Somalia’s Golden Era

For centuries Mogadishu was one of the most important and prosperous cities on the East African coast, lying right in the middle of the region’s gold trade and the Silk Road maritime route. In the 14th and 15th centuries various explorers described it as a magnificent metropolis, where buildings were several stories high and grandiose palaces and minarets dominated the city skyline. But you don’t have to go that far back to encounter a peaceful, vibrant, and cosmopolitan Mogadishu: up until the 1980s Somalia’s capital was a trendy tourist destination and a cultural hub, known as “The Pearl of The Indian Ocean” thanks to its impressive white architecture and sandy beaches. 

Somalia has long had a rich theater and poetry tradition, but at the start of the 1970s the music scene exploded with influences from all over the world: Bollywood soundtracks, American funk and disco, Jamaican reggae, and the music of legends like Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti mixed with local rhythms and melodies: Banadiri rhythms from the south, the spirit summoning ritual music known as Saar, and the reggae-like Dhaanto of the nomadic tribes from the Ogaden region. 

This concoction resulted in the new Somali sound that would become emblematic of the period known as Somalia’s Golden Age. Bands like Dur-Dur and Iftin dressed in the latest fashion, rocking afros, platform shoes, and sequinned jackets while performing at the city’s best nightclubs, mostly located in its fanciest hotels, like the Jazeera, Jubba and the emblematic Al-Uruba. Women, too, were central to the scene, and singers like Fadumo Qassim, backed by the legendary Shareero Band, as well as Dur-Dur’s Sahra Dawo, became some of the country’s biggest stars. 

All this artistic production — including the work of Mogadishu’s National Theatre, which had opened in 1969 and was seen as central force in the development of a new, proudly Somali society — flourished in the shadow of a repressive regime led by Siad Barre, who had taken power in 1969 following a bloodless coup. His socialist and nationalistic government guaranteed universal education and promoted the arts in an effort to rebuild Somali culture after years of colonialism. Different ministries and government branches even sponsored their own bands: Iftin Band for example were the Ministry of Education’s group, while Bakaka Band, who would later become the great Dur-Dur, were sponsored by the Ministry of Interior. 

Although this was a fertile period for Somali arts and music, it didn’t take long for Barre’s regime to become violently repressive. By the late 1980s the country was in the grip of a severe economic crisis, and as dissidence began bubbling, musicians saw a gradual curtailment of their freedom. Many left for Europe, America, and the Middle East. In his attempt to thwart secessionist movements in the north of the country, in 1988 Barre attacked current day Somaliland, completely razing the city, including the famous Radio Hargeisa and its archives, to the ground. The civil war that swept the country a few years later all but wiped out the remaining traces of the once vibrant Golden Era, and after decades of war and myopic reporting the music and legacy of bands like Sharero, Iftin, and Dur Dur was almost forgotten. 

“It’s a tragedy that young Somalis don’t know about their culture, and that it hasn’t always been like this,” Dr Jama Musse Jama, the founder of Hargeisa’s Red Sea Cultural Centre, once told me. Both Somalia and Somaliland (which has since become independent, although it is not internationally recognized) have become much more conservative, and music is strictly frowned upon or completely banned in many spaces. However, thanks to the work of people like Jama, who is curating and digitizing an extensive tape archive — which includes hundreds of tapes salvaged from Radio Hargeisa — and fostering a local arts and culture scene, younger generations are delving into Somali’s Golden Era music and rediscovering a past they knew little about. And, thanks to labels like Analog Africa and Ostinato, the rest of the world is also hearing the hypnotic vocals and funky instrumentals of Somali pop for the first time. 

While music is still mostly absent in Somalia, in Somaliland there are some small signs of hope. Hargeisa’s Red Sea Cultural Centre organizes a yearly Book Fair which includes musical performances, and singer Sahra Halgan has founded the country’s first music venue after returning from years of exile.

Megan Iacobini de Fazio

The Berlin Session

Dur-Dur Band
The Berlin Session cover

There’s something incredibly touching about this album, a feeling heightened by the melancholy typical of Somali melodies. Thirty years after the sun set on Somalia’s Golden Era, its brightest stars are living scattered across the world, in East African refugee camps or European cities where no one knows about their past. The majority no longer play, and for some even making a living is a struggle. But in 2023 Nicolas Sheikholeslami, the person behind Au Revoir, Mogadishu Vol. 1, one of the first compilations to ignite a global love of Somali music, reached out to several Golden Era musicians and orchestrated a reunion. The music is as glorious as ever, built around Dhaanto rhythms, infectious organ riffs, and soaring vocals. The legendary Xabiib Sharabi, a well loved artist who sang with many of Somalia’s biggest bands, also appears on two tracks, his time-worn voice a poignant reminder of the difficulties of life in exile.

Light & Sound of Mogadishu

Various Artists
Light & Sound of Mogadishu cover

Vinyl wasn’t very common in 1970s Somalia, and most Somali music has survived on cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tape. However, one man ensured that several Somali singles were sent off to Kenya (at the time one of the few countries in East Africa to have pressing plants) to be pressed into 45s. His name was Dahir Omar, and he ran a recording studio (one of the few private ones in the country, where most recordings were made in Radio Mogadishu or Radio Hargeisa studios) tucked away behind his electronic appliances shop in central Mogadishu — hence the name of his label, “Light & Sound.” This Afro 7 compilation introduced the world to a few very different Somali sounds: the fiery funk of Sharero Band, who counted James Brown and The Doors and inspirations, and some classic tracks by the likes of Hibbo Nour and Magool. The latter is considered one of the greatest Somali singers, and here she performs two love songs written by great Somali poet Hadrawi: both “Wa’ly Sita” and “Shimbir Yohou” are beautiful in the simplicity, with Magool’s raw and expressive voice accompanied only by sparse percussion and nimble kaban playing.

Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu, Somalia 1972​-​1991

Various Artists
Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu, Somalia 1972​-​1991 cover

The sounds of Somalia’s Golden Era of music — when tourists and locals flocked to Lido Beach and dressed up in the latest fashion to attend nightly gigs in the Mogadishu’s coolest clubs —was defined by bands like Dur Dur, Bakaka, and Waaberi, who merged disco, soul, and funk with tribal chants and spiritual Saar music. New musical technologies contributed to the development of the Golden Era sound, as bands like Iftin made synthesizers the center of the music, like on the spellbinding “Sirmaqabe” (No Secrets) and the optimistic, uplifting “Ii Ooy Aniga” (Cry For Me).

Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

Various Artists
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa cover

The 15 tracks on this compilation are taken from the Red Sea Cultural Centre’s extensive tape archive in Hargeisa, and capture the multitude of sounds and influences that informed Somalia’s Golden Era. Opening “Buuraha U Dheer” sounds like it should be part of a Bollywood soundtrack, with a dramatic crescendo of synths and Nimco Jamaac’s emotion filled vocals elevating the track to ethereal heights, until bass and percussion lock into a leisurely groove — I can’t help but think of swaying to this at a breezy beachfront bar along Mogadishu’s riviera. There’s a reggae-like bounce to several tracks, but while Jamaican reggae was popular in 1970s and 80s Somalia, the rhythm’s origin is closer to home, in the folk music of the nomadic tribes from the Ogaden region. Bands like Dur Dur and Sharero incorporated these traditional Dhaanto rhythms into their disco and funk, creating a new sound that was distinctly Somali yet captured the outward looking and cosmopolitan feel of pre-war Somalia.

Dur-Dur of Somalia: Vol. 1 & 2

Dur-Dur Band
Dur-Dur of Somalia: Vol. 1 & 2 cover

Throughout the 1970s and 80s arts and culture flourished in Somalia despite Mohamed Siad Barre’s oppressive regime. One of the greatest bands to emerge from this artistically vibrant period was Dur Dur Band, who immediately stood out for their blend of traditional Somali rhythms like Banaadiri beats, reggae-like Daantho and spiritual Saar music with funk, soul, disco, and New Wave. This Analog Africa reissue, which focuses on Dur Dur’s first two albums from 1986 and 1987, is an explosive, danceable, and immensely fun record that attests to the seismic impact Dur Dur had on Somali music. 

Waa Dardaaran

Sahra Halgan Trio
Waa Dardaaran cover

When Somaliland’s Somali National Movement (SNM) took up arms against Somali despot Siad Barre and fought for independence, Sahra Halgan offered her first-aid services, and when the troops ran out of medicine she would soothe the injured with her voice. A proud Somalilander, she has been using her voice to fight for independence and international recognition for her country since the 1980s. She has toured the world with her band, Sahra Halgan Trio, which she formed when she was forced to live in exile in France, proudly waving the Somaliland flag; upon returning to Somaliland she opened Hiddo Dhowr, the first music venue since the war, as a way to try to stand up against the conservative and religious forces who are trying to wipe out Somali culture. Waa Dardaaran, the second album by Sahra Halgan, captures all of her determination and power. In traditional Somali poetry style, she sings about love, relationships, and nation-building in her unique warbling voice, accompanied by Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp guitarist Maël Salètes, who injects the record with some loud rock energy, and percussionist Aymeric Krol, who adds some West African rhythms into the mix. Halgan’s music is a tribute to the resilience of Somalis and their determination to keep their culture alive, even in the face of war and oppression.

Volume 5

Dur-Dur Band
Volume 5 cover

Dur Dur became veritable superstars in Somalia during the last years of Siad Barre’s despotic dictatorship, making their mark by blending traditional Somali rhythms with whatever was making people dance at the time. Their fifth album, reissued by Awesome Tapes from Africa, is a collection of soaring vocal melodies and funky tunes that combine “real” instruments with tinny synths and electronic percussion. Only a few years later the country would descend into civil war, Dur Dur’s members scattered all over the world, and the country’s rich musical history was almost forgotten. Thankfully, reissues like these are playing their part in bringing it back to light.

The Journey

Maryam Mursal
The Journey cover

Maryam Mursal is one of Somalia’s great singers — one of the world’s great female voices, even. Her skill lies in her ability to straddle both tradition and experimentation, a quality which clearly shines through on The Journey, a 1998 album released by Peter Gabriel’s Real World Recordings (he even supplies some backing vocals). Mursal’s career started in the mid 1960s, before Somalia’s Golden Era had truly begun. Rather than the disco that would influence the likes of Sahra Dawo only a few years later, Mursal drew inspiration from great Black R&B singers like Etta James, and her music was always big, soulful, and jazzy, incorporating the pentatonic modes characteristic of Somali music. This album, which came out several years after she was forced to make a grueling five month journey with her family to escape Somalia’s violent civil war, turns it up a notch: her voice is powerful and uncompromising, the arrangements rich and enveloping, more experimental than her previous work. Just listen to “Hamar’’ for example, a slow burner that incorporates spacious synth pads and notes from a plucked kaban, before a synth bass line and Mursal’s breathless ululations collide.

Layla

Mohamed M. Kooshin
Layla  cover

The cover of Layla shows Mohamed M. Kooshin cradling his kaban, Toronto’s CN Tower looming in the background. It’s the picture of two distant worlds coming together, of a person uprooted but refusing to leave his culture behind. Kooshin had been a member of the Waaberi group before the war forced him to leave Somalia for Canada, and he was known for his qaraami music — a style that emerged in the 1940s and combines poetic lyrics with the delicate sound of the kaban and light percussion. Layla is one of a string of albums Kooshin made while in Canada, and while the songs on here have an understated uplifting groove (the drum machine rhythms on “Yurub” would get you up and dancing), there is a poignancy to it. Though it exudes peace and calm, Kooshin’s music emanates power, and is a testament to the strength it takes to carry one’s culture into exile, especially when that culture is all but being obliterated from memory.

Mogadishu's Finest: The Al​-​Uruba Sessions

Iftin Band
Mogadishu's Finest: The Al​-​Uruba Sessions cover

Along with Dur Dur Band, Iftin were the Golden Era’s biggest group and were known for their raucous gigs that attracted large crowds of locals and tourists at the iconic Al​-​Uruba hotel. Originally founded by the Ministry of Education in the 1970s during Siad Barre’s regime, which focused on rebuilding Somali culture after independence, Iftin later became a private band, and their music was a powerful blend of Southern Somali Banaadiri rhythms and reggae-like Dhaanto electrified by smoldering bass riffs, psychedelic moog lines, and vigorous brass.

Au Revoir, Mogadishu Vol. 1: Songs From Before the War

Various Artists
Au Revoir, Mogadishu Vol. 1: Songs From Before the War cover

It’s hard to imagine that only 8 years ago, as of 2023, almost no one outside of Somalia had heard of bands like Dur-Dur and Iftin. Since then a slew of reissues and compilations have put them on the map (if not quite made them household names) but it was this mixtape by released by obscure label ÇAYKH Recordings, founded by Nicolas Sheikholeslami, who has since curated several other Somali projects and also brought together a few Golden Era stars for Dur-Dur Band’s beautifully moving The Berlin Session, that reignited interest in Somali music. The tape kicks off with some expressive kaban playing and a woman’s emotional, echoey vocals on “Naga Tag, Kac Hooyaa” by Libaaxyada Maaweeliska Banaadir; the melancholic atmosphere carries through on the record, especially in the music by Waaberi, a super group of different singers, musicians, and actors established by the Somali Government. Dur-Dur’s cover of Londonbeat’s “I’ve Been Thinking About You” renamed “Ethiopian Girl”, is a wonderful example of just what a mix of local and global Mogadishu’s scene was back then.