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A Funky-Fresh Sound From Somalia, With A Political History

May 5, 2013
Originally published on May 5, 2013 7:20 pm

Imagine the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, in the 1980s. You can't, right? Neither can most music critics. That's why the recent re-release of a record by a popular '80s-era Mogadishu dance band has caught the attention of critics lately.

The founders of Dur-Dur Band now live in Columbus, Ohio. Weekends on All Things Considered asked members Abdinur Daljir and Sahra Dawo to go to a studio there — accompanied by an interpreter — to talk about the newly reissued record and the story that precedes it.

"In the beginning, we used to sing and dance with American music," Dawo tells host Kelly McEvers. "And later on, we decided to shape our own music in such a way that it is comfortable enough for people to dance with it — for people to enjoy it."

Shifting gears paid off: The band's unique pairing of Somali songs with the rhythms of Western funk and soul made it a crowd favorite in Mogadishu. Dawo says one song in particular, "Dooyo," could be counted on to whip the room into a frenzy.

"People sang and played and danced in a very crazy way, to the extent that some of them would fall down to the ground," she says. "And they would keep asking for [encores] — three, four, five times sometimes."

In the full version of this interview, Daljir and Dawo discuss the group's exodus from Somalia during the conflict that gripped the country in the early 1990s — and NPR East Africa Correspondent Gregory Warner explains the political history that set the stage for Dur-Dur Band's success. To hear it, click the audio link on this page.

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers. And it's time for some music, some super-funky music.


MCEVERS: This is Dur-Dur Band, and this is the sound of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia in the mid-1980s. It's a time and place most people can't actually imagine, a city that's long gone. That's why the recent rerelease of Dur-Dur's hit tape, "Volume 5," has caused a bit of a stir among some music critics.

The founders of Dur-Dur now live in Columbus, Ohio. We asked them and an interpreter to go to a studio and talk to us about the newly released record. Abdinur Daljir and Sahra Dawo join us from member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Dur-Dur Band, welcome to the show.

SAHRA DAWO: Thank you.

ABDINUR DALJIR: (Through translator) Thank you very much for having us.

MCEVERS: Tell us what that scene was like, that nightclub scene in Mogadishu in the 1980s. Of course, when we hear the word Mogadishu, we think of something very different. Take us back and let us feel what it was like then.

DAWO: (Through translator) In the beginning, we used to sing and dance with American music. And later on, we decided to shape our own music in such a way that it is comfortable enough for people to dance with it, for people to enjoy it.

MCEVERS: So you took these sort of very traditional-sounding Somali songs and Somali lyrics and put them to these very, very funky Western beats and made something new.

DALJIR: (Through translator) Yes. We have followed the Somali traditional way of composing, of writing of the songs, and we were combined the Western music and the Somali song in such a way that it made people want to dance.


DALJIR: (Singing in foreign language)

(Through translator) The lyrics that I just sang are part of the "Volume 5" music that was just released in the new album. It's called "Ilawad Cashaqa" which means move the love with me.


MCEVERS: When you first started, the band was only, you know, four musicians. Eventually, it grew to more than a dozen people. I want to listen to a song from this rereleased album. This track is called "Dooyo."


MCEVERS: So we're hearing keyboard, drums, guitars, horns. It's very funky. But then you hear Sahra's voice.


MCEVERS: If you could transport yourself back to then, and you're standing on the stage, and you're singing "Dooyo," what does the nightclub look like? You know, what do you see from the stage?

DAWO: (Through translator) When I sing this song, people always request it for repeats. And people sang and played and danced in a very crazy way to the extent that some of them would fall down to the ground. And they would keep asking for repetitions, three, four, five times, sometimes.


MCEVERS: Were there other bands like you in Mogadishu at the time?

DALJIR: (Through translator) There were a couple of other bands, Sharero and Iftin, which were also privately run, while every other band was part of the government's ministry.

MCEVERS: I'm sure you're going to tell me that you were the best. You had more crowds at your nightclub than the other guys, right?

DALJIR: (Through translator) In fact, we had more fans and more supporters and more audience in our music. Our music was so unique that it attracted everybody, including other musicians.

MCEVERS: Well, we are not surprised by that because we like it too. Can you tell us when you left Somalia?

DALJIR: (Through translator) So in 1992, when the conflict occurred in Somalia, we decided to leave as a band, and we went into Ethiopia. And we started performing in Ethiopia. We recorded an album in Ethiopia as well.

MCEVERS: Now you live in Columbus, Ohio, and you own a record shop there. Do you guys still make music?

DALJIR: (Through translator) Yes. We have been producing songs, but this time, the songs that we have been producing are based on the situation in Somalia, which is terrible. We are promoting things like graduation from high schools and colleges so that young people can become more productive and more helpful to their communities.

DAWO: (Through translator) There is a song that we sang in 1992 when we left Somalia.


DAWO: (Through translator) What we are doing is we are taking responsibility for what happened in Somalia. We're saying that it is our responsibility. It's something that we did, and we're asking for forgiveness. And we're asking for God to give us his forgiveness and his mercy and his kindness from above and to bless Somalia with peace. So that is the essence of the song.

MCEVERS: Abdinur Daljir and Sahra Dawo are two members of the Somali music group Dur-Dur Band. The band's hit tape, "Volume 5," has just been rereleased. Dur-Dur Band, thank you so much for doing this.

DAWO: (Foreign language spoken)

DALJIR: (Through translator) Thank you very much.


MCEVERS: We wanted to know more about the music scene in Mogadishu in the '80s, so we asked NPR's East Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner, to talk to some Somali musicians who now live in Nairobi. Hey, Greg.


MCEVERS: Can you help us understand the music scene in the '80s?

WARNER: Absolutely. And to do that, I need to rewind the clock a little bit to the 1960s. So if you were, say, a hippie backpacking through Mogadishu in 1963, this is the music that you would've heard.


WARNER: You asked me to talk to some Somali musicians in Nairobi, so I rented a hotel room in Little Mogadishu, Eastleigh, at the neighborhood in Nairobi where many Somali refugees live, and I invited musicians to come talk to me. I didn't actually realize they'd bring their instruments. So here's this musician. She was very famous back in the day. Her name is Khadija Fodey Nur, and she brought her oud and started playing it for me.


WARNER: So this is a classic Somali love song, definitely untouched by Western music, Western rock and roll. Then comes 1969. There's a coup. A general named Siyaad Barre establishes a communist dictatorship, and he gives a speech that all the musicians that I talked to, all the Somali musicians that I talked to in Nairobi remember where he says to the musicians - he says: You're part of our revolution.

We're going to give you a good salary, we're going to give you, some of you nice houses in town so that this communist revolution we've started can proceed to the beat of the best songs, the best poems, the best dances that Somali artists can create.

MCEVERS: So how does that start changing the sound of Somali music?

WARNER: Well, turn on the radio in Somalia in the 1970s, and you can hear Elvis Presley, James Brown, Bob Marley, Etta James. And the government's not only bringing in music, but they're allowing in instruments - so trumpets, saxophones, later Moog synths, Gibson guitars. You know, Somalia went electric before most of the country had electricity. I think it might have sounded something like this.


WARNER: I'm not going to play too much of that because it's a bit cacophonous. But this does set the stage for a band like Dur-Dur that picks up those instruments later and, you know, makes them funky fresh.

MCEVERS: So by the '80s, you've got bands like Dur-Dur and, you know, Iftin, Dur-Dur's main competitor at the time, playing the nightclubs. What are other bands doing at that time?

WARNER: The broader picture in the '80s is that the dictatorship started to crumble. And so while you still have this official party line, you also have samizdat, the dissident music. And so this is an example of that kind of underground scene. This is a song from 1990 called "Land Cruiser."


WARNER: So "Land Cruiser," as you can guess from the title, it takes a not-very-friendly look at the automobile-buying habits of the communist elite. Now, this song hits the underground circuit in, as I said, 1990. By 1991, the communist government is overthrown. Somalia doesn't have a central government again for 20 years.

MCEVERS: So you're saying that the musicians that were built up by the communist government played a major role in bringing down that government.

WARNER: I don't know how much of a role they played, but I do know that they definitely feel responsible. I put this question to one of the musicians - we heard her earlier playing that traditional Somali song - and I asked her, do you regret singing dissident songs against the regime? And she said, yeah - and she was speaking through a translator.

KHADIJA FODEY NUR: (Through translator) Yes. She said, really, we were expecting only for change, but we never expected total collapse of life. So we have very much a regret. And we are saluting the old regimes and say we are sorry. Sorry what happened.


WARNER: She says this is a song of regret.


MCEVERS: NPR's Gregory Warner joined us from Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks so much, Greg.

WARNER: Thanks, Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.