Rediscovering Somalia’s Pre-War Pop

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Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

Back in late 2011, publicist, music enthusiast and scholar Brian Shimkovitz decided to take his side-gig blogging for his Awesome Tapes from Africa site to the next level, starting a record reissue label championing the pantheon of unheralded music to be had on that continent. Only three releases in (with copious other gems to be found on the blog itself), the label has already explored folk music from Mali and drum-machine propelled pop from Ghana, and this week sees the release of Somalian funk group, Dur-Dur Band. To help celebrate, Shimkovitz put together an exclusive mix of Somalian pop from the early ’90s for MTV Hive:

When I asked Shimkovitz about the music on this mix, he wrote: “Dur-Dur Band is really easy to find and quite well known. They are very much the tip of the iceberg of tons of interesting music from Somalia, both past and present. I wanted to include a lot of my favorite Somali artists on the mix and had to stuff that was in somewhat better shape in terms of sound quality. Most of the music from Somalia I have is pretty lo-fi and a lot of it is MP3s I’ve downloaded since it’s hard to find in the places I’ve lived. The older music has more of a focus on guitars and horn sections and live drums while more current Somali music is heavy in the synth department.” And unlike his previous African musical discoveries, the Dur-Dur Band wasn’t discovered via cassette, but via researching Somalian pop music on YouTube.

In the 21st century, there’s been no shortage of African music reissues, from the psychedelic, to the heavy, to the funky, the singular to the sublime. It’s easy to become overwhelmed (not to mention exhausted) by so many releases. Yet for the most part, these reissues emanate from rather stable times in these otherwise-troubled countries’ histories. Whether the music comes from Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Mali, Benin or South Africa, most of the music being excavated and re-packaged for consumption and appreciation in western countries was recorded after these regions threw off the shackles of European colonialism in the ’50s and ’60s and before military coups and religious extremism plagued the continent in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

In the case of Dur-Dur Band, the band and Somalian pop music thrived in the oceanside city of Mogadishu even with communist rule in the country. That is until Somali Civil War broke out in 1991, turning into a bloody situation and an international situation, resulting in an American military intervention (which most American remember via the resultant Hollywood blockbuster, Black Hawk Down).

“A lot of the bands and major musicians left around the early 1990s when things went south with the government,” Shimkovitz said. “Up until then Dur-Dur Band and many other musicians — both in government funded and private bands — were very busy and their music was known around the region. All these recordings where coming out on tape and the bands were going on tour. There was a happening nightlife scene and the economy was better, you can see documentaries showing all these big factories and locally-made products being readied for export. Things changed over the years to the point where Islamists took over for a while and tried to discourage — and even attempt to ban — music.”

If that sounds familiar, think of the present situation in Mali, where Islamic extremists are forcing musicians out of the northern region of that country. In a modern era where listeners have been able to experience the beatific music rendered by the likes of Malian artists like Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam and the like, that the political climate might soon become inhospitable to one of its greatest cultural exports is frightening, to say the least. Invigorating as this Dur-Dur Band reissue is, it also serves as a reminder that such oppression and violence is never trapped in the past, but near the surface of the present as well. As so many African music reissues proves, music serves as resistance to such tyranny.

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