Saturday, September 9, 2017

Facts and Fables Compiled

Queens of the 1960s, 70s and 80s

The compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa has been captivating the attention of the international press. As all interested could notice, it’s highly praised and rightfully so. What eludes the uninformed eye and nonpluses the marked soul is that the coverage also propagates known and new myths about Somalia and its music. I’ll handle a few of the dazzling acrobatics presented as natural facts by the giants of the media, in some cases (unintentionally) generously fed by the title of the album and the promotional buzz. How influential these media outlets are is illustrated by the huge number of sources that literally copied and pasted (parts of) their reviews.

Music History
On Saturday 26 August, I replied to a BBC tweet to signal that the interesting article it's pushing contained a few factual inaccuracies and I briefly mentioned several. The reporter followed and messaged me within minutes: “I will make those changes on Monday”, “Could you please take that tweet down as it is public”. I messaged her back: “Done! It's just a correction, not a criticism. It's a great write up”.

The promised changes didn't happen (yet)! What well happened is nothing short of an absolutely hilarious gaslighting and unnecessarily stubborn ipsedixitism, persistently averring without a shadow of elaboration that there was nothing to change! Unwittingly or inadvertently letting mistakes slip into an important work befalls us all incidentally; categorically refusing to change an iota, despite an overwhelming evidence and historical necessity, reeks of intellectual dishonesty.

Sequence of events after the weekend: Come Tuesday, I hear the reporter reading out the whole article on BBC World Service and I see on the site nothing was changed! I, then, messaged her with a detailed explanation of my observations in 4 points: Three potentially misleading, misinforming and/or history-bending factual errors and a couple of less harmful flaws that marred an otherwise great article.

Following a series of defensive, evasive and unsubstantiated arguments, not to speak of outright fabrications, the journalist concocted a miraculous blanket panacea: My very first block ever in my 20+-year-experience online! Strange because she messaged me twice as often as I messaged her back. Who needs whom? Futile and even counterproductive as there are other channels to communicate my input.

I'd have preferred to solve this matter in mutual harmony with the reporter. Ruining that obvious, amiable and often effective route is, alas, the sole achievement of the block. My first block ever engenders, thus, my first complaint ever to a news media. Since the BBC does not allow commenting on the site, the best viable option was to submit my reflections through their online framework. I did that ten days ago and the BBC has yet to react. -- Update: BBC asks for "patience as the editors will need more time to give a properly considered response".

Where exactly does the shoe wring?

1. Dhaanto
Dhaanto: The Somali reggae
During the 1980s, "dhaanto", an ancient Somali folk song and dance was revived. Historically, it was played without instruments, with hand-clapping and foot-stamping used as rhythmic accompaniment.
Nomadic tribes would take their camels into their ranch at night and venture out to compete with each other. This folk style was enhanced with instruments by the likes of Shareero band and Khadija Qalanjo, the first artist to begin the modernisation of dhaanto.
Contrary to the emphatic assertions above, dhaanto was first:
a) Revived by the Daraawiish (dervishes) in the 1900s;
b) Modernised in the 1930s by touring theatre troupes with singers, dancers and traditional acoustic instrumentalists, such as Xaaji Baal Baal/ Haji Bal Bal. That's even considered as a watershed development as it's one of the starting points of modern Somali music;
c) Electrified in the 1970s by Horseed, Waaberi, Halgan, Madaalayaasha, Heegan, Bakaaka... and in the 1980s by iftin, Shareero, Onkod, Durdur, Danan, Sawtul Raxma… There are even as yet unverifiable claims affirming that Horseed, which at the time went by the name Ex-Bana Estro, had dhaanto hits in the 1950s and 60s.
e) Dhaanto is centuries old. What is the basis for the subheading: "Dhaanto: The Somali reggae"? Wouldn't "Dhaanto: The origin of reggae?" be a more logical question?

Durdur with Mahmoud Ahmed (4)

Dhaanto is more than an ancient folk song, dance and music genre; it's a deep-rooted social philosophy. The video below shows four of its basic tenets: 1. Society is steeped in ancient customs, hence the traditional attire, artifacts and singing mode; 2. Social responsibility: You are a part of a society. That's why you don't dance/sing/play this genre alone, but always in groups (see also the last vid); 3. Respect for women's rights: That's why the girls are taller than the boys who, moreover, are bowing lower; 4. Members of the society are encouraged to exercise their individual freedoms, as depicted after the tempo changes at 2:00 when the children start spreading their wings to fly away to their chosen destinations/dreams.

It's a delightful double blessing that some of Shareero's dhaanto videos have survived the civil war and are widely circulated, while many footages and records by other bands unfortunately (probably) have perished. However, it doesn't justify rewriting the history of Somali music on one of the most visited websites in the world. How many have already fallen for that blunder... hook, line and sinker and are spreading it further?

The author of the feature seems partial to Shareero, a group that doesn't need harmful promotion as it's already great in its own right.

One of Shareero's dhaanto tracks performed by children from Somalia, Norway and other countries

The original

In addition to crediting Shareero with the modernisation of dhaanto, the photo on Iftin’s song doesn't depict Iftin but Axmed Naaji and Maxamuud Cabdalla Xuseen “Jeeri” in their Shareero period. Besides, on basis of out-of-the-blue reasoning that "the rights are held by shareero so that's as accurate as it gets"(!!!), the reporter attributes the track Qays & Layla to Shareero with pictures and all!

According to the compilation, the song was recorded in 1977 by “Sharero Band feat. Faadumo Qaasim”. In fact, Faadumo is not only the lead singer, she's also the copyright owner, as the liner notes clearly state. Can the label clarify how come she’s only featuring in her own work? Wouldn't the other way around be more logical? Like this:

It’s, moreover, common knowledge among Somali music fans and connoisseurs that Shareero didn’t have a horn section and the wind instruments are dominant on Qays & Layla and the album it belongs to. I posted the whole tape, which was stamped with “Faadumo Qaasim, Faynuustii Fanka - 1974” (“FQ, The Lantern of Art/Music”), and I always thought the backing musicians were from Waaberi as the tunes sound perfectly like Waaberi. Anyway, it could also be one of the (hybrid) session outfits FQ and other artists occasionally employed, and that could explain why only FQ was mentioned on the cassette.

Bottom line: I bet all my pets (a camel, 2 dodos and a lion all retro vintage 70s and 80s and still frolicking strong) that Shareero is not the backing band and, more important, it's incredible the BBC journalist decided and insists to eliminate Faadumo Qaasim from the entire equation!

From the compil (imo version from 1974)

This is the 1977 FQ & Shareero version (vintage Shareero):

2. Khadra Daahir is (creatively) misquoted, misinterpreted and mistranslated:
 "They used to call us all kinds of nicknames before the 1970s. Some women used to hide," 70s star singer Khadra Daahir told the BBC.
"People said we were dead, lost and a disgrace to our people," she recalls.

KD is talking about the generation of artists before hers, i.e. those from the 1960s and earlier, and she says: "They used to adopt/were given pseudonyms, some used to hide [their identity]". A woman or a person [female or male] working in the arts was considered dead. "Lost and a disgrace to our people" is not in the embedded video. The journo said there’s a longer version but didn’t react to my suggestion to embed it or my request for a link!

The song starts at 2:00

In the 1970s and 1980s Somali female singers were crowned queens, towering way above any and all kings and princes. Nevertheless, the Somali society was and, alas, still is biased towards women. KD makes both facts unequivocally clear in the embedded footage. The rampant misogyny, heralded and practiced mainly by religious and feudal fanatics and their lobotomised hordes, is a pressing issue all Somalis, women and men, have to address and endeavor tirelessly to change. Misquoting and putting (inadvertently) words that are not corroborated by the embedded footage in KD's mouth - or anybody else's - and refusing to either provide the vid. or correct the error contributes nothing but confusion and misinformation.

Hadraawi's panegyric for the girls of the Horn of Africa

3. Record companies
Somalia's music industry was effectively nationalised under authoritarian leader General Siad Barre, who brought most industries under state control in the hopes of ridding the country of clan-based politics.
During this period, record companies could not release music to the market.
They could and did (see below).

Music Industry
Barre’s regime effectively nationalized the music scene, with bands and production controlled by ministries and the national radio. A great deal of Somali music was rarely disseminated, confined to broadcast on state run radios and the live performances in dance halls, theaters, and ball rooms of Mogadishu’s hotels. -- liner notes
Mirroring the generally outstanding album notes, a constellation of news titans such as AFP, Yahoo, Al Jazeera, BBC, Wall Street Journal etc. inform dutifully that there were no music labels, no commrecial releases and hardly any private bands in Somalia during the dictatorship (1969-1991)! Le Point, a major weekly in France, takes the cake. It blindly copies and pastes errors in AFP's article! As if that were not grave and unprofessional enough, it creates its own urban legends about Somali music! 
Le pays ne possédait aucune maison de disques et aucun album n'a donc été produit à l'époque. Son industrie musicale était entièrement dirigée par l'État et le seul canal de diffusion des chansons était la radio ("The country did not have a single record label and, thus, not a single album was produced at the time. The music industry was entirely run by the state and the radio was the only channel for broadcasting the songs").
@ Analog Africa
The music industry wasn't actually nationalised. The government deployed other tactics to exert full control over the fledgling recording businesses: The licences were not renewed till the sector bled to extinction. There were, thus, a few private labels in the first half of the 1970s, such as Light & Sound. These were basically commercial enterprises selling many miscellaneous articles, including music paraphernalia, instruments, vinyls and tapes. They also had fast recorders to tape cassettes for the customers, and rudimentary facilities to (amateurishly) record bands live or in a studio and they produced and sold the albums independently.

By mid-1970s the music industry was completely owned by the government and that lasted for about a decade. In the mid-1980s, licences were again granted to a number of firms, popularly known as Studios or Phones. These music shops were pretty much copies of their predecessors from the 70s. However, selling and producing music- and film-related items, mainly k7s and videos, was their principal activity. The record labels produced in the 70s and 80s hundreds if not thousands of tapes and sold tens of thousands of k7s.

The bulk of the music output, amounting to (tens of) thousands of tapes and a limited number of vinyl records, was recorded in senescent studios and "released" by public radios and theatres, under the aegis of Somali Broadcasting Service. There were no prober releases as we know the phenomenon on the international markets. However, as a Radio Mogadishu journalist in the 1980s, I frequently witnessed not only bands recording in the studios but also people carrying out bags full of freshly recorded cassettes. They were delivered to and sold in shops and market stalls, mainly located at Maka Al-Mukarrama, Ceelgaab and Xamar Weyne.

Ceelgaab Market

Although it wasn't officially organised and acknowledged, many employees - from radio technicians to high-level execs - were aware of and involved in the quasi-weekly transhumance of tapes. I think everybody in the chain got their cut of the bounty, and that'd explain why the tapes were steeply overpriced. The government-owned radios produced immensely more tapes than the private businesses. Nonetheless, it's quite possible the prohibitive prices, caused by mismanagement and corruption, worked in favour of the small enterprises which, ironically, may have had a much higher turnover per capita than the giant public radios.

It's also noteworthy that a lot of theatre plays, concerts and other live gigs were recorded by the audience with simple tape or Walkman recorders. People also taped frequently from their radio and TV sets. Those home-made cassettes and videos were widely exchanged. Although often of lamentable quality, the most recordings that are still alive and kicking belong, in my experience, to this category and the history/emotions/value they represent is next to none.

Private Bands
   Dur Dur were one of the rare few [private bands] -- liner notes

There were countless more private bands than government-controlled groups. In the 1970 and 80s, the privately owned bands arguably flourished more than ever before. A wide range of independent music collectives played primarily traditional genres on ancient instruments. They didn't have the necessary finances, connections, leverage to buy fancy equipment or produce their material professionally. Nevertheless, many of them were highly skilled musicians in every sense of the word. I  believe a lot of artists in this category inherited/acquired talent, passion, experience through generations. They're generally more knowledgeable about Somali music than the average member of the celebrated bands. To my knowledge, there are unfortunately precious few recordings by these groups available anywhere. Only occasionally did they have the opportunity to record in studios, but some bands taped their practices and gigs with a simple boombox. They offered the tapes at the markets and party circuits which constituted their main income source.

The musicians and dancers belong to the same private traditional band. The girls have the leading role and the musicians follow their dancing pace. The man simulating to touch/touching the girl is (normally) her husband. Some traditions accept that in acting situations. There are many vids of comparable groups but the quality is often poor. This one is ok as it's edited by the uploader. This is the original, check out the sidebar for more independent trad. companies. 

Somali Jazz with founder Maryan Mursal (bottom centre)

Numerous private pop bands had also left an indelible mark on that period. They're, musically and professionally, on a par with the government-sponsored dozen or so theatre ensembles. Shareero and Durdur were the most popular of those groups given they lasted the longest (about 25 years and about 10 years respectively). Many others such as Somali Jazz, Madaalayaasha, Shambal, Nalka, Sawtul Raxma, Libaaxyada Banaadir (precursors of LMB) etc. came and went relatively quickly as the members joined the better connected, more lucrative and stable huge ensembles. These private combos recoded hundreds, if not thousands of albums in public or private studios or in the made-in-my-kitchen style and commercialised their tapes at concerts, nightclubs, theatres, parties as well as in shops and market stalls.


The Asian Factor
One of the recurrent barely-substantiated-opinions-elevated-to-holy-facts syndrome almost all the critiques advance is that Somali music is heavily influenced by a plethora of regions - which is true... to a certain extent. Remarkable in the analysis is that Mother Africa is rarely mentioned, despite the indubitable, research-vouched N-E-W-S-African mosaic patterns in Somali artists' creations! I knew that Somalia is located on Jupiter, but I thought this was an esoteric philosophical knowledge confined to initiated circles. Dang, our secrets are no longer safe! The dozens of indigenous Somali music genres hardly touch a chord, either. In contrast herewith, the impact of South and East Asian nuggets on Somalia's music, and specially Indian radiations are abundantly perceived.

I'm not saying that those effects aren’t there; they possibly are. I just would like to see, preferably but not per se watertight and unassailable evidence, or at least credible and elaborate rationale. Purporting, for example, that Somali music is heavily influenced by Indian raga and Bollywood because the two countries share pentatonic scales and high-pitched female vocalists is a baffling argument that's hard to take seriously. It's like saying that water is bounteously available on Mars because high-res photos show meandering streaks, grooves, gorges that look like rivers and oceans! Shall we then book a trip to the Red Planet for a hitchhike adventure on high heels? I'll pay the bill if you can pedal the shuttle

On a serious note, there is certainly Indian influence in Somali culture, particularly in culinary and clothing staples... and possibly music. However, music is knottier and more sophisticated than basic commodities. How many countries/people have the two above-mentioned parameters and many more in common, some without ever having met, let alone influenced each other? And those who impacted each other often know the (fine) details of the story...

And while we are at it, let's toss a coin: Indian music is heavily influenced by Somali music, and specially by hirwo and shirib. Despite what the compilation, its notes and the deserved jollities in the press may suggest: Most Somali female singers are by far not shrill-voiced; Africa is arguably the mother of the pentatonic scale, and specifically the Sahel and Sahara belts both of which Somalia is closely related to since the antiquities; the average Joe or plain Jane can't distinguish between Indian and Arabic sounds, the latter being a big influence on Somali music; in the 1970s and 80s, the overwhelming majority of Somalis, including the artists, had imo never/rarely seen a Bollywood film - there were in the whole country only a couple of cinemas specialised in Indian films...

Did I now prove that there is no connection between Somali and Indian music? Or that Somali music is actually the influencer? Is my theory designed to a fare-thee-well? Absolutely... not! The foundations of my reasoning are as rickety as the pentatonic-raga-Bollywood argument. It is thus farewell to both hypotheses. Without solid, resourceful, long-winded, multi-faceted scientific research(es), we can at best deliver a malleable anecdotal evidence and that is too meager for any conclusion with such a profound cultural and historic impact.

Lost Tapes
I'm absolutely delighted that a strong spotlight is currently shining on Somali music. Unfortunately, I also know that the name of the compilation has left many Somalis - including some I'm personally acquainted with and myself - with a puzzled countenance. Only a distorted and numb mind can picture - without collapsing - how much Somalia has lost in the last couple of decades. That's why it feels awkward, acrid and unwise that cassettes/tracks owned and cherished by countless Somalis are being qualified and sold as lost! All the more that the tracks on the compil were/are a few clicks or calls away for anybody interested and streetwise in the world of Somali music. The name also exudes a bitter-sour taste for many since an infinite number of tapes have effectively been lost.

Throughout Somalia's history, and conspicuously during the oppressive colonial and dictatorial periods, poetry and music were the choicest vehicles for political propaganda. There were, for instance, many plays and albums supporting or protesting against the military regime. Some helped to boost the popularity of the junta. Others contributed to its demise. Even a single song is believed to have toppled the government in 1967... and maybe even two.

Following the fall of the central autocracy in 1991, piles of k7s and instruments were destroyed by the rivaling factions of all tribal and ideological colours. They saw in many songs a machine gun pointing at them. Even the common citizens had to get rid of their collections to be on the safe side of the front line. Nobody wanted to be accused of listening to "enemy tracks", let alone possessing a  mass of the damned cassettes. That was a potentially lethal sport. Within weeks the sewers and drains, teeming with magnetic polyester, were the primary hubs belting out the hits of "the past"! Most of my tapes were (I digitized and gifted them away) the umpteenth copy of what was saved from that cultural onslaught. Mountains of cassettes and videos are, indeed, unaccounted for or definitively lost.

Some radio operators carved a plan to save their collections. Recordings were dispatched to neighboring countries, like Djibouti, and protected from continued bombardment.
“We buried the tapes under the ground so the bomb’s won’t hit,” said an elderly journalist -- liner notes
I understand how enticing it is to call the comp "Lost Tapes..." since the tracks are culled from the sources described above. It's unfortunate, though, that the title opened the predictable and traumatizing floodgates of the media for, (often) well-intentioned and unsuspecting, self-appointed saviours, rescuers, conquistadors and the likes. What's being rescued? From what and why? By who and how? I hope Ostinato Records, that has already accomplished a fascinating feat - or any other label - will keep the above in mind when it releases the next albumS. The sooner the better. Break a leg... or both if it brings more luck!

Dumarka Damaashaadka (Celebration Ladies)
To paraphrase the Dumarka Damaashaadka of my schooldays, my pets and I are definitely thankful and we're saving our royal poincianas and pizzazzy panache for the moment the still missing Old Nicks, eternally missed treasures of yore will hone in on... home! I have a hunch some have already embarked on a, hopefully, short peregrination to join and jazz up the current party even more triumphantly!

Hats off to all brave and culturally conscious heroes, Somalis and non-Somalis, who risk(ed) it all to safeguard priceless artifacts.

Focus On Somalia: RADIO MOGADISHU ARCHIVE DIGITIZATION from AMISOM Public Information on Vimeo.

P.S. A blog on the (distant) horizon: Who pipped whom to the post?


Self-portrait 1980s. I'm now a humanoid

P.S. Tangentially, an anonymous genius has lately been posting on this blog quite edifying comments with the precise regularity of a Swiss watch and in the form of a single sentence: Mogadishu and its music are shitholes! Since the Honourable Gentlekiddo is already well-versed in the the dark side of our moon, I think it’s high time to broaden its horizons and (musical) vocabulary… without words and free of charge.

Mogadishu 1969

Mogadishu 2017


  1. Exactly how i felt though unlike you i did not reply something i should have done.

    1. there are a couple things i want to add. the one thing that annoys me is when they say they captured the music scene and that this album show a diverse range of somali music. It doesn't there is no qaraami no qaaci no heello if it was diverse they would should as many styles as they could but they haven't also the fact that some of the songs are said to have reggae influences no they haven't this is pure dhaanto no reggae. - rant complete-

    2. I’m glad dhaanto, qaraami and banaadiri are casually mentioned as blanket genres. Somalia has 100+ poetry and dance genres. Each has several/many sub-genres and they all have distinct musical qualities, i.e. rhythmic, melodic and harmonic standard rules, fixed or fluid. According to Riiraash, at least ¼ of them have already been set to music; that’d make 25+ music genres. This is a barely chartered territory...

  2. p.s who is the blogger you are talking about?

  3. u expresed my feelings very well, thank u. who are the queens on the poster 1?

    1. You're welcome! L to R: Hibo Nuura, Saafi Ducaale, Seynab X. Cali “Baxsan”, Xaliima Khaliif Cumar “Magool”, Faduuma Cali “Nakruuma”

  4. Wlaalo meeshee ayaad ka heshay masawirkaa oo ku jira kooxda hiddaha iyo dhaqanka

    1. Wuxuu ku jiraa buug lagu magcaabo "Beeautiful Somalia".

    2. have heard of that book before, waaberi would give it out when they went on trips out the country, right? do you know where can find a copy?

    3. I don't know, try the search engines. I've a copy PDF on an external HD but it's been broken for years.

  5. A co-worker showed me your blog and I'm thankful to her. You're telling the story I've been hearing around for months now. Nailed perfectly, thank you!

  6. wonderful blog thanks. bbc article is reproduced 12,700 times according to google are right to put this issue on the table.thanks a lot