Album review

Lost Somali tapes: ″Sweet as broken dates″

Ostinato Records recently released an amazing compilation of Somali music, ″Sweet as broken dates″, which reminds listeners that – despite the prevalent images of a land torn apart by civil war – Somalia was once a country with a thriving cultural tradition. Review by Richard Marcus

When the military overthrew what was an ostensibly corrupt government in the late 1960s, Somalia underwent a cultural renewal. Both firmly nationalist and socialist, the new government implemented policies which strengthened Somalian identity.

Aside from introducing anti-corruption legislation, the new government went about the business of educating its people. Universal education and health care were established and the rate of illiteracy was reduced from nearly 99% to less than 50%. More importantly Somali was made the official language of the country and for the first time the language was properly codified so it could be written.

All of this produced a burgeoning cultural scene. In what will sound odd to us, the state sponsored everything from theatrical performances to pop bands. Of course this way they were able to exert control over the content of what was being produced in the official venues, but it also created an environment in which private bands could flourish and find audiences in bars and other locales.

Listening to the sixteen tracks from the 1970s and early 1980s included on this compilation, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between those songs recorded by bands being paid by the government and those working privately.

What's wonderful about this collection, aside from the fact it exists at all, is the chance to see the diversity of musical influences present in Somalia at the time. The vocal stylings, especially of the female singers, are reminiscent of the sound I've come to associate with music from South East Asia, specifically Bollywood musicals.

Not being able to understand what's being said and I'm assuming they're singing in Somali, you get wrapped up in the cadences and the beauty of the individual voices. Listening to the women singing on this album you can tell why somebody remarked listening to a women sing was as "sweet as broken dates".

A musical melting pot

While this explains the "Sweet as Broken Dates" component of the recording's title, "Lost Somali Tapes" explains the rest. These songs are literally take from cassette recordings made during the era when these groups were performing. Now, although it's obvious great pains have been made to restore the music as much as possible, given the provenance of the original material some sound distortion is to be expected. So don't be surprised if you hear some warbles and hiss – consider it a mark of the music's authenticity.

Aside from this what you will hear are some really quite incredible sounds. Remember the time period ranges from the early 70s to the 80s and 90s and what types of music were popular then.

Cover of Ostinato Records′ compilation ″Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa″
A Somalia few of us know anything about: ″Sweet As Broken Dates″ captures the vibrant music scene which emerged on the Horn of Africa in the nineteen seventies and eighties. Blending soul, funk, reggae and disco with a touch of Bollywood, the sounds that emerged were wholly unique

Some of the music was recorded outside of Somalia, especially those tracks recorded in the latter periods which came from recordings made everywhere Somali expats resided – from Canada to Dubai. However,  regardless of where the music was recorded, you'll notice none of the groups can be pigeon-holed into one style. On almost every song you'll hear a mixture of soul, funk, reggae and even disco meshed together with what sounds like a mixture of South East Asian and African music.

Even more fascinating is how each of them have the ability to make the combination of sounds unique. Unlike North American music of this type where all the bands seemed to sound the same, here each band put their own stamp on their music. For instance the opening song on the CD, "Buuraha U Dheer" (The Highest Mountains) credited to Nimco Jamaac, is at first reminiscent of Bollywood, but as the song progresses you start to pick out other musical elements as well.

However, as the album proceeds you begin to notice that the arrangements owe a far greater debt to the sounds of American soul and funk than anything else. From the classic use of horn sections adding extra emphasis to the beat to the steady throb of the bass and drums driving the song forward, you can hear why many of the performers cited American musicians as their influences.

Even without being able to understand the lyrics of the songs, the titles translated into English give you a good idea what the songs were about. Designed to get people up and dancing more than anything else, the subject matter seems to have followed the standard pop music themes of love, men treating women badly, and unrequited love. ("Rejected Due to My Circumstances", "Romeo and Juliet" and "Men are Cruel and Kind" to name but three.)

The birth of cultural identity in the aftermath of colonialism

Aside from the music contained on the recording, the booklet accompanying the collection is a wonderful mix of interviews and essays about Somalian popular music during this period. The producers at Ostinato Records have managed to track down various members of the bands represented and interviewed them. Their memories and thoughts about what it was like to perform during those times helps the listener to understand just how vital a period this was in Somalian history. Of course there was more happening than just popular music, but it was symbolic of a people trying to find their own cultural identity after colonial rule.

″Sweet As Broken Dates″ is a fascinating record of a Somalia few of us know anything about. It is also rather heartbreaking when one considers what might have evolved had this newly developed musical scene not been cut off so abruptly by the wars and terrorism of the 1990s. Still, maybe this record of the past will inspire a new generation of musicians to find a way to begin rebuilding the popular music of Somalia.

Richard Marcus

© Qantara.de 2017

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