Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa

Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa

September 25, 2017

Written by:

Nicolas Sheikholeslami

Edited by:

Dragoș Rusu

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The starting point

The Attic met Nicolas Sheikholeslami during his visit to Bucharest where he performed as part of Circuit Diagram & Derya Iildirim at the Outernational Days 2 festival, to talk about his latest project 'Sweet as Broken Dates – Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa', a compilation of Somali music that has been released on his partners NY based imprint Ostinato Records. Interview by Victor Stutz & Dragoș Rusu.

In the autumn/winter of 2015, I began researching Somali music on YouTube. I heard Somali song which I liked a lot and thought to myself ‘OK, I don´t know any other Somali music,’ so I plunged into YouTube and got hooked to the fact that a lot of the stuff you find on YouTube consists of videos of live performances. The videos are digitized versions of VHS recordings or recorded videos from the state television. As I could often see the time and the date of the recordings, I realized a lot of the stuff was from the 1980s.

For example, in a 1988 video, one could see a crazy party in Mogadishu, with nicely dressed women and funky dudes. They were partying when the civil war had already started in the northern part of the country. I got really hooked. I felt like I was traveling back in time. Watching the video from my standpoint, 25-30 years later, I knew what would happen, but they couldn't know at that time. I was obsessed with the idea that this would be lost, until now.

I spent some months checking for this kind of stuff. It is not easily accessible, because there were no records, no tracks numbered, no name or artwork — just recordings. And most were not even made in a proper studio. I thought: “OK, now that I spent so much time on this, I should have other people take part in this.” My idea was to create a tape, as most of the stuff had been privately recorded on this format, I thought it would be nice to take it from YouTube back to tape, to make an object out of it one could hold in their hands. Looking for a title of the tape, I thought about this one song by a band called Iftiin, a song where the women and the men are singing ´Au revoir, au revoir mon amour, au revoir.’ While I was listening to that, I had the feeling that they were not just singing about their amour, but also about the entire culture in itself. The proper translation for au revoir is not good bye forever, but just good bye for now. We will see each other again. I put this tape online and took it to several shops in Berlin and Hamburg. Later on, Vik Sohonie (who runs the New York-based imprint Ostinato Records) found the tape online and he became obsessed with it. He approached me and asked me if I would like to do this properly, not in a bootleg kind of way. I agreed. So, this is how we met.

In the winter of 2015 we agreed to start doing things professionally. We did our best to get access to the Somali diaspora community, but it was hard. At first, we wrote a lot of messages on YouTube channels. I wrote several messages, but YouTube is not like Facebook, you don´t instantly realize when you get a message. Somalis prefer phone calls and to handle things with personal meetings. So the starting point was rather hard.

One of our main ideas behind this project was to give people another perspective on Somali culture. People who would hear this music will see Somali culture in a different light and the next time they speak to a Somali or speak about Somali culture, they might have something different to say. There is a bad reputation, without any actual knowledge.
photo credits: Janto Djassi
photo credits: Janto Djassi

Archives in Hargeisa

In London, there is this annual event, called Somali Week Festival, where Somalis from the global diaspora are invited to perform or to give talks. I contacted the organizers several times, but they never replied, until three days before the event, when I got a message from the lady organizing it, who invited me there. Ali Sugule Egal, a great composer, playwright, actor and poet, a key figure of Somali culture, had just died in Dubai, and the festival was paying tribute. She explained that this event is where all the musicians and artists in London gather, so if I could attend, she could introduce me to everybody. I booked a flight to London and attended. Besides Martin Orwin, an English professor who teaches Somali at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I was the only non-Somali in this event. I couldn’t understand anything. I paid attention to the gestures. These days you will find a lot of young Somali people in Hamburg and Berlin, but back then, not so many. It was an enriching experience.

The lady whom I met in London organizes the diaspora’s cultural events. She is the wife of Jama Musse Jama, proprietor of the Hargeisa Cultural Center and Red Sea Foundation, which purchased cassette tape stocks of “music studios” that were quickly going extinct, in an effort to prevent these prized catalogs from being destroyed or ending up lost. “Music studios” meant something different from what we would associate with a studio today. Imagine opening up a shop, we have a tape player, we record what is on the radio for all day long. Then, one day, a guy would come in and say ‘I want a collection of this singer’, and the studio owner would tell them: ‘OK, come back tomorrow,’ after which he would make a compilation of that singer’s best songs.

Most of the tapes were not recorded in a proper studio. Sometimes, it was a living room session, sometimes it was recorded from the radio. We later spoke to one of the guys from the Iftiin Band, Mahmud Abdalla "Jerry" Hussen, now a pianist at the restaurant of a 7-star hotel in Dubai, who said: ´We never went to studio to record. They just put a small tape recorder in the mixer. All live from the stage. I remember this guy who was the mixer guy, he used to put a tape recorder in the mixer. And they went to the market and they sold them. There is no copy-right, nothing.’

At the archive in Hargeisa, we started searching through the cassettes for the singers we had re-searched on YouTube. We would take, let's say, 100 tapes, with two tape decks and we skipped through. A lot of the material was traditional music consisting of vocals, oud and drums. But we were looking for a particular sound that thrived during the 1970s & ‘80s. Once we found some-thing that might be interesting for us, we put it aside. When we later revisited that material, we couldn't use seven out of eight cassettes, even if we like low-fi aesthetics, because the sound quality was too poor. Sometimes I would cry as there was a beautiful song, but you just couldn’t enjoy it because the sound was more noise than music. Most of these cassettes were copies that already have been dubbed many times before. So it is really hard to find a proper sounding copy. You have to be very lucky. The compilation is built from those tapes in the Red Sea Foundation’s archive, tapes that we found in neighboring Djibouti’s markets, and some from private collections in the diaspora, and the personal stock of a man who works at Radio Hargeisa.

photo credits: Janto Djassi
photo credits: Janto Djassi

Music Studios

Almost half of the stuff featured on the compilation is from theater soundtracks. Theater plays, as we learned, were the biggest media back then, much more important than cinema. It was also used by the state to educate people. Theaters had the actors on stage and the bands would play underneath or on the stage, while the actors would sing and dance in Bollywood manner. Some of the actors were actually singers, but a lot of them were just actors and somebody underneath the stage would actually sing. There was a new theater play every few months and everybody would go and see them. Wherever you went, in every car, in every taxi, there would be the tape playing the soundtrack to that theater play that literally everybody had seen.

All the music that was recorded professionally was recorded in the state radio. For a very short time, there was a private studio in the back of a shop that would sell electronic equipment. They only recorded around eight 7-inch records, so usually all the proper recordings were made in the radio station. By the 1980s there were shops as I mentioned before referred to as “music studios.” Due to the political system, there was no copyright because music was considered to be a common good, belonging to the people. If you were an official artist, you were state-employed and you would get a monthly salary. You would not be paid for the recordings you made, since it was your job to be an artist. Everybody could sell the music themselves. So these music studios were not record labels, but just some guy who had recorded and sold tapes. For example, there were some music studios where one would have a nice living room and he would invite his favorite artists: ´Come over, I will provide a nice dinner, some money and you will record a cassette which I can then sell in my shop.’ This was the idea of the music studio. Those kinds of studios were later transformed into YouTube channels. Those guys were not only collecting cassettes, but also VHS recordings. A lot of those guys have branded their studios, like Studio This or Studio That, and they upload the recording they make, with their own brand. Often they wouldn't officially own the rights.

There are almost no venues for live music these days in Mogadishu, even though the National Theater is undergoing a restoration process. Younger singers are around and are quite popular. But still, there are a lot of people who are totally against this and consider music and everything related to it as “haram”.

Worldwide, the views on Somali culture are rather negative. There are some famous novels, but most of those popular novels deal with topics like the civil war, the escape of Somalis and female genital mutilation. One of our main ideas behind this project was to give people another perspective on Somali culture. People who would hear this music will see Somali culture in a different light and the next time they speak to a Somali or speak about Somali culture, they might have some-thing different to say. There is a bad reputation, without any actual knowledge.

Before the war, to perform live, you could be a state employee for the big national theatre group called Waaberi which covered some hundred member — musicians, dancers, poets, and actors. This would allow you to concentrate on your art all day long.

Or, you could perform in night clubs, where private bands could play. All those relatively expensive night clubs were part of luxury hotels in Mogadishu. The audience would compromise of tourists and wealthy people, who came to dance to live performances. So there were certain venues for live concerts, but those bands would also perform in subsidized big concerts, let’s say in a stadium or the theater, where entrance was free of charge or only symbolic. There was a lot of live music going on.

photo credits: Janto Djassi
photo credits: Janto Djassi

Somali music after the civil war

With the outbreak of the war, most of the bands didn’t flee entirely. Many migrated or sought asylum in the UK, part of a long tradition of economic migrants beginning with Somali seaman in the early 20th century from what was then British Somaliland settling in English port cities.

Imagine going to London, no equipment, nothing but your life. London is such an expensive place. You can´t even find a room to rehearse, and even if you had a room for rehearsal, where would you perform? There was no infrastructure for live music like back home.

There is also really great music recorded in the diaspora, also some of it is featured on this compilation, but the style would be more minimal. We have one recording, which I think was recorded in England, where you have a guitar, bass guitar and organ, and a drum computer. This would be a three-piece band. Some of this stuff from the diaspora music would be either just one guy on the keyboard, programming, and the singer on top, or sometimes a portable instrument, like a saxophone, bass guitar and keyboard. The setup was way more reduced compared to those mini-orchestras. As far as I know, they would play at a weddings or at community gatherings, but the infrastructure for performances was missing.

You have to make a distinction between the old musicians and the new generation. When we met some of the old instrumentalists, for them it was like ´yeah, that´s what we did, 30 years ago, now it´s over, but I would love to see Somali music revived again´. I would love at some point, to see this Buena Vista Social Club approach with the old Somali musicians, to get them together and do something again.

For the young ones now, it is this international popular style. There are a lot of people who want to be or actually are singers, but you wouldn't find a single drummer or a single bass player, be-cause everybody now wants to be the star, the singer.

The old music is really complex, so the real artists for Somalis are the poets, not the singers. A proper old song that you would listen to would have the poet, who writes the lyrics. Then the poet would hand in the lyrics to someone who would see how all those words can be spoken or sung in a rhythmic way. After he had turned the lyrics into a rhythmic pattern, this guy would then say: ´OK, it should be this music conductor who will provide the music for those lyrics and that particular singer who will convey what the poem is saying. So, there will be around four different parties involved, before the instrumentalist even enters. These days the music is produced by a single guy, very talented ones indeed, using a keyboard, and somebody who sings. Maybe his own lyrics, or old lyrics, but it´s not as complex as it used to be back in the days.

A group of young guys in Hamburg who settled in the last few years as refugees have been helping us with identifying singers and song titles. When we played it to them, they would literally recognize any song after two seconds. It’s not vintage music, it is old music for them, but they still listen to it and it is hugely important for them. And, as many Somalis from the older generation would agree, the quality of the music has arguably never reached that point again. Those bands were playing music every day. They were hardcore musicians, and this was the way they made music. Somalis young and old consider the time from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s as the golden era.

photo credits: Janto Djassi
photo credits: Janto Djassi

A Broken Date

I spent three weeks in Hargeisa, in April. I arrived very early in the morning, we got picked up by a guy working for the Red Sea Foundation. He drove us down town. The city is very flat. Most of the buildings have only one floor and it’s very spread out. We went to the cultural center, which really looked like an oasis. Hargeisa is pretty high on a mountain, more than 1000 meters above sea level. It was very dusty, but also very green.

In Hargeisa, if you would go to a nice café, there would be mostly men. When we spoke to some educated young women, they said that 'we come here, but if we come as a group, with one man and three girls, then other men would come up and ask: what are you doing here alone, non-married woman? Where is your man?’ It’s not dangerous, but it is an effort to stand up straight to confront those issues. There are also some well-respected women in the government, but they really have to claim their positions in society again. In the 1980s it was way more balanced; the role of the women was different from what it is today.

For some of the locals, I think I looked ‘wild’ or improper because my hair was longer. Long hair these days is considered feminine. None of the Somali men these days have long hair or a beard except a mustache.

A lot of this music would be listened to while driving cars. We had a taxi driver named Zaat who also worked in the immigration administration. He would always having music on, old music. He was more into the traditional music, with oud and singing. He would sometimes listen to heavily distorted music, and I asked if he didn't have any problem with the quality of such music. He said that, as long as he understands the lyrics, that's fine. Lyrics could be about love, but, also about a lot of social issues: the role of women, the guy who behaves badly, how people should progress. Most of the arts were socially progressive.

The position of women was, perhaps, one of the most progressive not only on the continent, but arguably worldwide. They had as many female singers as their male counterparts. We are not unearthing or ‘discovering’ anything from Somalia. It’s their culture and it is perfectly alive for them, but the larger world has, for many reasons, not paid attention to it.

The title of the compilation has a, shall we say, sweet story behind it. Back in the 1950s, female theater roles were played by men. As women pushed forward in the arts, what they were doing was considered subversive. There was this famous singer called Maandeeq. Jerry told us that when she first entered the stage back then in the early sixties, people would say “what a broken date!” because of sweet her voice is!


text edits: Claudiu Oancea

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Nicolas Sheikholeslami

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