Now known as the Federal Republic of Somalia, most Westerners view the country as being a lawless, dysfunctional and broken country, split and reeling from a brutal and bloody civil war between two or three different factions — and while that has been true over the past 25-30 years, what Westerners and others have sadly forgotten is that because of its location,the Eastern African nation for known for more than a millennium for being a major trading post, with several powerful Somali empires dominating regional trade, including the Ajuran Empire, the Adal Sultanate, the Warsangali Sultanate, and the Geledi Sultanate. And as one of antiquity’s major trade posts, the cultures and peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Southeast Asian and China found a way to influence and slowly work their way into the region’s unique musical culture and sound.
In the late 19th century, the British and Italian empires through a series of treaties with Somalia’s historical empires and sultanates gained greater control of parts of the country’s coastline, establishing the colonies of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland while Mohammed Abdullah Hassan’s Dervish State fought and defeated the British four times before a crushing defeat by the British in 1920. Italy, then acquired full control of the northeastern, central and southern parts of the country after defeating the Majerteen Sultanate and the Sultanate of Hobyo — and their occupation of the country lasted until 1941 when the British took over with a military administration. British Somaliland would remain a protectorate of the British while Italian Somaliland became a United Nations Trusteeship under Italian administration, the Trust Territory of Somaliland.
Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, independence movements across Africa helped to redefine the map; in fact, by 1960 Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland united in 1960 to form the Somali Republic under a civilian and democratic based government. Sadly, democratic government didn’t last long; by 1969, the Supreme Revolutionary Council led by authoritarian Mohamed Siad Barre seized power and established the Somali Democratic Republic.
Now that I’ve gone through roughly 1000 years or so of Somali history in a couple of hundred words, things musically for us begin in more contemporary times — 1988. You see, back in 1988 on the eve of a bloody, two-decade civil war, Siad Barre launched a series of punishing air strikes in Somalia’s northern region, known known as Somaliland in an attempt to smash a growing independence movement within that region of the country.
Musically speaking things for us begin in relatively contemporary times — 1988. On the eve of a bloody, two decade plus civil war, Siad Barre launched a series of punishing air strikes in Somalia’s northern section, now known as Somaliland in an attempt to squash a rumbling independence movement within the region. Unsurprisingly, one of the targets Said Barre targeted for airstrikes was the regional radio station Radio Hargeisa, as a way to prevent the organization of further resistance. Knowing that an attack on their radio station and their hometown was imminent, a handful of radio operators, tastemakers and historians recognized that they needed to preserve more than 50 years of modern Somali music as quickly as possible — and it meant finding a way to remove thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes, records and master reels and then dispersing them to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia — or in many instances, burying the tapes deep underground to protect them from theft, airstrikes, fire and so on.
The Somali Civil War broke out in 1991 and it resulted both the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s government and a number of armed factions fighting for influence and control throughout the country’s southern region. With the absence of a central government, Somalia quickly began to known as a failed state with residents returning to customary and religious law in most regions, along with a couple of autonomous regions — namely Somaliland and Puntland. But interestingly, the early part of the millennium saw the creation of several fledgling and sputtering federal administrations, including the Transitional Federal Government, which in 2004 reestablished national institutions such as the military. And with the assistance of Ethiopian troops, the Transitional Federal Government assumed control of the country’s southern conflict zones, beating back the Islamic Courts Union, which eventually splintered into a several radical Islamicist groups, including Al-Shabaab, a group that continued an ongoing battle with the Transitional Federal Government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) for control of the region and its territory.
By 2012, insurgent groups had lost most of the territory they had seized, and a political process that provided benchmarks for the establishment of a permanent democracy — and it included the drafting of a provisional constitution, which reformed Somalia as a federation. At the end of that lengthy process was the creation of the Federal Government of Somalia, the first permanent government in the country in well over 20 years, followed by a period of necessary and hopeful reconstruction in Mogadishu.
Remember those audio recordings that the engineers, programmers, historians and tastemakers dispatched to Djibouti and Ethopia and buried in various locations across the region? Interestingly enough, those recordings were recently excavated from their shelters with some of those recordings being kept in the 10,000 cassette tape archives of the Red Sea Foundation, the largest known collection of Somali music and cassettes, located in Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa. (Yes, things do and can come full circle.)
Ostinato Records, best known for the preservation, digitalization, and distribution of obscure world music was able to digitized a significantly large portion of the Red Sea Foundation’s archives, choosing 15 songs as part of their latest compilation of African music Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa. And while revealing the diversity of styles and sounds of Somali musicianship, the compilation also provides a glimpse of life in Mogadishu in the 1970s and 1980s, when the coastal capital was referred to as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.” At the time bands like Iftiin, Sharero and Dur Dur played at some of East Africa’s glitziest nightclubs, while Waaberi Band played packed to the rafter sets at the national theater. Nightlife, music, culture and art were enormous — and interestingly while there were renowned male vocalists like Mahmud “Jerry” Hussen, Somali music of the 70s and 80s were best known for beloved female vocalists Faadumo Qaasim, Hibo Nuura, Sahra Dawo and a collection of truly empowered, prolific women; in fact, half of the compilation features songs sung by and written by women.
This cultural and musical golden age occurred under a socialist, military dictatorship, which effectively nationalized the country’s music industry. The state owned a thriving scene and essentially music was recorded for and by national radio stations, and it was distributed and disseminated through public broadcasts or live performances. Privately owned labels were non-existent and the work of a generation of artists was never made available for mass release in the way it is elsewhere — and until recently, hadn’t been heard outside of Somalia or its immediate neighbors. Most of that period, Somali music was largely influenced by the cultures and people who traveled to the region throughout its history as a major trade port; however, during the height of the Cold War, Somalia had periods of financial and logistical support by both the Soviets and the US in the Ethio-Somali War — and with about a decade of US backing, American soul, funk and hip-hop captured the imaginations of Somali youth, adding to a unique element to the country’s musical culture and sound.
While compiling the tracks on Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa, members of the Ostinato Records team spent the better part of a year traveling back and forth between Mogadishu, Hargeisa, Djibouti and across the Somali Diaspora in parts of Europe, the US and the Middle East to track down the musicians, songwriters, composers, government officials, scenesters, radio personalities and other folks, who had played a role during the 1970s and 1980s and got their stories down in a detailed, 15,000 word liner note booklet.
As the folks at Obstinato Records explain in press notes “Along side the story of Somalia’s music before the civil war, the selection is also focused on the pan-Somali sound. Spread over much of the Horn of Africa, Somali language and culture transcend arbitrary borders. Somali singers from Djibouti were at home in Mogadishu.” They add that “this compilation seeks to revive the rightful image, history, and identity of the Somali people, detached from war, violence, piracy, and the specter of a persistent threat.”
Now, as you may recall, the compilations’ first single Danan Hargeysa’s “Uur Hooyo (Mother’s Womb)” feat. Mohamed “Huro” Abdihashi was recorded and released back in 1987 and the breezy confection nods at the trippy psychedelia of dub and dubstep as the collaborators pair a shuffling, two-step-like rhythm with explosive blasts of horn, shimmering synths, Nile Rodgers-like guitar and a strutting bass line, and while revealing an obvious reggae and calypso influence, the song possesses an undeniably sunny and funky vibe. Recently, the folks at Ostinato Records released two more singles from the compilation, Aamina Camaari’s “Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo (Men are Cruel and Kind)” and Sharaf Band’s “Kadeed Badanaa Naftaydani (My Life is Full of Tribulations)” feat. Xawoo Hirraan in anticipation of its official release on August 25, 2017.
Aamina Camaari’s “Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo (Men are Cruel and Kind)” is an achingly gorgeous and slow-burning lament of a song that pairs Camaari’s ethereal and plaintive vocals with a lush and soaring Middle Eastern and Indian-inspired string arrangement and percussion and Casio synthesizer-like beats that dimly reminds a bit of Omar Souleyman, The Bombay Royale and JOVM mainstays Tinariwen while being absolutely unlike anything I can quite describe; but at its core is an an ancient and timeless ache. Sharaf Band’s “Kadeed Badanaa Naftaydani (My Life is Full of Tribulations)” feat. Xawoo Hirraan is a swaggering and funky track that manages to sound as though it drew influence from Afrobeat and American soul and funk; but much like the preceding single, it features the ethereal and plaintive vocals of Xawaoo Hirraan, which give the song a similar ache.
Certainly, all three tracks from the forthcoming compilation evoke a far simpler time full of laughter, flowing beer and wine, of dancing until the sun came up and walking home in a drunken and elated shuffle, with arms draped over the shoulders of a companion or two, softly singing — and of sad love songs that speak directly to the lonely heart. No matter the language, it’s the sound of fleeting youth and swooning hearts before life’s ambiguities and horrors.