In it, they meditate on love, life, and a Somalia rising from the ashes of colonialism. The music, plaintive and treacle-like to the ear, is influenced by American funk and pop, features influences from Arab and Indian sounds, and instruments ranging from the short-neck lute oud, to the guitar and accordion.
And now, these songs, collated from lost tapes from the 1970s and collected into an album this year by the US-based Ostinato Records, has been nominated for a Grammy award.
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa was produced and compiled by Vik Sohonie and Nicolas Sheikholeslami. Nominated in the Best Historical Album category, the 15-track mix tape features Somali classics that document the vibrant music era of Somalia before the civil war broke out in 1991. Sohonie first got the idea to preserve the singles after watching songs uploaded on YouTube by members of the Somali diaspora.
The project took him across the world, from Minnesota to Mogadishu, eventually landing him in the archives of the Red Sea Foundation in Hargeisa, Somaliland. There, he found 10,000 tapes saved from the dictator Siad Barre’s blanket bombing of the city in 1988. One reason why Somali music wasn’t released worldwide or became commercially successful is that Barre had nationalized the art industry in general, with the government owning all the rights to songs and plays.
In an interview with Quartz in April, Sohonie said, besides preserving the past, he wanted to dispel the “single story” coming from war-torn countries like Somalia—or other Afrophone nations. His company has also released two compilations of music from Haiti (Tanbou Toujou Lou) and Cape Verde (Synthesize the Soul). “The stories coming from these places lacked so much perspective and history,” he said.
Over the last few years, crate-digging has become a big trend in Africa, with independent labels unearthing a treasure trove of African music and rescuing musicians and their work from obscurity. These include Analog Africa, Sublime Frequencies, Sahel Sounds, and Awesome Tapes from Africa. But the trend has also proved controversial, with some saying that white ethnomusicologists’ search and compilation of these rare records is one more Western scramble for Africa.
Sohonie, who was born in India and grew up in Africa, Europe, and the United States, says the nomination was a “real testament” to the rich Somali music and culture. Somalis in the diaspora, he said, had written to him saying the album allowed them to reconnect with their parents and to “relive with them those memories of Mogadishu and Hargeisa.”
The Somali album was also his most successful of all three, selling several thousand copies.
“We knew the music was great,” Sohonie said. “It was just the matter of ‘Will the world like it? Will they relate to it?’ Our job was to present it in a way that people were able to access it, understand it, and consume it. I guess it’s mission accomplished on many levels.”