09 October 2008
Attacks on music practitioners in Somalia
On 18 June 2008, unidentified men armed with knives killed a multi-skilled musician singer in Mogadishu: the musician Abdulkadir Adow Ali was stabbed to death.
This is the report of a one-day seminar about music censorship and attacks on music practitioners in Somalia, which was held at Hotel Sahafi in the Somali capital Mogadishu, on 3 July 2008, and which reveiled an alarming level of threats to music and its practitioners in Somalia.
Edited by Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays
The core participants were around 40 artists and art-related professionals as well as representatives from Somali civil society organisations, all from different parts of Mogadishu, brought together to share views and experiences concerning music censorship in Somalia and the plight of musicians and artists, including targeted killing, intimidation and general deprivation of artists’ rights to work and express themselves. The participants were also expected to discuss the way forward for the threatened music practice in Somalia.
First of its kind in Mogadishu, the seminar aimed to address the serious threats mentioned above which increasingly face Somali musicians and the very existence of music practice in Somalia. In spite of the general atmosphere of insecurity and dominance of anti-music armed extremists in Mogadishu, the seminar was a great success.
The seminar was organised by the Somali-Speaking Centre of International PEN in partnership with Freemuse – the World Forum on Music and Censorship, who were kind enough to sponsor the event.
Context and general background to the seminar
Another aspect of the destruction has been the loss of human resources and capacity in key areas, with the majority of the skilled and talented people, including music practitioners being forced to flee the country in search for security and sustenance. This was coupled with a huge gap in education, training, cultural creation and people-to-people communication.
Several UN-backed attempts were made to restore peace, reconciliation and national governance in Somalia. Most of these initiatives targeted combating faction leaders in an attempt to make them reconcile and form a central government. The warlords’ unwillingness to genuinely collaborate has repeatedly frustrated the efforts of the peace-loving majority of the Somali people.
The latest of these peace efforts was a big Reconciliation Conference managed by the sub-regional organisation of IGAD held in Kenya from 2002–2004. The outcome was the reconstruction of national federal institutions: National Charter, National Assembly and Interim President, that is the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by Col. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as an interim President. Backed by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, the TFG has been recognised by the international community and it continues to represent Somalia in all regional and international platforms but it is too week to make a significant difference in the reality on the ground. The biggest challenge is strong and heavily armed opposition groups dominated by radical and allegedly moderate Islamist movements, all of whom are directly engaged in active music-hate activities.
Civil war and anarchy
Because of this shocking incident and the unabated fighting, a large number of Somali musicians fled to the neighboring countries where they are still today suffering in isolation with no international intervention for their plight, while a small number of them made their way to Europe and North America.
Somali artists who remain in the country – because they are either unable to flee or have chosen not to do so – are continually faced with targeted killings, intimidation, injuries, and deprivation of their basic rights to work and express themselves freely by all sides in the conflict but these violations are not reported to the outside world.
The situation of musicians, composers, and music organisers in Somalia is relatively unknown to the rest of the world. The internal conflicts of Somalia have forced thousands of Somali people into exile, and few international journalists and researchers take the risk to report from Somalia.
In response to such a desperate situation, the Somali-speaking Centre of International PEN organised this seminar sponsored by Freemuse.
Objectives of the seminar
Format and proceedings of the seminar
Seminar participants in deliberations
The opening session
As a keynote speaker representing the Somali authorities, Abdirasak Yusuf Bahlawi, director of Planning and Training Section of the Ministry of Information, took the floor. He underscored the importance of music in Somali life and pointed out the multitude of problems faced by Somali artists today as the result of the civil war. He added that joint effort by the Somali Government, civil society and international community is required to reverse the situation.
The second keynote speaker was Mariam Hussein Owreye, chairlady of Ismail Jumale Human Rights Organisation who particularly stressed how Somali artists’ human rights are continually violated and how urgent is an action against such violations.
Then, professor Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, coordinator of Somali Peace Line, who represented the civil society umbrella, highlighted various aspects of the theme of the seminar, underling the role of the civil society in a future action.
Many participants were keen to speak about this subject. Prominent among these were the participating musicians, singers and other performing artists who constituted the majority of the participants. Famous artists such as Said Harawo (veteran musician/composer), Binti Omar Ga’al (singer and actress), Maki Haji Banadir (poet, actor and singer), Ali Dagaal (musician) and Ahmadey Abdi Gashaan (veteran musician/composer/playwright) made interesting interventions, taking the clues from their own personal stories and experiences. They told the participants of how at different points in time their lives have recently been endangered, roughed up, chased away, stones thrown at them, and humiliated in public by anti-music individuals or groups.
Given below are the key problems identified in the discussions.
Key problems facing the Somali music and musicians
The prevailing and pervasive community censorship in Somalia is the outcome of a long-time preaching to the community against music by extremist Wahhabi clerics, who view music as un-Islamic and consider musicians as immoral outcasts in the society.
This brand of Wahhabism has been actively taking root in Somalia since 1991 in the absence of effective central government, and it has substantially overpowered the traditional Sufi Islam which supported and promoted the music and musicians.
During the six-month period in 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts (with Wahhabists in the lead) was controlling South and Central Somalia including the capital Mogadishu, they did not only wage a violent crackdown on music and musicians, but they also intimidated the artists into publicly denouncing music as un-Islamic and repenting of their old sins as artists.
On 1 September 2006, officials from the Union of Islamic Courts held their first meeting with the Somali musicians at the shattered and roofless national theatre in Mogadishu. In this meeting, the UIC officials strongly advised the musicians to repent of their old sins as musicians as music is forbidden in Islam, and to recondition themselves in line with the already prevailing Islamic law of the country.
Immediately and as a result, a good number of popular musicians hastily held press conferences in Mogadishu, telling local journalists of their denunciation of music as un-Islamic, and in the meantime informing the public that they had repented of ‘their old sins’ by asking Allah the Almighty for forgiveness. To date, this trend continues unabated both in Somalia and in the Somali Diaspora in the West.
Representation of music practitioners
On 1 September 2006, officials from the Union of Islamic Courts held their first meeting with the Somali musicians at the shattered and roofless national theatre in Mogadishu. In this meeting, the Union of Islamic Courts officials strongly advised the musicians to repent of their old sins as musicians as music is forbidden in Islam, and to recondition themselves in line with the already prevailing Islamic law of the country.
On 15 December 2007, the Union of Islamic Courts established a new Islamic council for the Somali Islamist poets as part of their determination to silence the music and the musicians, with the clear objectives of discouraging the music, intimidating the musicians into repentance, and promoting a music-free and non-love poetry.
Nevertheless, a few weeks later, before this council became full-fledged, the UIC forces were ousted from power by an alliance of the Somali Government and its allied Ethiopian forces. In spite of that, this council is now still very active and operational in Mogadishu and its surrounding regions.
At the end of the discussion of the issue of representation, two main conclusions were arrived:
1. That the absence of an association or body representing the Somali music practitioners is one of the major problems suffered by these artists
2. That outside support is crucially needed to assist Somali musicians and singers to piece themselves together again and form an effective organisation representing their interests.
Music piracy and the lack of copyright law
These groups of musicians reproduce existing Somali songs with slightly altered beats using a range of high tech instruments barely recognisable to the conservative old guards to which these songs belong. Traditionally, the Somali music was a profession learnt outside the classroom and was by large talent-based. Artists used to be highly revered but membership to the music community was quite demanding as one had to prove himself/herself to have what it takes to be a musician. However, amid lack of copyright laws coupled with the absence of screening bodies, the Somali music underwent a considerable conversion over the last two decades, allowing many youngsters to join the music community without necessarily having songs of their own, a practice that many see as unacceptable.
The three successive Somali regimes prior to the civil war used music as an instrument to control the mass, rendering the primary function of Somali music a mechanism to steer the public psyche in a desired direction. Because of this, the Somali music remains to date commercially insignificant despite the existence of a considerable Somali speaking population – estimated around 20 million – in East Africa. Most Somali musicians earn a living out of shows held during festive seasons in the Somali territories in the Horn of Africa as well as in the Diaspora, especially in North America and Western Europe where significant Somali communities live.
Recently a widely read Somali language newspaper, Haatuf, slammed at shows held in cities in Somaliland by the North American based famous band, Sheego. The report accused the band of being at the forefront of the Somali music piracy, describing them as music looters taking advantage of the lack of copyright laws in the country. Similar Somali bands or individuals of music looters are currently on the increase and operational in North America and Western Europe.
The participants sadly pointed out that either the legitimate owners of this music had died or they are still suffering in Somalia of hunger and lack of medication. They mentioned as an example the shocking case of late Abdullahi Amir Roble Aw-Kuku, one of the most popular Somali comedians ever, who died at the age of 83, after a long struggle with a persistent TB, which resulted from hunger and lack of medication.
The widow of the late comedian, Nurto Saleban told the seminar that she had recently complained to the administrations of local radio stations in Mogadishu about their unauthorised use of his music, her husband’s intellectual property, in their daily adverts — a key source of income from which they earn a substantial amount of money. Unfortunately, these radio stations ignored the legitimate complaint of the widow.
However, the participants generally agreed on the alteration issue that they consider these alterations represent no more than sheer corruption of the sweet Somali melodies.
One of the participating singers angrily said, “The unauthorised reproduction of Somali music is indicative of the lack of creativity among today’s youth… you cannot call yourself a musician or an artist when all that you do is singing a song that belongs to some one else.”
The division that is apparent in the Somali audience draws on diametrically opposing rationales largely determined by factors informed by differences in age. More often than not, old and middle aged listeners align themselves with the previous undiluted forms of Somali music whereas the young generation subscribes to the altered styles.
Legislation and court practices
• On 21 July 2008, militiamen from the Somali Islamist groups, armed with pistols, seriously injured musician Omar Nur Basharah by gunning him down in the capital Mogadishu. They shot him several times in the chest as he was returning from a funeral of a relative.
• On Sunday night 29 June 2008, militia from the Union of Islamic Courts reportedly attacked a traditional folklore-dancing event in Ceelgeelle, a rural village on the outskirts of Bal’ad town in the Middle Shabelle region, 30 kilometres north of the capital Mogadishu. In this attack, two of the nomad-dancers lost their lives.
• On Sunday night 22 June 2008, assailants believed to belong to a radical Islamist group launched a hand-grenade at a cinema-hall in Baidaba. More than ten boys of the local youths, who were watching films and music-related videos, were killed in the attack while another two died from their wounds at the hospital in the town.
• On Saturday night 21 June 2008, attackers believed to belong to a radical Islamist group threw a hand-grenade at a cinema-hall in the capital Mogadishu where a youth were watching films and music-related videos. In this attack, one person died and four others were injured.
• On 18 June 2008, musician Abdulkadir Adow Ali was stabbed to death in Mogadishu. Unidentified men armed with knives killed Abdulkadir Adow Ali, a multi-skilled musician, singer, actor, and music composer, in Mogadishu while he was heading home to his house.
• In March 2008, soloist Aden Hasan Salad was shot dead by three unidentified men armed with pistols at a teashop in Waberi district in the capital Mogadishu.
• On 25 March 2008, singer and music composer Ahmed Nur Jangow died on 25 March 2008 of heart attack, because of the stress and depression he had been suffering from for a long-time living under community censorship, which finally led him to death.
Other brutal attacks
• On 27 December 2007, Mohamed Muhiyadin Ali, a popular and celebrity newspaper editor, was brutally murdered in a remote-controlled landmine attack in Mogadishu. It is widely believed that he was targeted, among others, because of his critical writings on the musicians’ plight and suffering as well as his documentation of targeted violations against them.
1. Awareness-raising workshops on copyright violations
2. Follow-up conference
3. Awareness-raising workshops on community censorship on music and the musicians
Likewise, in the absence of an association or body representing the Somali music practitioners, one of the major problems suffered by the Somali musicians and artists, it is not viable either to fight and uproot this phenomenon. In this respect, outside support is crucially needed to assist Somali musicians and singers to piece themselves together again and form an effective organisation representing their interests.
Programme of the seminar
11:00 – 11:30 Issue of representation
Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays is a Somali journalist/writer based in Belgium. Currently, he is chairman of the Free Expression Committee of the Somali-speaking Writers Centre of International PEN. He can be contacted on this e-mail address: cmwacays [AT] gmail.com (insert the @-sign yourself)
Abdirasak Yusuf Bahlawi, director of Planning and Training Section of the Ministry of Information
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