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Somalis yearn for a musical renaissance

Known for its musicians before the 1991 civil war, Somali performers say insecurity still dampens cultural pursuit.

Last updated: 02 Apr 2014 13:43
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The security situation means many musicians still want to leave the country [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Mogadishu, Somalia - Just before the weekend, a crowd of about 20 people gather around silver-haired Jiim Sheikh Muumin at a sandy white beach on the edge of the Somali capital.

Jiim, as everyone refers to him, is a well-known Somali musician and actor and the crowd of mainly young men has gathered to hear him sing.

Thirty years ago, Somalis would have paid a fortune to watch him perform at Mogadishu's national theatre - let alone rub shoulders with him at Liido beach.

Before the civil war, he was a rock star with a big Afro and bell-bottom jeans.

But times have changed and the civil war turned Jiim's world upside down.

The 68-year-old father-of-eleven has been performing since he was 17, and is one of the few entertainers to have remained in Mogadishu through decades of bloodshed.

"Most [musicians] have run away. Some have gone to Europe, others to Canada and America," he said of his former friends and colleagues."I don't blame them. They did what every human being will do when there is war; run away for safety."

Under Siad Barre, the military strongman who ruled Somalia for 20 years, musicians and entertainers lived well. The most popular bands were state-employed and were financially well off. Lavish gifts such as cars, homes and all expenses paid holidays were common.

All they had to do in return was entertain the public - in order to keep them busy and flocking towards the beachside dance floors and away from the political arena.

"That life was a fantasy. This [pointing to the bullet battered crumbling buildings near the beach] is a bad dream turned into a reality," he said. "We had everything we could ever wish for. But above all we had dignity."

War dampens the scene

Jiim fared better than some musicians who also chose to remain in the city throughout the civil war.

A short drive from the beach, off the newly laid tarmac and solar lit street of Maka al-Mukarama in the overcrowded district of Hamar Weyne, lives Binti Omar Ga'al, her daughter and her grandchildren in a one bedroom house.

Best known for belting out high pitched notes and her supermodel looks, Ga'al still attracts crowds of admirers everywhere she goes in this city of a million people.

She has plenty of stories to share. She is said to have been one of the late Barre's favourite singers.

"During comrade Siad's time I had a diplomatic passport and travelled first class on Somali Airlines [the now defunct national carrier]," she said sitting on a high, sky-blue plastic chair. "After the Iraq and Iran war, I went to Baghdad and performed for Saddam in his palace. I also went to Egypt to sing for Mubarak. I was surprised when I saw how short he is," she added before the electricity went off, cloaking the room in an eerie silence.

She wasn't one of the lucky that escaped the brutal side of the war.

In 2001, she was caught in the crossfire between rival militias in Mogadishu. Eight bullets hit her chest, hand and both legs. Even though she survived, the deep scars that tore her flesh and bones remain visible.

"It was not my time to go. Until that day I didn't want to believe there was a civil war going on in my country. I didn't want to believe what my eyes were seeing and my ears were hearing until I got shot eight times," she told Al Jazeera.

That near-death incident left her unable to walk more than a few steps, and needing help to perform the dance moves that captivated locals and world leaders alike.

"That is life," she said with a deep sigh, tears welling up in her brown eyes.

"What is worse is when I saw militiamen robbing people and listening to one of my love songs. That is my worst experience of the war."

Sounds of the diaspora

During the last two decades, many musicians either left the industry or put their careers on hold. Few new faces joined the industry.

Thirty-seven-year-old father-of-three, Karama Murithi was 14 and had just started performing when the civil war erupted in 1991.

Raised in a family of musicians - his father, mother and uncle are all performers - he had to put his career on hold for two decades.

"I was a newcomer, a student learning the trade. All of a sudden everything stopped. My life, my career, everything stopped," he said.

They [youth] are not interested in the artists in Somalia like Murithi. Diaspora first locals last.

- Abdifatah Maalim, music store owner

"War snatched the best years of my life from me. Without warning, everything was gone," he added, bitterness coating every word he uttered.

With a fragile peace returning to this part of the country, Murithi has once again picked up the Kaban - a pear-shaped stringed instrument used in Somali music - and started singing and writing music. "I'm trying my best to recover the years I lost. With peace nothing is impossible. I can achieve my childhood dream," he said, his eyes fixed on the full moon in the cloudless night sky.

In the heart of Hamar Weyne, the same district where Murithi and Binti live, young music fans visit a small store called Iftiin to purchase the latest Somali and Western songs.

The youngsters who frequent these stores come to have the latest songs downloaded onto a micro-chip which they insert into their phones.

Abdifatah Maalim, the owner, says the war changed youngsters' taste in music. 

"They first ask for music by diaspora artists like Lafoole, Ilkacase, Aar Maanta and K'naan. They are not interested in the artists in Somalia like Murithi. Diaspora first, locals last," he said. "Music by musicians from London and Minneapolis are the most sought [after]," he added. 

This change in the locals' taste in music is harming homegrown artists. The weak UN-backed government has decided to come to the rescue of the local musicians - but only the well-known veterans like Binti.

A few lucky veteran musicians are now employed by the Ministry of Information - earning $100 to $200 a month.

Older musicians are beginning to advise the younger generation not to consider the entertainment industry at all.

"The danger is too big and the rewards don't exist. I won't advice anyone to join the industry just yet," said Jiim.

But the hardship is not putting Murithi off . "The dark days are behind us," he said. "The good times are ahead of us and I will sing my way to old age."

Follow Hamza Mohamed on twitter: @Hamza_Africa

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Al Jazeera
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