That the songs making up Ostinato Records’ Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa even exist in good enough condition to release today is nothing short of wondrous. On the brink of civil war, Somalia’s president prepared to level the northern region of Somaliland and was ready to destroy Radio Hargeisa with a particular prejudice in order to keep the station from organizing resistance. Members of the radio staff did what any good DJs would do: buried 50 years’ worth of archival tapes and masters deep enough that they would be impervious to air strikes.
It worked, and thousands of them have now been unearthed and archived. A handful of the most well-preserved comprises Sweet As Broken Dates, a compilation that encompasses a wide range of sounds and styles to give us a multi-dimensional view of Somali pop music from the ’70s and ’80s.
Geographically, Somalia is uniquely poised at the crossroads of several regions of the world. By land, it wraps around eastern Ethiopia; by sea, it touches both the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, giving it easy access to the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. All of these connections influenced Somalia’s golden age of pop as represented here. Nimco Jamaac’s “Buuraha U Dheer” opens with an ascension of synths that would sound at home in a retro Bollywood classic before vocals with an impassioned sway reminiscent of Alèmayèhu Eshèté’s hypnotize and mesmerize, catching a wave of rhythm that takes the song from the ether to the dance floor.
Other songs show the Cold War-era influence of the States. Hibo Nuura’s “Haddii Hoobalkii Gabay” hits the ground running with crisp, electronic beats, while Dur Dur Band’s “Gorof” is pure disco. Gacaltooyo Band’s “Ninkaan Ogayn” backs featured singer Faduumina Hilowle’s airy voice with a bluesy guitar-and-organ line for an East African take on Motown-era balladry. Strong tropical funk comes through on “Uur Hooyo”, an upbeat, brassy number with Ethio-jazz horns and a catchy tune. Government-sponsored Djiboutian group 4 Mars’ “Na Daadihi” sparkles, an exquisitely melodic choral piece performed by musicians from the three main linguistic groups — Somali, Arab, and Afar — of the tiny nation of Djibouti.
An interview in the detailed liner notes with Iftiin Band and Sharero Band synth player Mahmud “Jerry” Abdallah Hussen sheds more light on the many influences that come together in Somali pop music. He cites Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango as some of his personal influences, and notes that Somali music, like Indian music, tends to use pentatonic scales, and that the hint of reggae present in songs like Aamina Camaari’s “Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo” comes from the off-beat reggae shares with Dhaanto rhythm from Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking Ogaden region. It’s a fascinating read, interviews giving incredible insight into the time and place of these recordings that could so easily have been lost to combat, and Ostinato sets a good example by letting the artists speak for themselves.
That’s all gravy, though. This is beautiful music, analog dance tracks with a groove unlike any other. Listening to it lets you leap back in time to a different Somalia, one ready to dance, one with spirits high and songs as sweet as broken dates.