Somali music is here, but hard to findby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
Despite being home to one of the largest Somali populations in the U.S., Minnesotans know relatively little about Somali music. We learn more about the music Somalis generally keep to themselves.
Minneapolis, Minn. — A search for Somali music will inevitably lead to a Somali mall in south Minneapolis. On this Saturday night, Mohammed Amin Ahmed is our guide. Ahmed is a young Somali professional who works for a rental car company, but spends a lot of free time organizing the Minnesota chapter of freemuslims.org.
Ahmed is not a musician, but he is a music fanatic, and we're headed for his favorite record store. We go by a coffee shop where a crowd of Somali men are glued to Al Jazeera on the big screen.
We pass small restaurants, shoe shops and one storefront after another draped with traditional Somali clothing. The strains of African music are getting louder.
"There's one guy I like. He keeps a variety of music from Oromo, Somali, African. So, it's kind of neat," says Ahmed.
We arrive at California Studio, kind of an odd name for an African music store. If you want to buy a CD, owner Ture Ahmad will take the original out of its case and make a copy for you. Ahmad carries a lot of Somali music because that's what he sells the most.
"I can say about 70 percent of my customer is Somali," says Ahmad. "If you want a CD with the broadest range of Somali songs, get this," he says, referring to Somali singing star Hassan Samatar from Toronto.
Mohammed Ahmed explains that Somalis don't categorize their music by style, but by content.
"For example, there's the Somali version of country music, you know a lot of complaining, a lot of 'Hi, how ya doing? You lost my love, my love why are you treating me bad,' and 'How come this is happening?' All that good stuff from country music," Ahmed says.
Somalis are a nomadic people, a society built on milk and meat, says Ahmed. So there are songs about the environment, the weather, and camel herds.
An older form of Somali music is performed at weddings by what Ahmed describes as roaming musical poets. These performers honor a newly wedded couple by celebrating their family history in song.
"They kind of go through the lineage and they kind of go through what their fathers did, who their fathers' fathers are, who their grandfathers are. It's kind of the way of knowing your own heritage and your own line, your descent," says Ahmed. "We are all one and the same, Somalis, but every tribe has got its own unique variation and take on things."
There's also a unique brand of Somali funk, patented in the 1960s and '70s, which is very popular. Traditional Somali instruments include the kaban, a four-string guitar, and a drum made of cattle skin called the durmaan. But they're quickly being replaced by synthesizers.
Ahmed says all the music he's mentioned has found its way to Minnesota, but unless you speak Somali, you probably won't know about it. Quite often someone rents a hall, books some touring musicians, and then publicizes it with flyers, on the Internet or by word of mouth.
"What you realize about Somali music is 90 percent of the songs are actually traditional," says Ahmed. "They've been around, some of them, for thousands of years. They just keep getting updated and updated and updated. And it's just a continuation of what was old into the new."
Ahmed says some of that new music is being created here.
"Minnesota has its own music. The difference is in the beats. Some of them, they mix it up with reggae," says Ahmed. "Some of them, they take a lot of mainstream music like pop music, and they kind of get the tempo of it and they sing with it, Somali music, and it's purely Minnesota talent coming up here. And there's a lot of experimentation going on, a lot of new growth and new visions coming out."
Which is why Ahmed believes Somali music will eventually cross over into mainstream Minnesota. He says as nomads, Somalis are used to being in foreign lands. He says their culture has always adapted, and so has the music.