Ostinato Records on unearthing Somalia’s treasure trove of lost music
November 20th 2017
Photo by Janto Djassi
Can the revival of Somali music from the 70s & 80s help rebuild cultural confidence and change perceptions of the Horn of Africa?
Offering a glimpse of the country’s past through his label Ostinato Records, Vik Sohonie has dug up forgotten tracks from the Somalia national radio archive that were squirrelled away to prevent damage during the civil war. Chatting with Body Promise, the writer, DJ and label head discusses Somali’s golden age of music, playing favourites on his compilation ‘Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa’ and the importance of female artists in the creation of Somali sounds.
Firstly, I’d like to start with how you came to putting together this incredible compilation? What drew you to it?
The goal of Ostinato Records is to present powerful stories from misunderstood parts of the world and use music as a tool to do so. I’ve always been drawn to countries that have rich cultures but are often horribly misrepresented in global news media.
Music is a great way to change the narrative, which is why I’ve focused on countries like Haiti and Somalia. Both have wonderful cultures and history and those need to be showcased as much as possible to reclaim their image away from war and violence.
I also knew that Somalia was historically an important multicultural crossroads. Whenever you have an ancient port city that endless amounts of peoples and cultures have transited through, you’re going to have two things: great food and great music. Food’s different, you can recreate recipes. Recorded music is a once in a lifetime cultural artefact, a window to another time and place. It deserves to be showcased.
Somalia was a really vibrant place in the late 60s, 70s and into the 80s. For those unfamiliar with music from 70s and 80s Somalia, can you describe the sound in a bit more detail?
Imagine if you could hear the music of Ancient Rome. All roads led to Rome. It would probably have the melodies of its entire empire. [Somali capital] Mogadishu was, in many ways, the Rome of the Indian Ocean mainly because all roads (or sea routes) in the Indian Ocean led to it. It was a vibrant economic and cultural hub for traders and merchants from the Middle East, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and China. Indeed many Somalis will say that the music is authentic and developed on its own accord. But there’s no doubting the influence of so many cultures, including other African cultures like Nigeria and Afrobeat, and American pop.
There’s something for everyone. Funk, soul, ska, reggae, Afrobeat, Bollywood, Thai Luk Thung, Cambodian pop, the influences are endless. Somalia did a hell of a job of synthesizing all of these into one magnificently refined sound. It’s a testament to the tolerant and fluid nature of Somali culture that it could take so much and blend into something so special.
The compilation is a beautiful time capsule of sorts, which instantly transports the listener back to a Somalia pretty much unknown to a lot of the world. Have you shown the compilation to people who were living there at that time?
Yes, in fact several of the people who helped us make this compilation a reality were from the era. There’s a really heartwarming comment on my TED talk on YouTube about how one son was able to have a moment with his parents where they could jointly relieve the memories of Mogadishu his parents would always talk about, but now there’s a tangible physical product that I guess immortalizes it. There’s also someone who told me that it’s important that these memories won’t die with that older generation, because there’s really been little documentation about this particular era’s culture.
How have the artists featured on the record reacted to the compilation? I imagine it would evoke quite an emotional response.
We contacted almost all of them, apart from the ones who’ve passed away, in which case we contacted their families, or, say the radio station where they recorded the song. The artists are so supportive of this, which is what gave us the fuel to carry on.
It was not an easy project by any means, as you can imagine. Some artists asked us “where on earth did you find this song? I haven’t heard it in 40 years.”
Some were happy that people were regaining interest in their work, but asked “why do you want to use this? It’s so old.” I think what was more emotional than the album itself was the press that the story of Somalia before the war and Somali music was getting. Imagine reading nothing about your country but war and violence and famine for 30 years in the news and then — bam! Huge headlines about how amazing Somalia was / can be. That’s powerful for anyone, I think.
This music was recorded during the time Somali society began accepting female artists – the melodiousness of their voices was even likened to the sweetness of dates, hence the name of the compilation. What brought about this renewed acceptance?
On the one hand you had a government that was actively pushing laws and promoting policies to make society and the arts more inclusive to women. On the other hand, you just had a lot of bad ass, larger than life queens of their art form who grabbed a mic, never let go, and convinced everyone they could sing like no other.
Persistence and strength, and a supportive environment, made sure that women became the “pride and joy of the public,” as one artist told us. The male musicians also realised that Somali music of the era could never reach its real potential without the inclusion of women. Some of the best songs are duets.
Lastly, do you have a favourite song on the compilation or is that like choosing between your children?
I remember reading a study saying that most parents actually have a preference — ha! — so yes, there’s always one song to me that is the spine of the compilation. For this one it’s Qays & Layla by Sharero Band & Faadumo Qaasim.
Close your eyes, turn the volume up, and it’s the best time machine you can have to get right back to 1970s Mogadishu.