A Short History Of Modern Somali Music

We delved into modern Somali music, from 1980s through present time, including acts Iftin, Waaberi Muqdisho, Waaberi Hargeysa and Dur-dur Band.

Earlier this year, Awesome Tapes from Africa helped unearth a classic Somali recording by the 1980s Mogadishu-based collective known as the Dur-Dur Band. Brian Simkowitz, the curator of ATFA, says the recordings boast a Middle Eastern-musical quality with vocals that conjure the sounds of Southeast Asia. “The way Somali musicians internalised and renegotiated American soul music and jazz is striking to me,” says Mr Simkowtiz. “The land's geographic location at a crossroads of so many worlds has contributed to a unique flavour.”

Sanaag Samataliye, a Somali music historian, explains that the 1980s, a time of relative economic stability and extreme political repression, was also one of the most innovative periods in the history of Somali music. “The musicians were consistently innovative without abandoning their roots,” he explained. “Due to the blogosphere, Somali music from the 1980s is nowadays characterised as funk. However, just like their contemporaries, these bands were very versatile and had an overarching repertoire that infused many Somali and foreign genres.” Some of the most prominent bands of this time include Iftin, Waaberi Muqdisho, and Waaberi Hargeysa, among a host of others.


Somalia boasts a rich history of poetry and dance. From the 1930s a growing number of artists started playing the rhythms, melodies and harmonies on ouds, violins, accordions and other instruments. In the process, they created new Somali genres like balwo and heello, which later cross-pollinated with music from neighbouring countries.

From the 1950s through to the late 1990s, musicians developed their craft by delving deeper into local genres. Traditional instruments such as nasaro (high ritual drum), madhuube (thumb piano), fuugwo (trumpet) shareero (lute), muufe (horn) and seese (one-chord violin) were integrated with, and in some instances replaced by, the guitar, sax, keyboard and drums. This represented a turning point. Somali music expanded beyond the confines of traditional folk music to fusing with non-Somali genres such as maqam (Arabic), taarab (East African), jazz, funk, afrobeat and reggae.

Sahra Halgan

Today, Somali musicians are often faced with the daunting task of creating their art from scratch because so many musical sources have been severely damaged or even annihilated by the civil war. “The post-war artists barely have access to yesteryear's heritage and some may even be unaware it ever existed,” says Mr Samataliye. But he is encouraged by the mini-revival spearheaded by artists such as Sahra Halgan, the Shego Band, and a Somali Bantu band known as Walinja. Non-Somali artists such as Tanya, a native Norwegian, are also making Somali music which is highly respected in Somalia. Mr. Samataliye says that while these new musicians may not be as innovative as their predecessors, the music of the Somalia’s past has left an indelible mark on musicians and fans of good music, alike.


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox


How Nigerian Streetwear Brand, Daltimore, is Rising To Celebrity Status

We spoke with founder and creative director David Omigie about expression through clothing and that #BBNaija pic.