Uncovering Somalia’s forgotten music of the 1970s

Fanka & Suugaanta

In 1331, famed Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta arrived in Mogadishu, on the Banaadiri coast, in what is today Somalia.

Battuta came across the richest, most powerful port in East Africa, at the fore of the Indian Ocean trade system, then the centrepiece of the global economy.

Anchored off the coast, he was greeted by “boatloads of young men … each carrying a covered platter of food to present to one of the merchants on board,” writes Ross Dunn in The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century.

Such renowned hospitality welcomed seafarers and merchants from across the Arabian peninsula, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and even China.

Mogadishu derives from “Maq‘ad-i-Shah”, Farsi – one of the lingua francas of Indian Ocean merchants and traders – for “Seat of the King”. Its local name, Xamar, was given by Arab traders, after the Arabic word “ahmar” for the red soil along Somalia’s coastline.

The East African coast’s role as multicultural crossroad imbued Somali culture with the traditions of its biggest trading partners, leaving an indelible mark on language, cuisine, dress, worldview, and, revealingly – its music. Indian scales, Yemeni chord progressions, Sumatran melodies, and the rhythms of Bantu peoples just to the south created a sound that reveals not only the intermingling of Somalia’s past but of the world’s.

That rich legacy could be heard in a newly recovered archive of more than 10,000 cassettes and master recordings we came across last year in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Radio operators hid this music, recorded in the 1970s, until 1987, to protect it during the bombardment ordered by Somalia’s then military dictator.

Maize, sorghum flour, and other grains have been sold here since the colonial era [Janto Djassi/Picture Me Different]

Saved recordings

Since Battuta’s arrival, the subsequent sultanates, democratic republics, and collapsed states occupying continental Africa’s longest coastline have suffered often at the hands of others – Portuguese warships, colonial dealmakers, great power games during the Cold War, Ethiopian and Kenyan armies, and the US’ drones. As a result, Somali culture has registered little in the global imagination.

The two-decade civil war that began in 1991, preceded by heavy aerial bombardment of the north three years before, eviscerated Somalia’s cultural revival of the 1970s. A prolific music scene, both live and recorded, and theatre were the forgotten casualties of the collapse.

Yet, in recent years, as the region’s situation has incrementally improved, there has been a concerted effort involving the national radio stations and cultural ministries in Hargeisa and Mogadishu, and the returning Somali diaspora to preserve and catalogue recordings, often uploaded on to YouTube or the Somali language corner of the internet.

Most recently, physical recordings that were buried by those who believed in the value of recorded music as cultural artifacts are being recovered and amassed.

Hargeisa, the capital of what is today the breakaway Republic of Somaliland (it declared independence in 1991), is now home to two precious archives. One of the world’s largest collections of Somali music is at the Red Sea Foundation at the Hargeisa Cultural Center, and the other lies in Radio Hargeisa.

The recordings reveal chapters of a vibrant Mogadishu of the 1970s, of music guided by political and economic forces, of women’s empowerment, of a thriving Somalia.

Habane, who tends to the Red Sea Foundation archive, reveals their catalogued collection [Janto Djassi/Picture Me Different]

Inside Hargeisa’s only live music venue

Security is tight at one of Hargeisa’s few nightlife venues. Religious hardliners have threatened attacks on the burgeoning capital’s only live music establishment, operated by legendary local singer Sahra Halgan. The statuesque Halgan left Hargeisa in 1992 and returned after 23 years living in France.

Made to resemble a traditional nomadic Somali dwelling, Hiddo Dhawr is lined with animal hide. Different textiles add to the decorative gumbo. Shades of beige and red – the hues of the sand and earth of this arid region – scatter across the walls. A man strums an oud, filling the large space with melodies influenced by neighbouring Yemen.

With a relatively expensive $15 entrance fee, the city’s elite – businessmen to television personalities – sit at round tables, dining on camel meat, and spaghetti, a more benign legacy of Italian colonial rule.

Tonight we’re having dinner with a former import-export tycoon originally from Mogadishu, simply known by many as “Chief”.

A rotund man with a glint of relentless confidence in his eye, Chief fled to the United States during the war. He returned as part of a growing diasporan trend, given Somaliland’s relative stability and growth, prefaced on a mass disarmament campaign in the early 1990s.

“First time in the Horn?” he asks.

A few slurps of spaghetti and he’s ready to regale with stories of the former splendour of Mogadishu, long referred to as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”.

“I used to import rice from Thailand, timber from Indonesia, electronics from Japan,” Chief reminisces. “We would pair fine Italian wine with those sweet little lobsters [langoustines] on Lido beach.”

Indeed, Somali territorial waters are home to some of the world’s most prized catch, which also attracts foreign fishing – much of it illegal. Mogadishu’s main fish market reveals an abundance of seafood, especially varieties of tuna coveted by European and Asian markets.

Returning to Mogadishu in the early 1970s as a university graduate from New Delhi, India, Chief expanded his father’s business.

Chief’s tales evoke images of what now exists in fading memories and collectible photography: A crisp, marbled city, where minarets, Italian colonial architecture and Arabic patterns seduced outsiders. Palm tree-lined wide roads bustled with Fiats, Indian rickshaws and cosmopolitan life. Stunning crescent beaches lined by the bright-teal Indian Ocean waters attracted a luxury tourist market of largely Italians and wealthy Europeans, drawn to the iconic ocean view of Al-Uruba and Juuba hotels; their bullet-ridden derelict ruins now haunting the city’s coastline.

1970s Mogadishu: A thriving music scene

“If the decade of the 1960s is referred to as the swinging Sixties in London and Britain, due to the youth-led cultural revolution,” says Maxamed Daahir Afrax, a Somali playwright and scholar, “an interesting parallel may be found in the Mogadishu of the Seventies.”

After independence in 1960, the government that inherited power from Italian colonial rule was largely seen as illegitimate. In 1969, the commander of the army, General Mohammed Siad Barre, led a bloodless military coup.

“When we heard the news of regime change,” says Afrax, “we took to the streets … chanting with slogans in support of the new regime.”

Initially allied with the Soviet Union under Barre, Somalia, given its strategic port cities, was a key pawn in the games of Cold War rivalry in Africa.

An authoritarian government steeped in socialist ideology took hold over time, bringing universal education, healthcare and guaranteed employment, but also violent repression and unbridled nationalism.

Mogadishu was made the centre of political, cultural and economic power, forcing other major cities, such as Hargeisa, into its orbit. Migration from other cities, towns and rural areas to Mogadishu soared. Hargeisa, known at the time as the “hoyga sugaanta”, the home of Somali music, lost its crown.

The arts, under the early years of a revivalist dictatorship, flourished. Theatre, the key dissemination medium for dance music, restoring a long tradition of playwriting in an oral culture, began to prosper. 

Literacy expanded from an estimated 5 to 24 percent. High schools functioned as de facto arts institutions, giving rise to revered bands such as Dur Dur, formed shortly after graduating in 1981.

“The idea was to globalise our culture,” says Dur Dur’s founder, Abdinur Daljir. The band was a rarity: “Other bands worked for the government, we were privately owned,” Daljir says.

Unlike many of Somalia’s neighbours where storied record labels – Munsophone in Sudan, Amha in Ethiopia, or Moto Moto in Kenya – thrived privately, Barre’s regime effectively nationalised the music scene, with ministries and national radio controlling bands and production.

A great deal of Somali music was rarely distributed, confined to broadcast on state-run radios and the live performances in dance halls, theatres, and ballrooms of Mogadishu’s hotels.

“All Somali music is very difficult to find, because it is not fully commercialised,” Ahmed Ismail Samatar, a scholar at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, home to the largest Somali diaspora in the United States, told Afropop Worldwide in 2014.

Even so, the strange bedfellows of a booming economy, a repressive government, and state control of the arts produced what many artists say was the most creative musical period in modern Somali history.

Singer Hibo Nuura in the 1980s [Photo courtesy of Hibo Nuura]

Reasserting Somali identity and women’s empowerment

Barre’s prioritising of a revival of Somali language and culture was consistent with the ideology of Africa’s post-colonial leadership. The authenticite  movements in Sekou Toure’s Guinea or Francois Tombalbaye’s Chad of the same era, used state power to galvanise the arts as an official means of purging foreign influence and achieving decolonisation.

Somali replaced Italian as the official language for teaching and administration.

“One enjoys when they can hear their own language and dance with it,” says Mahmud Abdalla Hussein, nicknamed “Jerry”, the former keyboard player for Iftiin, which became one of the most popular bands. He was speaking at a hotel lobby in Dubai, home to a sizable Somali community which produced music in the 1990s.

Centralising culture in Mogadishu created a focal point for Somali artists all across the Horn of Africa to innovate and collaborate. While Barre sought to control and censor what the government perceived as subversive music, often songs with non-Somali lyrics, poets and songwriters focused on themes of self-sufficiency and rebuilding the country. As such, some songs can perhaps be classified as propaganda music.

Barre’s government implemented policies to promote gender equality, and opened a space for female talent. In the late 1950s, men were employed in theatre to play women. In the 1970s, female voices were soon likened to “broken dates” for their sweetness. In comparison to neighbouring countries with their own robust music industries, Somalia’s was set apart for its prevalence of female singers.

Faadumo Qaasim, Khadra Dahir and Hibo Nuura, among many others, were often more prolific than their male counterparts.

“Women artists helped me a lot, women artists supported each other,” says Khadra Dahir, a singer from Hargeisa who performed with the prestigious Waaberi theatre troupe in both her hometown and Mogadishu.

“We never heard top women artists in Ethiopia. Sudan did not have many women artists, but both the north and south of Somalia had many.”

Dahir says: “Women became the pride and joy of the public … Our role was praised.”

The result of a more inclusive and supportive environment was a vast library of bands and singers which understood and drew from Somalia’s unique position in history and its rich influences. Some bands were operated by the police, the army – even the national penitentiary.

Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Mahmud Abdalla ‘Jerry’ Hussen, right, and Axmed Naaji, legendary composer and founder of Sharero Band, in late 1970s Mogadishu [Photo courtesy of Mahmud Abdalla Hussen]

Hussein’s band Iftiin was operated by the Ministry of Education.

“We started playing old Qaraami [love] songs in an Afrobeat style and it became very successful. Iftiin were all students from the Ministry of Education – some read and wrote music, and some North Koreans trained them.”

Qaraami music derives largely from the north of Somalia, inspired by the cultures of the Red Sea, while Mogadishu’s Banaadiri music is based on Indian pentatonic scales, partly a legacy of Africa’s love of Indian cinema.

“Weekly, Iftiin played four to five places all over Somalia in clubs and theatres,” Hussein says. “Whoever was the best band got the gigs and we were very good back then, so we got most of the gigs.”

Iftiin would fill up dance floors at the Jazira, Jubba or Al-Uruba hotels on Thursday nights.

After its heyday in the 1970s, music production continued until the late 1980s. Then “there was not enough income,” Hussein says. “That’s why I left for Dubai in 1986. We succeeded – but we left.”

The music stops

The late 1980s saw a sharp downturn in Somalia’s economic fortunes – a familiar story heard throughout Africa – forcing most musicians to migrate as opportunities and government salaries dried up. The economic crisis and a government increasingly paranoid about its grip on power repressed production, gradually laying waste to a creative environment. More musicians left by the time the civil war began in 1991.  

“There was a time when we were almost self-sufficient,” Chief says. “We don’t need aid. This country has got the biggest breadbasket. Sugar was ours. Bread was ours. No imports. You know when they started the sugar factory, we used to be one of the biggest importers of sugar. The sugar import duty was 211 percent – to protect local industry.”

Before the IMF’s prescriptions – austerity measures and the slashing of tariffs and subsidies, particularly on agriculture – arrived in much of sub-Saharan Africa in response to the 1980s debt crisis, the rate to the dollar, the former businessman recalled, was six Somali shillings. “When the IMF came, the valuation – from six it went … all the way to the thousands,” he says.

Barre’s 1977 military escapades in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia had cost him Soviet support, and a festering distaste for the junta’s concentration of power in Mogadishu had began to fracture the country. 

By 1988, rebels in northern Somalia agitated for secession through fierce fighting. Barre responded with punishing air strikes on Hargeisa, in an all-out bombing campaign some refer to as “Africa’s Dresden”. 

Warplanes targeted Radio Hargeisa to prevent its use as a communications centre for the secessionist movement. Some radio operators carved a plan to save their collections and dispatched them to neighbouring countries such as Djibouti.

“We buried the tapes under the ground so the bombs won’t hit,” says an elderly journalist who was with the radio in the 1980s, at a meeting at the revived radio station. Several buried caches of music are still unaccounted for because their exact location has been forgotten.

The bombings and mass executions led to tens of thousands of deaths and propelled the country towards an all-out civil war, setting in motion the fall of Barre’s regime three years later. The country factionalised. Resistance movements, some foreign-backed, emerged. A fragile central government diverted its resources from the arts to fighting, effectively ending a once vibrant music scene.

A radio operator prepares for a forthcoming broadcast at Radio Hargeisa [Janto Djassi/Picture Me Different]
A master reel of famous Mogadishu singer Shimaali Axmed Shimaali is held at the Radio Hargeisa archive [Janto Djassi/Picture Me Different]

Reviving a music culture

Shukri Ahmed is the vice minister of culture of Somaliland. Shukri, as she prefers to be called, tells me she was the first female journalist in Somalia. She now leads the effort to restore, organise and catalogue Radio Hargeisa’s archive to a semblance of its former self, and begin the process of digitisation. She says that any kind of international aid rarely gets diverted towards cultural affairs or the national radio. Parched, delicate master tapes and reels lie on several floors and corners of the building.

These days, Shukri and her team are hard at work garnering international investment interest to digitise Radio Hargeisa’s archives. Somaliland’s lack of official international recognition is proving too strong an obstacle.

Hargeisa is seen at dawn from a nearby hilltop [Janto Djassi/Picture Me Different]

Hargeisa today, however, reveals a growing nation. There are an abundance of schools and universities. High-school graduates are gaining scholarships to Ivy League institutions. The strategic port of Berbera, where 30 percent of the world’s oil supply transits, is a target of foreign, particularly Emirati , investment. There are Yemeni refugees, Gulf businessmen and a host of Western diplomats and UN officials.

Some of the musicians in exile believe they let Somalia down during the war by not using their talents and influence to keep Somali culture alive.

“We failed,” says singer Hibo Nuura, “because we were not able to continue to produce art to bring [the diaspora] together or remind them of their motherland.” Her 2002 song, translated as If the Artist Lets You Down, captures this frustration. Nuura, who won a Somali lifetime achievement award for her exploits as a young artist, lives in Minnesota.

Back at Hiddo Dhawr, as dinner finished and oud instrumentalists played their final numbers, a microphone was passed around for at least one person per table to sing a bit of their favourite song. Everyone contributed: Somali verses, poetry, hymns, and hummed melodies drew wide applause. One patron sang the opening verse of Buuraha U Dheer, translated as The Highest Mountains, a cherished Somali anthem from Djibouti, where the Somali language is widely spoken.

Amid Somalia’s protracted civil war and ongoing security threats, in the confines of places such as Hiddo Dhawr, Somali music has a rare space for expression in which a hint of the 1970s can still be felt.

Additional reporting by Nicolas Sheikholeslami and Christina Woolner.

This is the story behind Ostinato Records‘  latest compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa, which highlights the vibrant music era of Somalia just before the civil war. 

Source: Al Jazeera