When the Somali popular music expert Maryan Omar Ali first met historian Lidwien Kapteijns in person, she brought with her a trunk full of love songs and other sung poetry. Maryan spent her life carefully curating this collection to represent the most productive Somali (and some Djiboutian) songwriters and artists from the 1950s, when Somalia was fighting to gain independence, through the 1990s, when political instability and civil plagued the struggling nation. The tapes collected from this period now form part of the Archive of World Music, where preservation and repatriation efforts are ongoing. Let’s take a glimpse into this important collection of Somali songs.
In 2017, Ahmed Samatar, a professor of International Studies at Macalester College, and Lidwien Kapteijns, a professor of history at Wellesley College, began depositing the first batches of around 500 audio cassettes recordings of popular songs recorded in Somalia between 1955 and 1991, collected from radio broadcasts and privately circulated cassettes by the life-long collector of Somali popular songs and leading expert on the subject, Maryan Omar Ali.
Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali (1977-2011) spent her life collecting and curating Somali sung poetry—songs of love, war, despair, and patriotism. As a child in Somalia, she was immersed in the world of singers, poets, and musicians, growing up in a community with some of Somalia’s most famous artists. She attended rehearsals, brought refreshments, and eventually became a leading advocate for Somali arts and culture, a pursuit that lasted a lifetime.
The primary genre in this collection is known as hees or heello, a modern form of sung poetry accompanied by, depending on the era, hand clapping, frame drums, and other musical instruments, such as the electric piano/synthesizer, organ, guitar, end-blown flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and Arab lute (kaman in Somali or ‘ud in Arabic). Other notable genres include qaraami and praise songs for the Prophet. Many of the genre names used to refer to Somali songs overlap in their usage depending on a number of factors, including time period.
Most of these recordings are songs of the nationalist period (1955-1974), a period after which the military regime (1969-1991) became increasingly oppressive. During this time, the emergence and success of the popular song had much to do with the roles the radio stations in cities like Mogadishu and Hargeisa assumed in the period leading up to and following independence, in addition to the Somali governments’ investment, albeit meager, in the cultural production of poets, playwrights, singers, and musicians.
Somalia is unique among East African countries, or the rest of the world for that matter, in its cultural unity through language. While the country is and has been fraught with political disunity, culture has bound them together. The songs in this collection reflect this unity and the importance of song in times of political and social struggle.
One of the most important functions of popular music in the tumultuous decades from the 50s to the 90s involved the ability of artists to weave together tradition with modernity in the face of change and instability. Many artists used popular songs as a call to action for unity in as a remedy for tribalism. Some of the songs preached unity through themes of Qaranimo, or Somali nationalism, calling for allegiance to the state. Other songs spread ideas of uniting under Islam, charging individuals to look toward the ‘umma (global Islamic community) as a solution to clan rivalry and civil war.
Another important component of the songs in this collection is the presence of powerful female voices in a patriarchal society. In her book, Women’s Voices in a Man’s World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899-1980 (1999), Lidwien Kapteijns writes about the nuanced ways in which poetry, including sung poetry and the popular songs of this collection, give voice to female subversion of this patriarchy, highlighting the importance of women in Somali society. Many of the love and lament-themed songs that form the qaraami genre were frowned upon by religious authorities and conservative society, especially in the 50s and 60s. Mixed gender dancing and socialization, women on stage, and themes of love and desire were viewed as irreverent. Thus, the women who made a living performing this music were particularly vulnerable to oppression. Pressing on, many singers throughout the decades, such as Magool and Sahra Axmed–both featured in this collection–were heroic in their efforts to change conceptions of art, gender relations, and cultural unity. For more on individual artists and songs in the collection, and suggested readings and resources, here is a link to the finding aid: