HOW THE SOMALI DIASPORA IS USING MUSIC AS A TOOL TO PIECE TOGETHER LOST HISTORIES
By: Sun Noor | Art by: Michael Rancic
For the Somali diaspora, exploring our roots through art has become a way to pay homage to our history. As a tight-knit community, connecting with other Somalis and creating chosen family is a natural process—including coming together through music. Unearthing the roots of our musical history has been incredibly affirming, especially when it comes to understanding why we express ourselves in certain ways.
When it comes to anything artistic, the Somali community often overlooks the depth to which our culture inadvertently impacts our vision. Recognizing the rich and influential artistic culture of my Somali heritage during adulthood, yet not having the privilege to fully explore those elements, often leaves me with a hollow feeling and a sense of deprivation.
Like most Somalis who live in the West, my family fled the country in 1991. Somalia was divided into territories by British, Italian, and French colonizers, creating instability within the country. Tensions mounted between the territories during a particularly unstable period from 1967 to 1990, sparking a civil war when dictator Siad Barre, who entered office in 1969, was forced out in 1991.
Along with Somalia’s geography, the war disfigured the country’s artistic landscape, too. Artists were among the primary targets of Barre’s oppressive regime. Not only were the arts an extension of our oral tradition, their proliferation became the ultimate means of decolonization following Somalia’s independence on July 1, 1960. Artists used their voices to revitalize lost history, marking Somalia’s rebirth and the dawn of a golden age of art.
This crucial era between the early 1970s to mid-1980s captured a lot of pioneering sounds and techniques both within the music and poetry highlighting pre-and post-civil-war Somalia. Poetry (gabay) is the oldest form of communication known to Somalis and was only recited and memorized until the early 1970s, when orthography and transcription was introduced. Though this golden age lasted a little over a decade, it truly captured what Somali culture consisted of. The tragic turn of events contributed to an erasure of an important part of our history, as many artists fled the country while others were forced to destroy their work because it challenged the oppressive regime.
I still remember my mother’s description of pre-war Mogadishu. The country’s largest city sits along the coast of the Indian Ocean and was once characterized by its bright, beautiful beaches, minimalist yet picturesque stone architecture, and serene aura—the complete opposite of how the country has been portrayed post-war.
I also remember my family’s collection of worn-out VHS and cassette tapes filled with movies and live recordings of musical performances. I remember my dad’s briefcase packed with tattered yellow notepads of poetry he wrote, now faded and illegible as the years have passed. A wide range of music played around the house, from the legendary sounds of Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi’s oud to the iconic Dur-Dur Band’s intricate, rhythmic compositions and infectious grooves.
Like many of my generation, music from the country’s golden age in the 1970s and ’80s was my introduction to Somali music. It fascinated me, leaving a lasting impression. Although I went on to discover music outside of what my parents introduced me to, I often thought about the music that sounded like an amalgamation of funk, disco, and reggae music coming from those grainy, pixelated tapes.
So too have artists like Muxubo Mohamed, a Somali-Canadian DJ and producer based in Toronto who performs as OBUXUM (their first name spelled backwards). Mohamed is the first in their immediate family to pursue music, though after reconnecting with their father a few years ago, Mohamed discovered his involvement with Somalian reggae. “My dad was a huge reggae fan and claims that he used to write music and collaborate with artists such as Augustus Pablo, who is one of my favourite producers.”
Delving further into their family history, Mohamed emerged with their earliest project, the three-part series of instrumental EPs, The Metaphor. “Essentially, what I wanted to do with that was do a lot of work about my roots—where I come from—and share those stories because it’s intrinsic to who I am. It’s what’s going to influence what I do and how I do it.”
For Somali-Canadian indie songwriter Maryam Said, who performs as Poolblood, Somali music was the first music they remember hearing. “My cousins in the U.K. would drive us around to different spots,” Said recalls. “I remember being seven or eight, and we were in the car, and she was playing some Somali music. I think it was probably the early 2000s—very new generation of Somali music.”
Like Mohamed, over the past few years, Said began exploring their family history. “When COVID hit, I feel like everyone kind of got closer to family, or just started to really look inward,” Said says. “I started following lots of these archival accounts like Dhageeyso. There are a lot of archival Instagram pages that were doing a lot of great, honest work for Somali history, and I was just deep-diving into that.”
With physical media not always standing the test of time, having access to digitized versions of Somali art has enabled us to reconnect with our cultural history despite the deteriorated sound quality. Online databases, Somali media, and beloved social media profiles like Dhageeyso account for most of the knowledge we carry.
Although reminiscing about Somalia’s golden age of art brings back fond memories for younger generations like myself, Mohamed, and Said, it often leaves our elders unsettled. Those who undergo traumatic events often look towards religion for salvation, leading many to believe that music and Islam could not coexist. Those who choose to look to resolve their trauma through religion also tend to forget about their roots.
“When we think of Somalinimo [being Somali], music is something interesting because it is incredibly influential,” Mohamed explains. “Culturally, you see how music is important, but then it kind of challenges religion. You have people who aren’t for it.”
Hearing my parents’ stories about growing up in Somalia confirmed how conservatism was something that was adopted later on by Somalis who have assimilated to extremist rule in Somalia. These restrictive values greatly impacted our decisions to pursue artistic endeavors—and thus the preservation of music—as we were unsure of the response from our community.
“Deciding to put yourself out there and make music is a struggle. If you’re a woman or queer on top of that, it’s a bigger struggle. I mean, I’ve never asked for acceptance because I’m not gonna go anywhere that doesn’t celebrate me, but it’s interesting to see the dialogue around it,” They add, “You can be Muslim and still love music and still be a musician and still be Somali. I make this [music] for me and for the other Somalis that are like me.”
Post-colonization, art flourished because it was such a natural extension of self-expression. Poetry proliferated. Folkloric dance troupes emerged and began touring adjacent to the beloved musicians who began experimenting with sound. The most popular genre of music at the time was called qaraami, a style once characterized by a primary instrument such as the oud or Somali drum. Records like the early output of Waaberi, a music, dance, and theatre group boasting over 300 members that was active from the early 1960s to 1990, captured the complex yet minimalist sound. The introduction of soul, jazz, bossa nova, funk, and rock through artists such as Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Bob Marley transformed the genre without diminishing its roots. One group that merged rock and funk was Shareero Band. And then there was Iftin, whose ambient synth-driven sounds were Afrofuturistic.
Women led the post-colonization musical revival. Cultural developments during this period birthed buraanbur, the pairing of epic poetry with drums and interpretive dances, mostly performed by women. This artistic tradition has since become a part of Somali wedding ceremonies, where women gather in a circle, clapping and singing as they take turns dancing in the centre, similar to Soul Train.
Since the nomadic lifestyle meant moving around frequently, singing became a mode of communication and expression. Having theatre troupes consisting of women or bands fronted by women only made sense. Their vocals, strikingly high-pitched and often experimental, tied everything together, and performance became a way to celebrate women. Legendary singers such as Hibo Nuura and Maryam Mursal, who were once part of Waaberi and remained active in music after fleeing Somalia, as well as Saado Ali Warsame, paved the way with their unique voices and inspired an entire generation, including Fadumo Qasim and Sahra Dawo, who would lead Dur-Dur Band.
Using music to convey truths became an underlying tradition of modern Somali music. Farxiyo Fiska’s 2015 song “Wadada Ku Qul Qul” (“Hit the Road”) in particular resonates with Mohamed. “It means a lot to hear a woman not singing a love song, basically saying that men need to take accountability. And the fact that she centres the stage? I’m still living for it!” she gushes.
As pre-war tensions began to build between Barre’s oppressive government and Somali civilians, music took a turn from poetic, introspective love songs to a medium in which prominent musicians could mobilize and uplift their fellow citizens in an earnest manner. Women were integral to the resistance movement and still managed to address ongoing issues amid censorship. The shift can be heard in the catalogues of many influential groups such as the 40-piece Somali/Djiboutian collective 4 Mars. Their later works captured the sentiment of loss, uncertainty, and despair leading up to the war.
Not only does traditional Somali music resonate with younger Somalians simply given the language, it often inadvertently influences our artistic ideas on a deep level. Listening to how these compositions are structured, the instrumentation and storytelling leave me with a warm feeling. The way that musicians layer different sounds together, creating an elaborate soundscape, is unmatched.
“When Cumar Dhuule [the late Somalian singer dubbed “the king of Somali music”] plays his oud, it’s beautiful. It’s so meditative,” Said says. “Even in some of my music I was writing in my room, I [realized] the strumming patterns kind of sit the same. It feels so comforting.”
Surrounding ourselves with like-minded Somalis who are just as invested and curious about lost artforms became our newfound way of building a strong community. Somali-led archival projects such as Waaberi Phone and Dhageeyso and the stories from our elders that we hold on to provide us with a better understanding about the evolution of Somali music and history through sound and subject matter, highlighting key musical figures and traditions.
While few Somalian artists have broken through the modern mainstream, musicians such as Toronto’s K’naan and Ladan Hussein (formerly known as Cold Specks) have galvanized the younger generation by not shying away from drawing on their Somali background in their art. Emerging in the mid-2000s, K’naan (aka Keinan Warsame) in particular continued the tradition of poetic and political Somali music in his mashup of hip-hop, soul, and R&B. While Somali parents found his music to be overly nostalgic, diaspora kids saw him as a source of inspiration and pride as he pointedly described life in Somalia under extremist rule in early songs such as “Soobax.”
For the next generation, taking that initial step of sharing art becomes less daunting around like-minded and supportive people. “I found a lot of my community through Somali Twitter when I started making music,” Said recalls. “I found people who are genuinely looking for community, solidarity, and connection with both identities of being an artist and being Somali.”
Building this newfound community has created spaces that enable us to freely explore our artistic endeavours. “You find your people—and I feel like I found that within the artistic Somali community of playwrights, directors, poets, and other art forms. The people I am around are generally open,” Mohamed notes.
There are many spaces in which Somalis feel a sense of belonging, but when it comes to artistic spaces, making room for ourselves has been a constant challenge. “I feel like for so long, we’ve been invisible, and any representation about Somalia in the West has always been so negative,” Said says.
Looking at the past and what Somalia’s once-prolific music scene could have become will not undo the circumstances that led to the demise of its golden age. By piecing together our music history, we started the process of continuation. The fact that the Somali diaspora has been creating plenty of meaningful art that connects us only indicates that we are on the right track.
“There are a lot of people who genuinely enjoy their craft and use their Somalinimo in order to navigate their art, which is great,” Said insists. “It really is sort of a rewrite of our history in a diasporic way. We just literally need to exist and allow ourselves to have that existence.”
We have already come to terms that dealing with unwarranted backlash or having our art deemed as inaccessible is a constant struggle. We recognize that we cannot allow the art to become diluted in search for widespread acceptance.
“Never compromise what you’re visualizing,” Mohamed declares. “Bring it to life and make it deep. You’ll find your people along the way.”