Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Interview About Somali Music

The Economist interviewed me a few months ago about Somali music. I've recently received a mail from the interviewer to the effect that the article would possibly be published soon, albeit "cut down considerably to 500 words". The full interview would cover almost all the inquiries I regularly receive from other interested parties as well - about a dozen in the last couple of months alone. I can no longer hold off replying to (repeated) requests on the premise and promise that an extensive interview is in the pipeline. All the more since the article/heavily edited interview, if ever published, may ironically raise more questions than it would answer. This is why I'm posting it here verbatim.

1) How would you characterize Somalia's music of the 1970s/1980s? To what extent did it reflect life in Somalia at that time? For example, were businesses thriving and the general mood optimistic? Or did some of the more *funky* tunes serve as a sort of escapism?

It's arguably the most innovative period in the history of Somali music. This was a very ambivalent era, relatively 'booming' economically and extremely repressive politically...The creative minds captured the zeitgeist by generating as much exhilarating entertainment as emotive and engaged music, inciting the people to support or protest against the regime. They were consistently innovative without abandoning their roots.

2) Who were the most prominent artists of that time?

Countless highly valued singer-songwriters formed the backbone and it's impossible for me to choose 10, 50 or even 100... Concerning bands and in no particular order: Horseed, Lix iyo Labaatanka Juun, Waaberi Muqdisho, Waaberi Hargeysa, Shareero, Iftin, Durdur, Libaaxyada Maaweeliska Banaadir, Dayax, Halgan, Danan, Heegan, Xusuus, Onkod, Horyaal...

3) Do you have a sense for their musical background? For example, were musicians largely self-taught? Did they study more formally? Or in some countries, musicians got their training as part of military bands? Was there a common way for artists to learn their craft in Somalia?

The overwhelming majority of the artists were autodidacts. They learned their craft on the ground by experimenting with their (inherited) talent and/or passion. The most skilled or connected ones joined existing bands. A labyrinth of others were not that lucky, but occasionally employed session combos and joints to get their material produced.

There were a couple of music academies belonging to the armed and police forces. In Somali context, however, a concept like "music school" would be taunted as a contradictio in terminis. The prevailing view was/is that you don't learn music formally, you have it in your body, mind and soul ... or not. Art in general and particularly music were hardly considered as a profession and it's almost impossible to subsist on the proceeds of music and theatre sales. The tapes and videos were ridiculously expensive and people just turned to self-helping boombox copying. Practically every artist had, thus, a day job and music was not more than a glorified but cherished hobby...

4) What was the driving influence for artists during this period?

The main influence came from within. Somalia has numerous centuries-old poetry and dance genres which can always be sung, with or without instruments. In the '30s through to the '50s, a gradually growing number of artists started playing the rhythms, melodies and harmonies inherent to the local genres on oud, violin, accordion and other foreign instruments. In the process, they created new Somali genres like balwo and heello which later flirted and cross-pollinated with music from the neighbouring countries.

The generation from late '50s to late '80s owes a lot to their predecessors. They pursued the modernisation by delving deeper into the local genres and stretching the inspiration to beyond the neighbourhood. Traditional instruments such as nasaro (high ritual drum), madhuube (thumb piano), fuugwo (trumpet) shareero (lyre), muufe (horn) seese (one-chord violin) etc. welcomed or were replaced massively by instruments that were hitherto not very popular such as guitar, sax, keyboard, drum set...and that's when Somali folk music seriously passed from flirting with to getting married to non-Somali genres - from maqam and taarab, through jazz and funk to afrobeat and reggae...

Due to the blogosphere, Iftin and Durdur are nowadays characterised as funk bands. However, just like their contemporaries, they were very versatile with a repertoire overarching and infusing many Somali and foreign genres. By the way, some ancient Somali genres are modally pretty much similar to their modern universal cousins. So much so that some people believe that Somalia's kabeebey, dhaanto, niiko etc. may have initially influenced R&B, reggae, punk... and later the other way round.

5) How did these influences reach Somalia's shores?

Mainly through imported k7s and travelling or diasporan Somalis, including musicians, coming back home. The local radios and theatres were very influential, but they were exclusively broadcasting local music. The foreign languages section of Radio Mogadishu, for example, was very limited in scope to imprint a notable effect.

6) Where did people go to enjoy music most often? Were they listening to music mostly in clubs, weddings, social gatherings,taxis, etc.?

All the above and everywhere else: from homes and streets which were lit more often by music than by electricity to theatres, open-air podia, cinemas, sport halls etc. where plays, concerts, musicals were staged/shown on daily basis...

7) To what extent does the music of that period live on today within the Diaspora community? And how would you compare Somali music of the 1970s/1980s with more contemporary music today?

(a) Most of what was recorded before the civil strife has, unfortunately, perished. The surviving records are often in bad shape sonically. Nevertheless, they're alive and kicking in so far as people - young and old, local and diasporan - can get hold of them.

(b) A commonality is that both groups do their own thing by using what is available to serve their specific audience. The artists from the 1960s to 1980s had the necessary qualities as well as public/official support to build upon vast fountains of classical poets/songwriters, traditional instruments, work songs, genres, rhythms, melodies... They did that with flair, verve and panache and generated masterpieces.

Today's Somali music is dominated by auto-tuning electropop, often consisting of solo/duo musicians suffering from a lazy ignorance of the past and greed for a quick success in the present or near future. Score a catchy hook and you're in, seems to be the motto! In my opinion, we're often dealing with de(con)structive minimalism, which is not per se negative unless plagued by a scanty musicianship and shallow creativity. To be fair, we'd also acknowledge that the contempoary artists had to bite the bullet, sometimes literally, and were obliged to face the daunting task of creating their art from scratch. The aforementioned rich sources have been severely damaged or even annihilated by the civil war. The post-war artists barely have access to yesteryear's heritage and some may even be unaware it ever existed...

The old school aficionados generally frown upon the current scene. Nonetheless, the youngsters who constitute the target demographic are in love with it and that is a major achievement for the artists. There is also a noteworthy vibrant mini-revival spearheaded by outfits such as Qaylodhaan, Aar Maanta, Sahra Halgan, Waayaha cusub, Waaberi Puntland, Kooxda Goodir, Shego Band, Walinja, Xiddigaha Geeska, Kooxda Sosca  ... as well as world citizens like Saba and Tanya Norwegian whose take on Somali music is highly respected. They've the potential of leaving an indelible mark on Somali music. Hopefully in the same calibre as their predecessors musically, and a part of heir lyricism is already reminiscent of former masters as they're avidly absorbing the old legacies.

PS. For the Brazilian commenter who is interested in Somalis singing in English:

PPS. An article partially based on this interview is published by OkayAfrica.


  1. marvelous interview. i wonder why you didn't mention k'naan?

    1. The list of the artists is, of course, far from exhaustive. Moreover, in the same vein as K'naan, there are quite a few internationally successful pop, rap, jazz & r&b artists of Somali origins who sing (almost) exclusively in English. Given the characteristics of their repertoire, I wouldn't say they're making Somali music...

    2. i see what you mean. i'm brazilian and i like african music but i don't know much about somalian music. can you please direct me to the somalian artists who sing in english? thanks.

    3. Noora Noor, Cold Specks, SomaliA, Faarrow (aka Sweet Rush), Amaal Nuux, Asha Ali, Ubah, Sulekha, Sherissa, Nomadic Status...

    4. WOW thank you.

  2. what a great interview. can you upload some waaberi hargeysa? many thanks.

    1. Thanks! I'll up some WH providing the sound quality is OK.

  3. Awesome interview, and thanks for the vids!