Graded on a Curve:
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

An absolute gem of archival diligence, Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa saw compilers Vik Sohonie, Nicolas Sheikholeslami and their team traveling to Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and Djibouti, and additionally to various locales in Europe, the USA, and the Middle East to connect with the Somali diaspora, all with the goal of unveiling part of what writer and booklet contributor Maxamed Daahir Afrax deems the “golden era of Somali theatrical arts, including music.” The sounds are stylistically varied, appealingly feminist, and constantly satisfying; it’s out August 25 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Ostinato Records.

The use of the term underground in relation to art is of course figurative, often meaning subversive or dissident, but just as frequently simply standing as the opposite of popular, in that its audience, or perhaps better said those cognizant of said art’s existence, is few. However, the music collected on Sweet as Broken Dates gives underground a literal spin.

In 1998, at the outbreak of civil war, authoritarian ruler Siad Barre was set to bomb communication hub Radio Hargeisa in the northern region of the country (known today as Somaliland) so to effectively cripple organized resistance. A few with access to the station’s archives, which held over half a century of Somali music, managed to transplant the many thousands of tapes to neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia, where they were buried deep under the ground as a safeguard against airstrikes.

Knowledge of this action and the recent excavation of the tapes comes courtesy of Ostinato’s press release, its background substantially expanded upon in the set’s liner essays and interviews with some of the key musicians involved. But even shorn of the clarity these notes bring, a single listen solidifies the contents as distinct from assorted more prominent contemporaneous African styles, in large part due to geography, with the Somali horn of Africa’s history as a trade center opening it up to a variety of cultures including the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, Southeast Asia, and even China.

Indeed, Sweet as Broken Dates’ opening track, Nimco Jamaac’s “Buuraha U Dheer,” begins in territory much nearer to Bollywood than to the more prominent style of Afrobeat, though the cut is far from a straight stylistic lift; unlike a fair portion of Indian soundtrack stuff, Jamaac and her accompanists don’t ratchet up the intensity, but instead choose a relaxed vibe that drifts into the neighborhood of lo-fi Asian pop. The infusion of keyboards and synths seem to locate it in the timeframe of the early ’80s.

It shares with the following selections a focus on Somali lyrics exploring topics (illuminated via titles translated to English) that would escape the censorship of Barre’s military dictatorship (but with occasional subtle social commentary) via modest yet consistently effective and endearing fidelity stemming directly from the lack of a commercial record industry. There is also a commitment to entertainment music (in Afrax’s term), honed largely through live performance and with considerably high levels of imagination.

It’s all encapsulated in Aamina Camaari’s vaguely reggae-ish “Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo,” which like “Buuraha U Dheer” elects for keyboard-driven pop over funk as it stretches out to six minutes and reinforces a refreshing pride of place for women in the Somali scenario; the compilation’s titular comparison is a descriptor of praise for Somali female vocal prowess. Next, a piece of unknown title by male vocalist Ali Nuur extends the aura of economical tech but it also begins raising the groove heat through a recurring hint of reggae and able guitar stroking.

The sheer number of women singers (over half of the fifteen entries) could lead some to a draw a line between it and Sweet as Broken Dates’ emphasis on pop, but that’s an oversimplification; Hibo Nuura’s “Haddii Hoobalkii Gabay” might register as relatively straightforward melodic trucking, but the Gacaltooyo Band’s “Ninkaan Ogayn” is a slow organ-driven burner that’s nicely offset by Faduumina Hilowle’s sweetness of voice.

It leads into one of the set’s standouts, the Iftiin Band’s seven-plus minute “Xuduud Ma Leh Xubigaan,” which in addition to a male-female vocal tradeoff from Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and Maryan Naasir, also features sturdy, and again methodically paced instrumental bedrock thriving on organ and bold bass lines. Xasan Diiriye’s “Qaraami” quickens matters while undertaking an extended duration surely enhanced by live performance; ears amenable to the more refined motions of later Afrobeat should find it appealing.

The circumstances shaping this compilation no doubt made any desire for chronology difficult. Wisely, the sequencing begins by flaunting Somali musical uniqueness before traveling into more expectedly funky regions. The Dur Dur Band’s “Gorof,” which features female vocalist Sahra Dawo, offers well-practiced pop-disco finesse, and their later selection “Duruuf Maa Laygu Diidee” with male singer Muqtar Idi Ramadan, inches closer to a simmering groove (while slowing things down) while retaining characteristics reflecting the trade port locale.

If funk is what one wants, then the Sharaf Band’s “Kadeed Badanaa Naftaydani” fits the bill. Infused with horns, organ and a rhythmic togetherness that’s not so tight as to sacrifice the limber forward motion, vocalist Xaawo Hiiraan’s direct delivery ices the cake. It flows nicely into the impressively layered, almost art-funky “Na Daadihi” by 4 Mars, which is additionally marked by a group vocal chant distinguishing it from the other tracks here.

If performance necessitated bands, Somalia placed a high value on its singers, though at least through these examples, matters didn’t falter into the boilerplate; “Uur Hooyo” by Danan Hargeysa features solid singing by Mohamed “Huro” Abdihashi, but it also sports sax flutter and shortwave radio synth unlike anything else in the set. In part due to Faadumo Qaasim’s voice, the Sharero Band’s “Qays iyo Layla” leans back into the India-Asia atmosphere described above, but the rhythmic rigidity, when coupled with an energetic sax and the basic fidelity, adds up to a quite unusual whole.

Waaberi Band’s “Oktoobar Waatee?” is a swirl of funkiness that could’ve rolled on for twice as long, and for the 2LP’s finale, Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and the Iftiin Band step up once more with the instrumentally potent and multifaced “Anaa Qaylodhaankaan.” Sweet as Broken Dates only scratches the surface of Somali’s musical riches, and this writer is eagerly awaiting potential further installments. Kudos to Vik Sohonie, Nicolas Sheikholeslami, and Ostinato for a job well done.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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