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Haacaaluu Hundeessaa: A towering musician and an Oromo icon
Haacaaluu inspired a whole generation of Oromos to fight for their rights.
His tragic death is an incalculable loss.
Awol K Allo  by Awol K Allo
July 7-2020
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There are not many artists in East Africa who get to witness their own stellar achievement in their
lifetime. Haacaaluu Hundeessa, the undisputed king of contemporary Oromo music of resistance
(also known as Geerarsa), did. Such was the explosive impact of Haacaaluu's songs that many
within his Oromo community saw him as indispensable to their struggle for political emancipation.

Haacaaluu inspired the Qubee generation (ethnic Oromos born after Ethiopia was restructured
along ethno-linguistic lines in 1991 and educated in their mother tongue) and his music served as a
rallying anthem during the 2015-2018 Oromo protests and beyond. His intensely political lyrics both
refined and clarified the enduring nature of state-sponsored Oromo marginalisation.

When Haacaaluu was assassinated by unidentified assailants on June 29 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
lost not just a strikingly talented musician, but also a political and cultural icon. His assassination
sent shockwaves across the country, particularly in Oromia, the Oromo-majority region of Ethiopia,
and triggered major protests in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

At least 160 people have been killed in the ensuing clashes and more than 1,000 arrested,
including leading figures of the Oromo opposition parties, such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba,
Shigut Geleta, and others.

Amid the violence, millions of Ethiopians are mourning the death of a towering artistic figure who
inspired a peaceful political struggle against repression and paved the way for major political
change.

From humble beginnings to international fame
Born in 1986 in Ambo, a storied city in the Oromia state about 100km west of Addis Ababa,
Haacaaluu was the fifth son of Hundeessa Bonsa, an electricity department employee, and Gudatu
Hora, a stay-at-home mum. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Haacaaluu showed little
interest in academic studies.

In June 2015, he released his mesmerising single track, Maalan Jira (What existence is mine), in
which he condenses the history and story of the Oromo people with an astonishing depth. The song
was a kind of an ethnographic foray into the precarious existence of the Oromo within the Ethiopian
state where the conditions for cultural intelligibility - of visibility and audibility - were determined
according to templates hostile to the Oromo. Referring to experiences of dispossession and
landgrabs that led to the eviction of more than 150,000 Oromo farmers from around Addis Ababa,
he sang:

Diiganii gaara sanaa gaara diigamuu hin mallee

Nu baasaan addaan baanee

Nu addaan bahu hin mallee

[They demolished that landscape that was never meant to be demolished

They separated us, we are separated
admin@hebrezema.info
An Oromo icon
Haacaaluu became the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Oromos. He was not
just a great musician who could unwaveringly maintain near-perfect pitch even in the highest
register, he was also a rhetorical genius of incalculable imaginative and creative power.

He used his artistic tools to engage in the most profound and edifying reflections on issues of
identity, dispossession, precarity, marginalisation and love. Without exception, his songs
encapsulate some of the most complex, subtle and painful narrations about the reality of the Oromo
experience within the Ethiopian state: the political repression, the cultural subordination, and the
economic deprivation the Oromo have been suffering for decades.

Haacaaluu did not just speak truth to power, he sang truth to power. And the people sang with him.
He made many people, especially those in power, awfully uncomfortable. And so he made many
enemies. In his last interview, he spoke about how he lived with constant death threats. He gave
details of how he narrowly escaped the wrath of the security forces after the December 2017
performance.

He also expressed his disappointment at the direction the country has taken and the inability of the
government to answer even the most basic of Oromo demands. He said he was working on several
songs about the current situation in the country. Like many Oromos, Haacaaluu had initially
supported Abiy's government and his promise of change.

Haacaaluu's musical genius helped bring Abiy to power, but his administration's mishandling of the
funeral may now serve as a catalyst for his undoing. Haacaaluu deserved a heroic send-off but the
government's decision to rush his funeral and bury him in Ambo was an affront to his remarkable
legacy and a sign of contempt for the Oromo people.

The arrest of prominent Oromo leaders with considerable followings added more fuel to the fire.
Amid simmering anger, the country finds itself in a dangerous situation which could bring about
more violence and instability.

As Ethiopia's leadership struggles to contain the crisis, the people continue to mourn. Haacaaluu's
death is an incalculable loss to the Oromo community. He is truly irreplaceable - in the most
powerful sense of that word. He was someone who sensed the political wind and had the unique
ability to give poetic expression to the distinct experiences of the Oromo with terminal clarity. His
songs enchanted the Oromo audience, provided aesthetic and emotional transcendence, and
summoned their common deliberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect
hebrezema editorial stance.