixing them with Jiirbi?**
For my soul is to die anyway, why am I scared [of my enemies]?
Why would I make my citizens to lose their good name?
Iyasee
I missed you, my sweet
So it is, Iyasee
Iyasee lulee…iyaa***
I miss you
I missed you all the night
Like the desert snake
Screaming like a hyena
When I miss you
I will start singing
I will not stop eating or drinking [for I must sustain myself]
My heart is crying tears
Eat the leaf of geshe****
What did you hear? Why didn’t you miss me?
Come close and sing, don’t stand far

* The bracketed portions in this translaion are not actually in the original afaan Oromo but have been added here to help clarify meaning
** Jiirbi is a kind of material used for expensive clothes
*** “Lulee” is is a term of endearment
**** Geshe is a type of tree which is used to make alcohol

Credits and Bibliography

Research Associates

Emanuel Ayalew (translation and coordinating interviews)
Nuredin Abas (singer)

Bibliography

Mollenhauer, Shawn Michael. 2011. “Millions on the Margins: Music, Ethnicity, and Censorship among the Oromo of Ethiopia.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California Riverside.