Saturday, August 25, 2012

From Here to Ethiopia

The cabbie and I exchanged a few words, the usual stuff about weather and traffic. As we continued across town, we each drifted back into our own worlds. A few blocks later, he started singing softly to himself. While I wasn't really listening, I unconsciously started humming as well. He looked in the mirror and said, "Did you know you were singing in the same key as I was?" I laughed, and told him about one of my many theories of the world: that unless you were singing a specific song, you latched onto whatever melody you heard, and sung it until you heard another one. Trying to prove my point, I asked him what he was singing. "It's an Ethiopian pop song," he replied. Well, so much for my theory; there wasn't much chance I would be riffing on it later in the day. But all was not lost: it was how I met Abdi Nuressa.

Abdi was born in a small village in Ethiopia, but moved with his family to the capital city of Addis Ababa when he was a just a baby. He grew up there, going to school and playing lots of soccer with his friends. In 1997 as a teenager, he came to the US to go to college, moving in with extended family in Manassas, Virginia. While he was always singing as a hobby, his aim was not music; rather he was planning on studying business. And so he enrolled at a local college and began to take classes. But as the opportunity arose, he started to sing more and more, performing at weddings and with friends, and pretty soon music started to take center stage.

While he placed great stock in education, he decided he had to at least try and pursue his music. How did it sit with his parents? "Well, my parents were in Ethiopia, which made it easier!" he laughed. That said, he knew the path would be a difficult one: "There is no easy thing in America, especially if you're going to be successful." He started by networking with other musicians, Ethiopian and otherwise, while driving a cab to make ends meet. And he kept singing, catering to an appreciative audience.

That audience is predominantly the growing Ethiopian community in this country, which numbers close to half a million. Washington DC has the largest concentration of immigrants and their descendants, so much so that there is a section of the city called "Little Ethiopia," and an "Ethiopian Yellow Pages" that runs to 1000 pages. And like any immigrant group, many of them seek out not only the food and culture of their native land, but the music that they grew up on, and that is now playing in the clubs and on the radios at home.

Abdi's music sits squarely at that intersection. Additionally, he made the decision to do his singing in Oromiffa, which is the native tongue of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo. While he is Oromo, in Ethiopia that language is just one of a number of native dialects, while schools teach Amharic and English. But said Abdi, "When I started to sing in Oromiffa, I found my roots."

It took him more than three years of driving a cab, saving, performing and recording to make his first CD. Called "Irree Aadaa" (The Power of Culture), it contains any number of traditional songs, but also contemporary tunes, some written by others, some by him. "They are traditional sounds with modernized instruments," he says. It has even produced two music videos, "Aayyaana Laalattuu" (Gold Digger) and "Wal-argaan Hinoolu" (I Don't Know When I'll See You Soon), both of which can be found on YouTube.

Abdi is currently at work on his next CD, recording ideas in his cab on his phone between fares, and honing his craft at a weekly gig at a restaurant in town. He continues to sing at weddings and community events, pulling together a band as needed: "I'm always working," he laughed. As to what he wants people to take away from his singing he says, "I want people to get happiness from my music. Music for me was like a hidden place. I want people to go to that place. And I want them to have a learning experience, especially non-Ethiopians, to learn about the Oromo culture and language."

And all this because we were humming in the same key.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves music and talking to musicians. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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