Sounding Culture in the Somali Diaspora
When the sound system is ready, Ahmed “Mooge” Abdi moves to the back corner of 1st Cup Café and positions himself and his kaban
) in front of a microphone. The café is bustling with the sounds of people ordering spiced chai and sambusas, playing board games, showing one another youtube videos, keeping one eye on the boxing match on TV, and engaging in lively conversation. Abdi begins his first set without ceremony, hunched over a kaban singing classic Somali love songs in descending, pentatonic melodies. He peers out from under his baseball cap, concentrating on the music while taking in the responses of those who pull up chairs to listen. By the end of his two-hour performance, listeners are making requests, exclaiming “Mooge,” singing along, and clapping. When he’s finished, Abdi shakes hands with each audience member and quietly leaves the café.
The ‘ud, a lute played throughout the Arab world, has been popular in Somalia since the emergence of a new type of hees
(song) that accompanied the introduction of radio to Somalia during WWII. Prior to that time, each song genre (e.g. gabay
, etc.) was associated with a particular context and theme and employed a limited set of stock melodies. The burden of creativity for these older genres rests with poets who compose poems of rich metaphor, complex prosody, and alliteration. These poetic genres continue to flourish in Somalia and the diaspora, but they now exist alongside the newer genre of hees in which a unique tune is composed for each song.
In addition to the re-emerging interest in kaban, Somali songs and poetry can be heard in a variety of community events. Women gather at weddings in Minneapolis to dance to buraambur, a traditional genre of poetry composed and sung by women, and both men and women sing songs to live or recorded synthesizer accompaniment at weddings, parties, and in recording studios. While public performances of popular music are rare, videos produced by Mo Wardi of Somali Total Music in Minneapolis and by Bartamaha in Ohio can be viewed on the internet and on Somali public access TV. Young Somali hip-hop artists compose and perform songs that speak to the challenges of negotiating family and peers, respect for tradition and desire for change, and the legacy of war and desire for peace.
More Somali people live in Minneapolis than in any other American city, the majority arriving as refugees via Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp following the outbreak of civil war and the dissolution of the Somali state in 1991. These new immigrants joined an older community of Somali people who have been migrating to Minneapolis voluntarily since the 1960s. This diverse Somali community of professionals, teachers, workers, business owners, and artisans has established strong social networks and refugee support services, and is actively engaged in Twin Cities civic and economic life. Given this diversity and stability, it is not surprising that Minneapolis is home to Said Ahmed, one of the world’s most respected Somali poets of the older generation, as well as to young, emerging musicians like Kay.
In Fall 2009, we spoke to musicians, poets, scholars, teachers, and students, attended performances and community events, took kaban lessons, read about Somali music and culture, and listened. We have been graciously welcomed and assisted by musicians and friends, including Anwar Diriiye, Ismael Noor, Mo Wardi, Muhumed Ali Magan, Ahmed Abdi, Basha, Merrie Benasutti, Jama, Sara, and many others. We are enormously thankful for their time and insights. In one short semester, we only began to scratch the surface of Somali music and oral poetry in Minneapolis. We have compiled some of our thoughts on this website but we consider this a beginning rather than an end—an invitation to dialogue rather than a set of answers.
- Anna Schultz, December 2009
School Music Programs and Somali Student Involvement
ESlee Brothers Muzic Band
Women's Identities in the Somali Community
Adbullahi, M.D. 2001. Culture and Customs of Somalia
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Gadwa, Anne and Erika Byrd (2009), “Working Effectively with Somali Residents through the Arts: Collective Wisdom from the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood.” A CHANCE Community-based research project in partnership with Cedar Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program (CRNRP). Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.
Johnson, John. 1996. "Music and Poetry in Somalia," in Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume I, Africa
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The Minneapolis Foundation. 2008. “Africa – focus on Somalis,” in Immigration in Minnesota: Discovering Common Ground.
Rutledge, D., Roble, A. 2008. The Somali Diaspora: A journey away
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Schell, Justin. March 12, 2009. “Somali Hip-Hop: It’s a Culture. It’s a People’s Life.” _Twin Cities Daily Planet_