BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD OF OromoTV.com
Often time’s singers can be dismissed as irrelevant beings willing to do anything to push for their own self-promotion, but every so often we get individuals who can rise above the cringe worthy and touch on something deeper and meaningful. Perhaps the likes of Saliha Sami are rare in this day and age where anyone with access to a microphone and computer can become an overnight sensation thanks to YouTube. Unlike many singers she has the talent and embody an unparalleled rise to fame at such a young age where YouTube was not available and rise to fame was dictated by talent rather than view counts. From the start she pushed the envelope for the greater good of Oromia while showing the diversity of our culture. What makes her unique is not her singing talent but her unmatched ability to fuse the regional diversity and present the Oromo culture in such a way that young diaspora youth can identify with their roots. Through her songs and appearances in dramas coupled with her innate drive to be the voice for Oromo women from all walks of life, she has become an icon we can all appreciate irrelevant of our personal feelings about music. Her religious background and the mere fact she is a woman willing to tackle taboo topics through her music makes her an easy target for criticism. Yet she refuses to let the critics get the last word. She continues to strive to reach her ultimate goal of empowering women to dream and achieve the impossible. While simultaneously instilling in the diaspora youth a sense of pride in the Oromo culture.
Only so many try but a few could reach with their uncanny ability to make a home for themselves in our hearts and continue to stay there for a very long time. The melody, lyrics, tones, in fact all or a combination of these can lead to one great song or many. If there were no singers, how would we understand the lyrics, the melody, and the entire amalgamation of what makes Oromia diverse and worthy of preservation? It’s thanks to singers like Saliha Sami through her unique and distinct forms of songs that subconsciously help us deal with not only the daily aspects of life’s struggle but also preserve the authentic history of Oromia.
Before we continue we would like to correct some misinformation regarding the beginning of her career as an artist.
It is widely believed that Saliha’s talent and eventual career as a renowned artist came after her separation with the father of her children, who is also a renowned and well respected artist, Kamar Yusuf. However, this is not true and it is simply a rumor that continues to circulate among the Oromo population. To dispel this myth one does not have to look very far, those who know Saliha understand that her singing ability was inherently developed at a very young age when she use to watch her mother perform in a variety of events in the city of Miesso, Hararghe Oromia. In addition her family’s rich and copious background as singers led to her eventual career as an artist. Born to Mr. Shenkife Sami an Oromo cultural artist and Fatuma Abdella Said a former artist who performed locally, Saliha inherited their unique artistic talent. When asked who influenced her to start singing Saliha impetuously points to her mom. She went on to describe, “as a child I use to watch my mom perform with a local traditional dancing group and slowly I began singing and performing exactly what I saw my mom’s dancing group do and I would imitate the same moves and singing styles to family and neighbors. To be honest anyone willing to listen I would sing and re-enact what I witnessed.” This helped develop her confidence as a child and subsequently career as an artist. In addition to her parents few of her close family members are singers. Therefore, when individuals wrongly credit the beginning of her career to her former husband and the father of her two children not only are they wrong they are completely ignorant of her family’s background as singers and performers. As a result she wants people to understand her family’s remarkable influence on her career and dispel the misinformation that continues to spread to this day. While she respects and admires Kemer Yusuf’s fascinating career as a singer, and most importantly the father of her children, she wants to put the rumors to rest!
Many musicians in the past have found inspiration through passion about an issue that is near and dear to them. Perhaps, music is one of the most important everyday aspects of life for many of us. In fact, Saliha Sami delivers an ever growing and diverse forms of Music that Oromo’s of all walks of life can identify with. It is a well-known fact that the melodies and harmonies of music have the ability to convey all sorts of emotion. Whether it is joy, happiness, sadness or despair music through rhythms, harmonies and lyrics can impact one’s life in a variety of ways. Ms. Sami does an excellent job invoking a variety of feelings through her diverse forms of music. But her talent does not end there. She has been thoroughly involved in the organization and engagement of the Oromo youth in a variety of cultural based activities.
Immediately after she came to Toronto she had dedicated her time to work hard in organizing and building a network of Oromo youth throughout Toronto; coming up with an idea to do some drama or Oromo cultural dances for the upcoming community meetings. Despite her young age she was whatever any community members would have dreamed up about; someone with untapped talent, smart, steady, excited about making new friends and eager to learn. To further understand her community engagement we reached out to Garbii Nure an Oromo community activist and veteran of Oromo cause who resides in Toronto. Mr. Garbii Nure anchors the Oromiyaa TV broadcast from Toronto who knows Saliha from the day she arrived in Toronto mid 1994. He testifies the love she has for her people; more importantly, her ambitious drive and upbeat character is unmatched. He recalls how she immediately had a positive impact on the Oromo community of Toronto “…by energizing the youth to participate in cultural activities whether doing drama or learning different kinds of Oromo cultural dances.” He went on to state, “as a young teenager she did an incredible job to help young members of the community become self-aware of the need to learn their mother tongue, as well as our rich and diverse culture.” She was the glue the community needed to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations.
Despite her young age she understood the dire need to instill pride in the young diaspora community, which would ultimately payoff in the future. Garbii was incredibly passionate and expressed his pride in having Saliha as an active member of the community because, “…the community was not sure on how to guide our children and help them embrace their culture and language prior to Saliha’s arrival. She quickly instilled pride (Oromumma) which is something our community longed for and dreamed about, but did not have answers to.” She became not only the glue but an invaluable member of the community which continues to this day according to Garbii. Simply put Saliha’s involvement in the diaspora community comes as no surprise because of her culturally rich and diverse upbringing.
Saliha’s diverse music can be attributed to her all inclusive upbringing. Her father is from Hararghe region of Oromia and her mother from Wallo-Kamise. Her father fled home due to political persecution roughly a month after she was born. Saliha Sami had not seen her father until they reunited in Canada at the age of 16. Furthermore, she was brought up as a child in a mixed religion environment; her mother’s family practices Islam, Waaqeffannaa and Christianity while her father’s side is Muslim. She was born in Asabot, West Hararghe and grew up between Miesso, Dilla and Wallo. Although, her mother and father are both then and now practicing Muslims, her diverse upbringing has contributed to her career as a musician. This hybrid mixture of region and religion has made her unique. In part thanks to this incredible diversity her music too embodies the heterogeneity within regions of Oromia. However, what many misunderstand and often wrongly identify her as simply a Hararghe woman. But in reality she is not simply from Hararghe or Wallo, she is a mixture of these two regions of Oromia. Both of which are not only significant to her but combined with her diverse religious upbringing make her inherently unique. Like her background her music too remains unparalleled.
Historians sometimes consider songs as more or less straightforward “reflections” of the society and culture in which the songs were produced. Take for example, on her first CD the song known as “Kaaru Wallo” she tackled the historic facts of Wallo Oromo’s. Through her music she brought to light the untold atrocity of Wallo Oromo’s identity loss exacerbated by the tragic invasion of Minellik and his forceful assimilation of Wallo Oromo’s into Ahmara culture. On one level, the dramatization of her music makes sense because it serves as both an entertainment and educational tool for the larger Oromo nation. Based on factual information it educates the younger generation about the untold suffering of Oromo’s under various regimes. It also triggers curiosity among the youth about the past which leads to a fruitful discussion among themselves and others so that the Oromo cause will never be forgotten. Overall, her songs especially this particular track serves to unify groups of people and to move them to common action or help them express common emotions. She used her songs as a source of understanding, revealing, and teaching history. Whether it is joy, happiness, sadness, despair or even as monumental historic facts, her music has shown through rhythms, harmonies and lyrics that it can impact one’s life in a variety of ways.
We asked her what made her want to sing the “Kaaru Wallo” song. She mentioned her mother’s family that partly some of them consider themselves as Oromo the others simply describe their identity as Walloye. “This historically destructive part of Wallo did not come easily but it is sad to say the impact identity damage caused to my mother’s family, perhaps hard to explain in words.” She chuckled knowing the gravity of the situation but was unable to reverse the historic scars already in a perpetual state of disrepair when she said, “I let it out in my music so that people can understand how our history was and continues to be severely damaged by oppressive regimes.”
Saliha’s second CD debuted in 2007 and has become the most widely listened to Oromo song of recent times. At the release of her second album she had already caught the eyes and ears of the greater Oromo population throughout the world with her distinct voice and fashionably edgy personality. But it was not her voice that created controversy rather her willingness to openly tackle an otherwise taboo subject. Titled “Daddarbaa” the song quickly gained notoriety. Although it was widely supported and even praised by the young generation in the diaspora, the older and more conservative sector of the Oromo population dismissed it as very controversial. By western standards where sex is a central theme in many songs it would not have been considered controversial. Saliha’s “Daddarbaa” in comparison to Lady Gaga’s 2010 “Telephone” which is sexually salacious or Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda single and album cover which are extremely sexual, racy and very suggestive in nature. Although, Saliha Sami’s song does not even compare to the aforementioned sexually charged songs, the conservative Oromo population has unjustly labeled her song and overall the Saliha brand as overtly sexual. It may make you wonder what would happen if this particular song was turned into video like many of her songs? However, her tenacious drive to introduce western style music and clothing is certainly appreciated if not praised by the youth. She works hard to bridge the generational and regional gap among the older generation many of which were born in Oromia with the diaspora born youth. Perhaps her now infamous song “Daddarbaa” will lead to a much needed dialogue among the old and young alike about the taboo subject of sex in a community that continues to struggle to bridge the gap between the more conservative values of the older generation and the liberal values of the diaspora youth.
With her talismanic character she embodies a can-do attitude to advance the Oromo culture through music and simultaneously be the voice of her people. Furthermore, she strives to be an example to Oromo women especially those who were fortunate enough to live in the diaspora with her unparalleled role as a musician, business woman, aspiring student, and more importantly a caring mother of two. If there is something that bore Saliha Sami; it is the mere fact of being in the background of her endeavor; rather, she wants to exert herself further so that she can pave the road for Oromo women from all walks of life. As the modern face of female singers she has dedicated her incredible talent to this worthy cause. Her firm belief that anything is possible emanates from her hard work and incredible success she has achieved.
Inspired by her talent and driven to further understand her background we reached out to her youngest sister. We asked Agartu Sami Shenkife to characterize Saliha, she said, “Saliha is an independent, creative, agile and often appears very Westernized.” Agertu went on to say, “you cannot compare her to other Oromo singers because her work combines modern attire and discusses topics considered taboo in our culture.” This combination does not align with some aspects of our conservative upbringing and the religious views of many in our community; therefore, as the first female artist willing to push the boundary many simply criticize her style without giving thought to her work or artistic talent. When asked to describe her sister in a few words, Agartu stated, “A CARING MOTHER BY DAY AND SINGER BY NIGHT.” Perhaps a short yet fitting description of Saliha.
Furthermore, “People may see her as audacious or overly confident perhaps because of her willingness to push the boundaries beyond what many female singers have done in the past.” With her caring voice Agertuu said, “I wish people knew her as a caring mother of two and an artist willing to put herself at the forefront of women’s cause. Because as someone who knows her both publically as a singer and privately as a family oriented woman, I can assure you she is down to earth.” In fact we at OromoTV.com can attest to her down to earth personality. From our first phone conversation to the time we spent with her conducting this interview in Seattle WA, she was an incredibly kind woman. She is soft spoken and eloquently responded to the set of questions we presented. In fact we were taken aback by her generous personality and passionate drive to push for women’s cause. Despite her busy and demanding schedule which included a performance with Jafer Ali’s Standup Comedy Show, as well as a music video shoot she managed to meet with us on multiple occasions.
Although, most singers with her level of talent and fame are associated with a flashy personality and pretentious attitude we were genuinely surprised by her humility. In fact during our interview many Oromo’s who recognized her interrupted our interview to greet her and wish her well. She never seized to greet each and every person from the elders to the youngest children with an infallible personality and radiant smile that makes each one of her well-wishers feel special. She constantly apologized to us for the interruptions, but we assured her it was no big deal. But all this goes to show her respect and genuine love for her people. Out of curiosity we asked if there are any individuals she would like to express her appreciation to? Although, the list is long and ranges from family, friends, fellow singers and fans the following two individuals as she claims are “indispensable.” She went on and on about how much these two siblings Elias and Mohammed Ibssa have contributed to the advancement of her career. Elias Ibssa is an active supporter of many artists and constantly paves the road for new ones. He is well-educated and astute member of the greater Oromo community as an active participant behind many of the diaspora’s ongoing struggles and achievements. According to her, “I’m forever indebted to Elias Ibssa for his tireless support…without him I would not be where I am today.” As she continued she mentioned how Elias Ibssa’s, “invaluable advice and extraordinary financial support made my second CD possible.” It was thanks to supportive, passionate, and caring individuals like the Ibssa family her career flourished.
Furthermore, she wanted to acknowledge the likes of Halo Dawe, Almaz Tefera, and the legendary Ali Birra who have inspired her among others. In particular she wanted to express her gratitude to Dr. Ali Birra for his contribution to her career. As she puts it simply, “he played an integral part at the start of my career and to this day as an inspirational figure.” Growing up, “I looked up to him for the struggle he went through to deliver such timeless songs that are widely recognized as some of the best among Oromo’s.” Now as an adult and a singer, “I have great appreciation for his politically astute songs which detailed the sufferings of Oromo’s. And, to do it at such a young age and under incredibly difficult and politically charged times for all Oromo’s goes to show his irrefutable talent.” She did not miss to mention that she has had the pleasure of receiving his invaluable advice, care, and an honest critique. In fact as a small token of her appreciation she recently dedicated her latest CD and all the proceeds to the “Birra Children’s Education Fund.” She praises Dr. Ali Birra for all he has done for not only her but all Oromo’s. As someone who made an incredible impact on her career we reached out to Ali Birra.
There are no words that can accurately describe the legendary and one of a kind Artist, Dr. Ali Birra’s rise to fame and contribution to all Oromo’s. Simply put he cannot be compared to anyone! After several attempts, we were able to reach out to Dr. Ali Birra for his take on Saliha Sami. At the time of our interview, he was in Oromia and graciously accepted our interview request despite his busy schedule. After extending our heartfelt gratitude for his kindness we asked him to describe Saliha. He began by stating, “she is a remarkably hardworking woman with an incredible talent and tenacious drive. She is the first female to out-scale Oromo music with modern style infused with Oromo culture.” Furthermore, he elucidates her career as “one of a kind in the small but growing and marvelous number of artists,” who have transformed our culture and imbued it with that of modern society to make it not only appeal to the youth but use their talent to simultaneously teach history through music. Throughout our interview he continually referred to her as “Sabontu” which is loosely defined as someone who is unapologetically proud of her Oromo culture. Furthermore, he said, “she is very sociable and perhaps one of the first and best modern female singers and in my view she is the number one modern day female artist!” According to Birra, Saliha has what it takes to go far in life and in her musical career. Collectively the young and old alike especially Oromo women need to standby her and support her because she has proven her talent beyond measure and still has hidden talent that many have yet to realize. Before we concluded our interview Dr. Ali Birra went on to state, “Saliha is an exemplary lady and on behalf of Birra Foundation I want to acknowledge her generosity and thank her for the donation of her third CD.” Although, we were captivated by Dr. Ali Birra’s praise of Saliha Sami, it speaks volumes to the overall personality and character that many Oromo’s might overlook.
Only few have the talent and means to reach diverse audiences from all regions of Oromia to create a fan-base that is devoted to their work. Although, it is not easy to garner this level of support from such a diverse group of Oromo’s from all regions, it is precisely this level of talent and ability that makes Saliha’s work admirable. Her songs stand out among the old and young alike. Many of her fans identify Saliha as an iconic figure. Gadaa.com once described her work as one, “…for which she has been widely praised by her fans and recognized as the Queen of Oromo Hits.” She embodies a talent with her superb songs and distinct arrangements. Her appearance and charismatic stage personality is rare among modern day female singers. Her songs invoke feelings of happiness, sadness, pride, and even cause many of us to examine our personal lives in a way that modern day YouTube era musicians cannot. Simply put her indisputable talent, audacious personality, unconventional wisdom, aspiring nursing student and above all her motherly instinct makes her ONE OF A KIND!
This article was composed by the EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER OF OROMOTV.COM and in person interview with Saliha Sami as well as…
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