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Women and singing in Somali culture

This article was writ­ten for Music In Afri­ca. #Aux­Sons has trans­la­ted it in french as part of a media part­ner­ship agree­ment. Some extracts have been abbre­via­ted (…). To read the full article, visit the Music In Afri­ca website.


Sin­ging is not only an inte­gral part of dai­ly life for Soma­li women but also a medium through which they can express their grie­vances and cri­ti­cise pater­na­lis­tic social norms that have soli­di­fied men’s hege­mo­ny over women and limi­ted their social par­ti­ci­pa­tion to cer­tain ste­reo­ty­ped roles. Soma­li women’s sung poe­try conveys mes­sages and sto­ries about their sta­tus in society. 


Engendering social reform through lyrics

When loo­king at the below folk­lo­ric lyrics, one can see that Soma­li women refu­sed to be bys­tan­ders in the debate for social change. They led an awa­re­ness cam­pai­gn through their sung poe­try to engen­der the kind of social reform they aspi­red to achieve.

In the fol­lo­wing example, which scorns the expec­ted role of a bride, a woman warns her female friend, gee­lo in Soma­li, about the pre­di­ca­ments she would face on the first night of her marriage. 

Had­da­ba gee­la­day­dii  (Oh, my dear geelo)
Ila garan ogtay­dii (My gra­ce­ful dan­cing partner)
Caa­wa­ba dir­qaad geli (Tonight, you will enter a for­ced bondage)
Dir­qi wiil yar baad geli (The bon­dage of a young boy)
Dab­ka iga shid baad geli (Who will com­mand you to make the fire for him).

Poly­ga­my is ano­ther topic that Soma­li women fre­quent­ly crti­cise in their sung poe­try, as reflec­ted by the fol­lo­wing well-known lines of the ‘Godadle’ song, which women sing when poun­ding grain with a mor­tar and pestle :

Godadle godad­leeyow godadle (Oh, you man with many hovels)
Godadle xii­saa­low godadle (Oh, you with a fickle desire, you with many hovels)
Gabadh yar uu gabayuu (Oh, you man who after neglec­ting his young wife)
Uu guduu­diyayuu (And bea­ten her red)
Uu gogo­sha ku cunayuu (And killed her with nag­ging in bed)
Way gab­taa yid­hiyee godadle (Then accu­sed her of igno­ring him).


 Soma­li women, the­re­fore, do not miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty either to cri­ti­cise the social norms that pigeon­hole them into cer­tain roles or to express their opi­nion about how they want things to be. 

Work songs include those sung when chur­ning but­ter. In melo­dic voices, women talk to the milk contai­ner, known as haan, urging it to ferment qui­ck­ly while scol­ding it for being obs­ti­nate. The songs also high­light the amount of work invol­ved in the pro­cess as well as the value of butter.

Final­ly, some of the most famous lines invo­ked when tal­king about Soma­li folk poe­try are those that women sing while making mats, or kabad, for their noma­dic huts. Each line has a mes­sage to convey : 

Awdal laga keenyeey
Ala­lag dheereey
Il bari loo­ga soo oriyey  (The mat which has been brought from awdal. What a fan­fare you cause. Oh, how much they sing your praises. In the far­thest cor­ners of the East)

Koron­kor cuni maynoo
Kari­ba maynee
Karuur geel ma la hayaayey  (We can­not eat millet. Which looks like a hop­per band. Why not offer us sour camel milk?)

Naag­ta kaba­da leheey
Kaa­lin culuseey
Adaan kayd hore u sii dhi­ga­neey  (Oh, you woman, owner of the mat. Why do we find your work so hea­vy ? Because you didn’t save pro­vi­sions for such a job.)


Soma­li women have hun­dreds of simi­lar sung poems for eve­ry­thing they do and eve­ry event in which they par­take. This strong female sin­ging tra­di­tion explains why, when modern Soma­li music was born in 1943 and pio­nee­red by Abdi Dee­q­si War­fa (Abdi Sini­mo) with his bal­wo songs, there was Kha­di­ja Iyeh Dha­rar (Kha­di­jo Bal­wo) by his side as his part­ner. She even bor­ro­wed the genre’s name, bal­wo, as her nickname.



Modern female singers 

Kha­di­ja Bal­wo was soon fol­lo­wed by other trail­bla­zers such as Sha­mis Abo­kor (Guduu­do Car­wo), the first Soma­li woman to record a song for Radio Har­gei­sa in Bri­tish Soma­li­land, and Kha­di­ja Abdul­la­hi Daleys, who became the first female sin­ger in Moga­di­shu (Ita­lian Soma­li­land). Dalays was hono­red in Min­ne­so­ta short­ly before her death.

During the gol­den per­iod of Soma­li music from the 1960–80s, Soma­li female sin­gers see­med to have out­num­be­red men. Ico­nic sin­gers who cap­ti­va­ted music lovers during this era inclu­ded Fadu­mo Abdilla­hi (Maan­deeq), Hali­ma Kha­lif (Magool), Zai­nab Haji Ali (Bax­san), Farhiya Ali, Hibo Moha­med (Hibo Nuu­ra), Sah­ra Ahmed, Ami­na Abdilla­hi, Kha­dra Dahir, Zei­nab Egeh, Shan­ka­roon Ahmed, Fadu­mo Qasim Hilowle, Maryan Mur­sal, Kha­di­ja Maha­moud (Qalan­jo), Qamar Abdilla­hi (Hara­wo), Saa­do Ali War­same, Saa­fi Duale, Mar­wo Moha­med, Ruun Had­di Saban, Ami­na Fayr, Kin­si Haji Adan and many others of the cele­bra­ted Waa­be­ri band.


The decline of women’s role in music

When the Soma­li govern­ment col­lap­sed in 1991, female artists fled the coun­try in droves, while those who remai­ned in the home­land stop­ped sin­ging after radi­cal groups such as Al-Sha­bab took control in 2009. The daring few who remai­ned behind and attemp­ted to prac­tice some form of music were hea­vi­ly puni­shed. Concerts were ban­ned and even male musi­cians tur­ned away from per­for­mances and towards reli­gious conservatism.

Although there is still resis­tance to music by many Soma­li people, as seen in the rejec­tion of Nas­teexo Ind­ho to per­form in Har­gei­sa in August 2016, and the fai­led attempt by reli­gious cle­rics to prevent the hol­ding of a concert by Kiin Jama Yare in April 2018 in Moga­di­shu, the Waa­be­ri artists who emi­gra­ted over­seas have revi­ved Soma­li music in many parts of the world – and a new gene­ra­tion of dia­spo­ric female artists have taken up the mantle. 

Among the most cele­bra­ted sin­gers from the dia­spo­ra are Zai­nab Laba Dha­gax, Dee­qa Ahmed, Farhiya Fis­ka, Naseexo Ind­ho, Hodan Abdi­rah­man, Kiin Jaa­mac Yare, Hali­mo Gobaad, Rah­ma Rose, Nimo Dareen, Nimo Yasin, Idil Bar­khad, Ami­na Faa­rax (Ami­na Gacan­la) and others.

Second-gene­ra­tion Soma­li women, pre­do­mi­nant­ly living in the West, are also exten­ding Soma­li music into new fron­tiers, such as the sin­ging sis­ters known as Faar­row, who are wor­king in the Afro­pop genre. Final­ly, one of the mis­sing links in Soma­li women’s other­wise remar­kable contri­bu­tion to music was also recent­ly filled by Faw­zia Haji, who has become the first Soma­li woman DJ wor­king under the stage name DJ Fawz. 


The way for­ward for Soma­li women’s music

Loo­king at the Soma­li music land­scape today, one can­not miss the robust role that women have played in refa­shio­ning clas­si­cal music and in pushing social boun­da­ries and confron­ting cultu­ral taboos. Due to the pre­sence of large Soma­li com­mu­ni­ties in the dia­spo­ra, where young female talent finds more free­dom and oppor­tu­ni­ties to fol­low and ful­fill their pas­sion in music, and where the explo­sive growth of social media helps to ampli­fy women’s voices, one can only expect this trend to continue. 


In Soma­lia today, female musi­cians are pushing back against conser­va­tive pres­sure and brea­king new ground for them­selves. Apart from Sah­ra Hal­gan and her revo­lu­tio­na­ry music house Hid­do Dha­wr in Har­gei­sa, which has crea­ted a posi­tive out­look among the youth, ano­ther legen­da­ry female musi­cian has embar­ked on an ambi­tious pro­ject in Moga­di­shu. Mus­li­mo Hilowle, one of the first Soma­li women to play musi­cal ins­tru­ments pro­fes­sio­nal­ly and who emer­ged as a musi­cian in Waa­be­ri, recent­ly star­ted pro­mo­ting the music of girls at an orpha­nage in the Boond­heere neighbourhood.


This article was writ­ten for Music In Afri­ca. #Aux­Sons has trans­la­ted it in french as part of a media part­ner­ship agree­ment. Some extracts have been abbre­via­ted (…). To read the full article, visit the Music In Afri­ca website.



Bashir Goth

Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.

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