For a generation, Somalia has conjured images of war, political collapse, and piracy. But before war hit the East African nation, it was known for something else: bell-bottoms, rocking nightlife, and funky grooves.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Mogadishu was the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” an elegant, cosmopolitan capital, moving with Somalia’s unique brand of funk and disco. International crowds—men and women, Christians and Muslims—danced hard in the city’s beachfront hotel nightclubs.
Starting in 1988, all of that came to a close. Somalia’s authoritarian president, General Siad Barre, cracked down against the growing armed opposition that eventually toppled him in 1991. Clan-based militias, once unified against Barre, splintered, ushering in a devastating, ongoing civil war.
Somalia’s musical past survived on grainy magnetic tape and in the memories of its elders. Slowly, but surely, it is being brought back to life.
The “Golden Era”
Abdelkadir Korea and Habib Sharaabi, now in their 60s, once rocked Mogadishu’s dance halls with their band, Chambal, sporting gold jackets and Afros. In a documentary on that musical moment, Korea and Sharaabi reminisce about a time when the city was safe and peaceful and parties lasted until dawn.
That era of musical expression followed Somalia’s independence in 1960, when a young nation, once divided by three colonial powers, sought to define itself. Somali society debated how to fashion a “modern country that would honor and incorporate traditions, but also participate in the ways of the larger world.” Poetry and song, which ran through Somalia’s veins, were key to that conversation.
Somali oral culture—rich, profound, and romantic—gained new life in a modern brand of music that was tuned in to American funk, jazz, reggae, Ethiopian pop, and Bollywood music. Crafting a new pop sound that was unmistakably Somali, artists performed songs of love, longing, hardship, and hope.
The music is lush with wavering reverb and warm instrumentation. Swirling synthesizers play alongside brash horns and bouncing guitar, propelled by heavy Somali rhythms. The sound blossomed in privately-owned nightclubs with groups like Dur Dur, Iftiin, and Danan Hargeysa, and in the National Theater with the Waaberi Band.
Barre Pulls the Plug
There is a certain irony that the music scene flourished under the rule of General Siad Barre, whose autocracy later brought it to an end. The regime tightly controlled the entire music industry, only disseminating recordings on state radio. It censored artists and jailed or exiled them if their songs were too critical of his authority.
After gaining power in a 1969 military coup, Barre sought to eliminate the clan divisions central to Somali identity but later began massacring members of opposing clans (between 50,000 and 200,000 members of the Isaaq clan were killed between 1988 and 1990). With the increasing repression and sinking economy, many musicians went abroad.
Barre fled in 1991, leaving warring clans behind and decades of conflict and instability, which soon stifled the vibrant music scene. The militant extremist groups that rose in the 2000s forbade music, going so far as to kill musicians.
After the Fall
With the instruments silenced, Abdelkadir Korea opened an ice cream shop in Mogadishu and later fled to Kenya. He now lives in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, making a living welding and repairing wheelbarrows.
His old bandmate, Sharaabi, went to Sweden to perform and ended up staying. He now lives alone in a social service-run hostel in Kävlinge. “I was so happy,” he said, “I never thought I would leave Somalia, [but] the country was at war.”
Another singer, Sahra Halgan, fled her beloved Hargeisa, capital of the northern Somaliland region, when Barre bombed it to the ground in 1988, seeking to crush the local separatist movement. Once a well-known artist, she moved to France, where she “was just another African walking on the streets.”
Bringing it Back to Life
While these elders keep only the memory of Somalia’s lost musical world alive, others are reviving it. When Barre bombed Hargeisa, he targeted the radio station because it could rally resistance. Radio workers scrambled to save their extensive archives of cassettes, smuggling them to Ethiopia and Djibouti, or burying them deep underground.
In recent years, the caches are being unearthed. The Hargeisa Cultural Center (HCC), founded in 2015, is now home to a treasure trove of some 14,000 cassettes of music, poetry, radio programs, and personal recordings. The archive, which is being digitized, is an invaluable bank of Somali knowledge and creativity, HCC director Jama Musse, said.
In collaboration with the center, Ostinato Records released the compilation “Sweet as Broken Dates” in 2018, distilling 50 years of Somali sounds into 15 songs. The goal of the Grammy-nominated album was to “revive the rightful image, history, and identity of the Somali people, detached from war, violence, piracy, and the specter of a persistent threat.”
Still on Stage
Despite all obstacles, Somali musicians have refused to be silenced. Halgan returned home to Hargeisa in 2012, where she opened Hiddo Dhawr, a restaurant and music club where she and others breathe new life into old songs.
Somali civil war refugees also keep Somali music alive far from the Horn of Africa. The renowned Canadian-Somali rapper K’Naan, for example, weaves East African sounds into hip-hop.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, home to one of the largest Somali communities outside Somalia, the Cedar Cultural Center hosts a vibrant program of Somali music. Dur Dur, a top 1980s exiled Mogadishu band, played there in 2014 for the first time in 20 years. Macalester College in nearby St. Paul has hosted concerts for old Somali singers, including Faadumo Qaasim, who is featured on “Sweet as Broken Dates.”
Hope for the Future
Whether in Hargeisa or Minneapolis, music offers Somalis a glimmer of hope for the recovery of their wounded homeland, and a medium to connect Somalia’s past with a better future.
In Halgan’s Somaliland, a region that has regained some stability, a musical revival is bringing people joy once again. “It gives you hope,” she said. “Culture brought people together. People built the country again. I long for the day Mogadishu will be like that.”
For Korea and Sharaabi, worlds apart in Kenya and Sweden, music has brought them solace in exile. Korea still plays music with friends on the beat-up guitar he carried from Somalia.
“I dream day and night of going back to my country,” Korea said. His friend also yearns for home. “I’ll take Abdelkadir Korea to Mogadishu with me,” Sharaabi said. When that day comes, they can dust off the amplifiers and get the city dancing again.