On August 18, 2022, the renowned Somali poet, Abwaan Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, also known as “Hadraawi,” which means “Master of Speech,” passed away at the age of 79. Sometimes called the “Shakespeare of Somalia,” Hadraawi penned hundreds of poems and songs throughout his career. His poetry is forever sealed in the legacy of Somali popular music (hees, heello). Sung poetry is an important historical medium for confronting Somali political and social issues. Hadraawi’s oeuvre includes a broad repertoire, from love songs to laments of war. Many of his poems criticized the Barre military regime of Somalia, which led to a five-year prison sentence for the artist beginning in 1973. Several of his most famous songs and epic poems were composed from jail.
Harvard’s Archive of World Music (AWM) holds a collection of over 500 representative tapes of this popular music dating from the 1950s-1990s. Many of the song lyrics in this collection were composed by Hadraawi. In Somali popular music, the lyrics are often considered the most important aspect of the song, and many songs are known less by their title and more by their first poetic line.
Listen to one of Hadraawi’s famous poems, Wayeel dadow, part of the AWM’s Somali Songs Collection, set to music and performed by Mohamed Mogeh Liban in 1972. The first line begins, “Walaac anigoo ku seexday [I worried while I slept]…” a song about two brothers who deceived one another, a metaphor for the ill-fated unity between British and Italian Somaliland territories. After efforts to join under a single government fell apart in the late 1960s, a military coup led by the Barre regime filled the vacuum of power. The change was initially welcomed by many Somali people, yet killings, mass arrests, corruption, and fascism remained the status quo. Artists like Hadraawi were important in documenting the history and zeitgeist of the Somali people during this tumultuous time.
Spring 2021 marks the one year anniversary of Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi’s death as a result of complications from COVID-19. Since that time, the world has lost over three million people to the virus. Hudeidi can be heard throughout the Archive of World Music’s Somali Songs Collection of approximately 500 audiocassettes comprising a range of popular music from the 1950s-1990s.
Who was Hudeidi?
Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi (1928-2020). Image courtesy BBC World Africa, 2020.
Born in Somalia in 1928, Hudeidi spent a significant portion of his childhood in Yemen. It was here that he learned to play the Arab lute known as the oud, or kaman/kaban in Somali, a type of short-necked plucked chordophone that is ubiquitous in music of the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey (MENAT). Although symbolically tied to the MENAT, the oud is an important instrument in myriad genres and styles throughout the world, especially in Muslim societies such as Somalia.
When Hudeidi came of age, he moved back to Somalia and also spent time in Djibouti where he sometimes clashed with authorities for singing political songs. He made significant contributions to genres of hees, or Somali sung poetry. His boldness and virtuosity made him well-known amongst Somali musicians and audiences. Throughout his career, he accompanied some of Somalia’s most famous vocalists, such as Magool and Sara Ahmed, and worked alongside other lauded oud players, such as Omar Dhule, and composers such as Abdullahi Qarshe. Here is a video of Hudeidi and Qarshe together in a Somali television interview, which concludes with a performance by the oud master:
One of Hudeidi’s most famous compositions was a song he wrote for his brother:
(translation by linguist Martin Orvin, SOAS 2012).
You, the abundant light
That my eyes graze on
Do not take me lightly
You who shared My mother’s womb
You born of my father’s back
Who shared the breast
We weaned from the same I shall never forget you…
Qaraami (Love Songs)
Hudeidi is one of the most revered accompanists of qaraami (love songs), which form a large portion of the AWM’s Somali Songs Collection. The above song exemplifies the broad nature of the “love” theme in such music, which can include love of family, nature, or Allah (God), in addition to romantic love.
Celebrated and active until his death, Hudeidi collaborated with contemporary artists in traditional and hybrid genres throughout the world and in his London home, where he settled later in life. One notable collaboration was with Aar Maanta, the British-Somali singer who reimagined Hudeidi’s famous song mentioned above, Uur Hooyo:
Music Across the Indian Ocean
Hudeidi’s work exemplifies the cross-cultural fusion resulting from centuries of trade relationships between Muslim societies connected by the Indian Ocean, an “Afro-Asiatic seascape” comprising “the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal [that] is framed by Madagascar, the Horn of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Southeast Asian archipelago, and Australia” (Byl and Sykes 2020:395).
Having spent a significant portion of his early years in Yemen, Hudeidi learned the fundamentals of the Arabic melodic modal system, known as maqamat, which he applied to Somali genres and carried with him in his world travels. Although many Somali oud players adopted elements of Arabic maqamat and taqasim (solo melodic improvisation) in the development of Somali genres, Hudeidi studied these elements extensively during his time living in the Yemeni port city of Aden.
In his adult life, he was as much a teacher as performer, known for offering musical instruction, often free of charge, to students from around the world. His home in London was known as an “informal music school” where he offered lessons, strong Yemeni coffee, and “a bed to anyone who needed it” (BBC World Africa, 2020).
In 2003, Hudeidi was interviewed by BBC London. In one of the few English language interviews available of the musician, he describes his love of the oud:
In honor of Hudeidi, below is a playlist of qaraami songs from AWM Somali Songs Collection. We suggest you enjoy with some strong coffee. For more on the wider collection, see this previous blog post.
(Each track contains the link to the song in the Archive of World Music and another YouTube video version.)