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Music tells the story of Somali culture before the war

"Sweet as Broken Dates" released on 25 August 2017
"Sweet as Broken Dates" released on 25 August 2017 Ostinato Records

In the 70s and 80s, before Somalia was torn apart by civil war, the east African country had a vibrant pop music culture; bars and clubs flourished in Mogadishu and Hargeisa. That "swinging Somalia" has been captured on the compilation Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa. Vik Sohonie from Ostinato Records told RFI about the treasure trove and how it was uncovered.


'Sweet as Broken Dates' compilation reveals the golden age of Somali pop

The compilation of 15 songs (16 on the vinyl edition!) includes some of Somalia's biggest bands of the time. Bands like Iftiin, Dur Dur, Sharero, Waaberi and female songbirds like Faadumo Qaasim and Hibo Nuura whose voices were poetically described as “sweet as broken dates”.

The music “tells us the best concise story of what was happening in Somali culture before the war,” says Vik Sohonie.

“You had a city and a country that were doing something that was at the very forefront of global popular culture.”

Waaberi troupe perform in Mogadishu in the 1970s
Waaberi troupe perform in Mogadishu in the 1970s Ostinato Records

He says Somali culture is 'a culture of songwriters and theatre', intrinsically artistic and poetry-driven. Mohamed Siad Barre built on that when he came to power in 1969, nearly a decade after independence. His military regime took control of the music industry and set about developing it.

“You had a government in place that was really promoting the arts as a way of decolonising the country,” Sohonie explains.

“What resulted was this incredible burst of youthful euphoria, which culminated in this incredible arts scene, endless amounts of bands and singers.”

And Mogadishu provided an ideal setting for that music to flourish.

“Mogadishu was still a very beautiful city at the time,” Sohonie continues, “with lavish hotels where well-heeled tourists as well as the Somali upper crust were able to go and enjoy these bands.”

Mahmud “Jerry” Hussen & Axmed Naaji,  Mogadishu (1970s)
Mahmud “Jerry” Hussen & Axmed Naaji, Mogadishu (1970s) DR

Precursors of reggae?

Bands developed their own unique style, reinterpreting traditional Somali melodies, incorporating a lot of the popular global sounds of the era such as funk and soul.

One genre known as dhaanto, an ancient Somali folk song, was reworked by bands such as Danan Hargeysa and shares similar rhythms to reggae. In fact, some musicians of the time maintain dhaanto came before reggae.

“It developed in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia but was perfected in the north of what is today Somaliland,” says Sohonie. “And when we spoke to [some musicians from the north] and asked them ‘were you guys listening to Jamaican reggae, Bob Marley, because it has that off beat sound to it?’ they would almost get offended.

They said ‘no we’ve been producing dhaanto far longer than perhaps Jamaica has been producing reggae’. But they said ‘you know there’s no difference between dhaanto and reggae, it’s the same rhythm’.”

Bands like Waaberi were quick to use the synths that were becoming so popular across the Atlantic.

Singer Hibo Nuura gained notoriety lending her soaring vocals to Waaberi.

“The reason I adopted electronic music was because I had the versatility to be able to sing in many tones,” she told Sohonie in an interview for the liner notes accompanying the album.

Cassette of Somali music, from the Red Sea Cultural Foundation archives, Hargeisa
Cassette of Somali music, from the Red Sea Cultural Foundation archives, Hargeisa Janto Djassi

Rediscovering the lost music

With the outbreak of civil war in 1988, live music performance ground to a halt and many musicians fled abroad. And since very little music had been published under what was basically a nationalised music industry, all traces of this golden age of Somali pop could have been wiped out.

Thankfully some recordings, for the most part cassettes, had been hidden away by a few dedicated music lovers.

“A lot of these cassettes were dispatched to neighbouring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia during the war to keep them safe,” says Sohonie.  They would later find a haven at the Red Sea Cultural Foundation in Hargeysa, now home to some 10,000 recordings.

“Some of this project came from an operator who worked at Radio Hargeisa, his private collection, some of them came from tapes in the diaspora, but the majority of this album is from this archive in Hargeisa.”

Along with music researcher Nicolas Sheikholeslami, Sohonie began the long process of digitalizing the archives in a bid to conserve this remarkable period in Somali’s pre-war history.

“Somalis are very well aware of the power of their music and culture, but the whole world needs to know that,” says Sohonie.

“What drew me to the project was being able to tell a beautiful story of what a country was before its twenty or thirty years of war and famine and other unspeakable tragedies. And I think it’s really important to recognise that a country should not be defined by its history of 20 to 30 years. If we just peak back a little more we can define people by their culture and music.”

Ostinato Records has been digitalising some of the Somali music at the Red Sea Cultural Foundation in Hargeisa
Ostinato Records has been digitalising some of the Somali music at the Red Sea Cultural Foundation in Hargeisa Janto Djassi

Where are they now?

Ostinato records has made every attempt to source the published music. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the artists are living abroad:  in Europe (mainly the UK), Dubai, and the US.

They’ve taken many different avenues.

“Some, like the keyboard player Jerry now plays piano at a hotel bar in Dubai,” says Sohonie.  “Abdunour Daljeer who’s the founder of Dur Dur band runs a small shop in Ohio. He’s still trying to get his band back together to produce music.”

Hibo Nuura lives in Minneapolis in the US and while she’s no longer singing, looks back on the "swinging Somali" years with fondness.

“My peak was from about 1976 to about 1988. It was the best time I can describe because the love that as poured all over me,” she told Sohonie. “All that adulation took me to heaven. Even until today, even though I don’t sing, people still know me and love (me) as much, and that’s something I cannot replace.”

And, sign of the times in what was also something of a golden age for women, she says she “did not face any discrimination as a woman, not a single episode of negativity.”

For others, the memories are bittersweet.

“In 1986 we played all kinds of genres – Reggae, R&B, Blues, and Pop… the audience in Hargeysa liked this type of music,” recalls Cabdinaasir Maalin Caydiid from Danan Hargeisa band.

But the civil war changed everything, including people’s attitudes to music and musicians.

“I was in a village outside of Hargeisa and I saw my kaban (Somali oud) – it was being used as a container to scoop water.”

On returning to the city after the war he struggled to find work.

“We tried to re-organise Danan, but some people were against us and we did not succeed."

Sohonie says it can be painful for older musicians in particular to recall that period.

“There’s almost a reluctance to continue producing music or look back at this time, because as fond a memory as it is, it’s also attached to a lot of hurt and pain. Perhaps some musicians want to keep that in the past.”

The compilation Sweet as Broken Dates, Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa goes some way to repairing that sense of injustice, highlighting the contribution of these Somali musicians made to 70s and 80s global pop.

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