Ali Birra was born in Dire Dawa (Ganda Kore) in September 29, 1947. His parents were separated when he was three years old, and subsequently raised by his father. He attended Arabic school as a child, where he learned the Arabic language and some other language like Oromo and Amharic. In meanwhile he enrolled in local academic school and pursued his education till sixth grade.
In his early years, Ali would do small street-peddling in order to live without begging people for money to support his livelihood. When he was 13, he joined Afran Qallo a cultural group which he was operating unofficially function to promote the Oromo music and culture. The first song that he sang on stage for first time called “Birra dha Bari’e”. After he sang the song, “Birra dha Bari’e”, people gave him a nickname called “Ali Birra”. Which “Ali” is his first name and “Birra: is the initial song name, when it comes together, it means, “Ali the Spring”. The government banned the Afran Qallo group in 1965 and arrested some of its members. Ali escaped arresting and moved to Addis Ababa.
Lifestyle in Addis Ababa
After settling in Addis Ababa, he engaged in different activities along with singing. On this occasion, Ali came to know the nationalist Ahmad Taqi, and the latter bought him a guitar so that Ali could sing more widely. His fame increased dramatically throughout the city. He had ability to sing in Amharic, Arabic, Harari, and Somali languages, in addition to Oromo, his mother tongue. He gained appreciation from different contemporary personalities including Eyoel Yohannes, at the time the head of Kibur Zebegna, who then recruited him as a solo singer in Oromo. He joined other famous singers such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse and Bizunesh Bekele.
He traveled with the group throughout the regions of the country, and even beyond to Sudan to sing with well-known celebrities like Mohammed Wardi. When he was in Addis Ababa, he would perform in large venues such as Hager Fiker and Ras Teyater, but following a discussion with his father, he left Addis Ababa. In the early 1970s, at the break of the Ethiopian revolution, Ahmad Taqi was killed in eastern Ethiopia while fighting the government army. Ali Birra mourned deeply and sang metaphorically,
Yaa Hundee Bareeda
Yaa Finxee Midhaga
(Hundee was another name for Ahmad Taqi.)
Ali Birra continued his career both as a musician and a composer. He produced his first album in 1971, the first in the history of Oromo music. He then recorded successful hits such as “Hin Yaadin”, “Asabalee”, “Ammalelee”, and “Gamachu”. His albums included Sudanese songs such as “Al-Habib Ween” and Harari songs such as “Yidenqal”.
A Swedish admirer of Ali Birra, who had been a vice-secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Addis Ababa, asked him for marriage. Ali agreed and married her in 1985, her name was Birgitta Åström born in Stockholm, Sweden (21 July 1942 – 13 September 2009). In 1986, Ali’s wife was transferred to Saudi Arabia, and Ali accompanied her to the country. But Ali faced difficulties in Saudi Arabia, and proceeded to Sweden, where he lived for two years. In 1988, he went to the United States to attend the Los Angeles Arts Academy. He graduated in 1990, and by 1992, he had released his first two albums outside of Ethiopia amid increasing international fame. He also conducted many concerts and festivals in many countries, including the 2005 Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year) celebration at the Addis Sheraton.
As of August 2009, Ali Birra reported that he had recently been treated for colon cancer, but planned to continue performing music, in spite of reports that his most recent album would be his last.
- “Ethiopia: Ali Birra not quitting music”. Jimma Times. Jimma. August 12, 2009. Archived from the original on 18 February 2012. Retrieved October 20, 2009.