by Abdifatah Ismail
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
A pretty young lady, covering a show held in London last year for the commemoration of Somaliland’s 18 May, asked a young man, who was about to perform few songs for the thousands of people attending the event, about the artists’ perspective on the occasion.
Signifying the value the presence of artists would add to the gathering, the young man overbearingly begun his response with “we (artists) are all here”, a phrase that sets the tone for the conflicting rationalities apparent in the post civil war Somali music.
What was remarkable about his proclamation was the categorization of himself as an artist even though he didn’t sing a song of his own at least on that particular occasion. This young man represents a class of Somali musicians that emerged in the late eighties and catapulted to a blossoming level of popularity among the Somali youngsters.
These groups of musicians reproduce existing Somali songs with slightly altered beats using a range of high tech instruments barely recognizable to the conservative old guards to which these songs belong.
Traditionally, the Somali music was a profession learnt outside the classroom and was by large talent-based. Artists used to be highly revered but membership to the music community was quite demanding as one had to prove himself/herself to have what it takes to be a musician.
However, amid lack of copy right laws coupled with the absence of screening bodies, the Somali music underwent a considerable conversion over the last few decades, allowing many youngsters to join the music community without necessarily having songs of their own, a practice that many see as unacceptable.
The three successive Somali regimes prior to the civil war used music as an instrument to control the mass, rendering the primary function of Somali music a mechanism to steer the public psyche in a desired direction.
Because of this, the Somali music remains to date commercially insignificant despite the existence of a considerable Somali speaking population – estimated around 20 million – in East Africa.
Most Somali musicians irk a living out of shows held during festive seasons in the Somali populated areas of the Horn as well as North America and Western Europe where significant Somali Diasporas exist.
These global traversals expose the new breed of Somali musicians a furor from the old guards whose songs they alter and sing.
Earlier a widely read and respected Somali language newspaper, Haatuf, slammed at shows held in cities in Somaliland by the North American based famous band, Sheego. The report accused the band of being at the forefront of the Somali music piracy, describing them as music looters taking advantage of the lack of copy right laws in the country.
However, the audience is generally divided on the alteration issue. For some, these alterations are nothing but absolutely needed changes for improvising the outdated beats characteristic of the Somali music, while for others, these alterations represent no more than sheer corruption of the sweet Somali melodies.
Abdi Ali, a 30 year’s old business man based in Cape Town once told me that “the unauthorized reproduction of Somali music is indicative of the lack of creativity among today’s youth…you cannot call yourself a musician or an artist when all that you do is singing a song that belongs to some one”
But his younger brother Jama, sharply refuted this, saying. “Had it not been reproduced, I wouldn’t have listened to Somali music at all, because it lacked musical complexity”. He certainly was not alone in this view as his friend also affirmed that “no one can, in today’s world, listen to incoherent bangs of sounds in the name of music… I need something that even my non Somali friends could listen to”.
The division apparent in the Somali audience draws on diametrically opposing rationales largely determined by factors informed by differences in age. More often than not, old and middle aged listeners align themselves with the previous undiluted forms of Somali music where as the young generation subscribe to the altered styles.
Nonetheless, if the Somali music was to be rescued from the free-for-all state in which it found itself, copy right laws must be enacted in the Somali populated countries of the Horn, not only for the sake of controlling the illegal reproduction of music but also for revenue collection purposes.
To implement this, strategic policies aimed at unpacking the youth’s potential in arts has to be adopted so as to discourage the youth from the unauthorized reproduction of music by established artists.
Such policies will have to be formulated within the parameters of art as a symbol for change, an emblem for transformation and the “single most important cultural heritage that Somalis have”, as the renowned Somali scholar, Prof Ahmed Ismail Samatar, once commented in an interview with the Somali service of the BBC.
Cape Town, RSA
This article first appeared in the Somalilyrics.net