Uncovering Somalia’s forgotten music of the 1970s

Hargeisa – 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.

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.

-Al Jazeera