Mar 7, 2014

From Somalia: Dur-Dur Band - Volume 5

One of the greatest gifts recorded music gives us is a little piece of life from places we may never otherwise know. There was a time when Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, was often referred to as the "pearl of the Indian Ocean." Before dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 and the country plunged into civil war, it was a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with the nightlife and bands to soundtrack it. Today, it's a scarred place under persistent threat from the country's still-powerful religious militias and al-Shabaab suicide bombers.

In the 1980s, Mogadishu swung in spite of the country's oppressive leadership, and one of its best-known acts was the Dur-Dur Band. Awesome Tapes From Africa has reissued some of their other albums before this, but this release of Dur-Dur's Volume 5 is true to the label's name-- it's directly mastered from a cassette copy of the album, one of about 10 that the band recorded. As you might imagine, the preservation of master tapes has been low on the priorities list in Mogadishu for the last 20-odd years, so this is a case of making the best of what's available. For the most part, the sound is excellent. What hiss there is can easily be chalked up as part of the experience-- this music has never existed in a state of digital clarity.

Like many of the great African dance bands, Dur-Dur was a big, versatile group, with three horn players, four lead singers, three backing singers, two guitarists, a keyboardist, a drummer, two percussionists, and a bass player. The vocalists trade off from song to song, singing what the liner notes reveal to be mostly songs about relationship trouble (the novelty for Western listeners will be that a few deal with competition between wives in polygamist households), but unless you speak Somali, you'll be following the melody and not the story-- and the melodies are excellent.

The band's sound is funky throughout, with apparent influences from American funk and soul and possibly even West African music-- the static harmony of their heavy vamps is well matched to the modal, more traditional Somali vocal melodies. The group's one female singer, Sahra Abukar Dawo, also may have watched a handful of Bollywood films-- the edge on her held notes and the way she makes sudden leaps from legato to staccato phrasing is reminiscent of Asha Bhosle.

The songs on the tape were clearly not recorded at the same session, as the instrumentation and audio quality vary a fair amount. I wonder whether the musicians may have been updating their gear around the time they recorded this music-- some tracks feature meaty, old-school organ, while others feature tinny synth and what's either a drum machine or a very convincing approximation of one; the Caribbean-styled "Dholey" is replete with bendy synth lines and accent percussion that would sound at home on Phil Collins' No Jacket Required.

In the early 90s, unable to continue playing in their city, Dur-Dur Band broke up and scattered abroad. Their competition did too, and the cinemas, studios, hotels and theaters that once played host to their music closed, or were forced to. In 2006, Mogadishu was briefly dominated by Islamic extremists who attempted to outlaw music. The place where this music was made is still listed on the map as though nothing changed, but it's not the same city today as it was in 1987. This record is a superb glimpse of what was and what's been lost.

Somalia has long been one of those countries whose reputation in the West precedes it. Unfortunately, it’s almost never for the better: From the stiff Dervish resistance against British and Italian imperialists in the late 19th century continental scramble to Black Hawk Down and modern day Blackbeards in the Gulf of Aden that make Pirate Bay’s torrent junkies look like the petulant tweens they are, Somalia is rarely known for its positives if it’s known at all. Part of this can be attributed to generations of uninterrupted warfare spread across the last century and change that has long since erased the memory of a stable trading region, conflicts set off by the Berlin Conference and continuing through numerous regime changes, fascist and communist threats, decolonization and dictatorship. Part of it is laziness in knowing the convoluted history. What positives you usually hear or read about are framed politically with its strategic location near the Arabian Peninsula and on the cusp of the Indian Ocean; worse, you know it for uranium, natural gas, and a strong potential for oil; worst, you know it as being marginally less tumultuous than Sudan. 

This neglect extends beyond politics. Take a good look at the outernational compilations and assorted African rarities you’ve bought or downloaded (from Pirate Bay, probably) in the decade since Soundway’s definitive Ghana Soundz. Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso – almost every one of them is from the other end of the continent. Even Brian Shimkovitz, he of the essential Awesome Tapes From Africa blog behind Dur-Dur Band’s Volume 5, has had comparatively less success bringing Somali sounds back from his numerous ethnomusicological excursions to the continent. Singles are still possible to find thanks to a significant Somali diaspora in London, Minneapolis and elsewhere, but finding a complete album that isn’t Jamiila’s Songs From a Somali City or a beat-up dub from another beat-up dub ad infinitum is well-nigh impossible. 

Volume 5 is no exception since it, too, has been remastered from cassette. Still, this is a step in the right direction out of the blogging wilderness to give some institutional attention to a corner of the continent where extracting quality recordings has been notoriously difficult. 

As its title implies, 1987’s Volume 5 captures Dur-Dur after they had already established themselves as one of the country’s most successful acts. Originally (and briefly) named Bakaaka, the group was formed in Mogadishu in the late 1970s after its members had spent time in the company of a similar but more experienced group, Iftin. As Dur-Dur Band, they honed a modern kind of Afro-pop that drew from Fela’s Afrobeat and early ’70s funk and soul, as well as traditional Arabic and Asian intonation in the singing – I’m reminded of a lot of past Sublime Frequencies comps on Iraq and Cambodia, for instance.
An extra element of intrigue is added by the vaguely psychedelic qualities of the guitar on a song like “Fagfagley” or the barely noticeable phasing in and out of channels on all of these tracks thanks to the quality of the source material. I hear at least two horns, guitar and bass, drums, and shared singing duties on Volume 5, but I’m sure there is more I’m still not picking up on even after a month of listening. 

For those who can understand the lyrics, it’s worth noting that Dur-Dur eschewed the template of those artists typically funded by the government in avoiding political topics during their heyday (though that would change with a lineup revamp and official relocation to Ethiopia in the early 1990’s). Instead of getting pro-Siad Barre sloganeering, then, these songs mine personal grievances. 

The balance between the male vocalists and Zahra Dawo (a popular artist in her own right who also worked with Iftin and others) makes for fascinating listening. There is significant echo on each track that makes this sound older than it is and which sometimes obscures the vocals (as on “Aada Fududey Iga Ahow”). My personal favorites are the ones Dawo leads — her high pitch is attention-grabbing and the echo only serves to boost her powerful voice. To that end, my favorite track here is finisher “Doyoo,” which rides what sounds like a drum machine beat before tripping you up in preparation for verses that Dawo dominates. Along with “Tajir Waa Ilaah,” it’s also the most obviously catchy. 

In this day and age, nothing is too much of a mystery — you can find a lot of information on Somali music by just searching around, and even Shimkovitz admits Dur-Dur Band is no deep dig. Having a chat with band member Abdinur Dalji and Dawo herself isn’t impossible now that they live in Columbus. But from a place where the official government radio station has had to broadcast from an armed compound protected from its own and where Al-Shabaab’s media vendetta seems unending, Volume 5 resonates as a reminder of the ultimate positives life has to offer.

by Patrick Masterson @

Awesome Tapes From Africa is a label that doesn’t mess around — they give you exactly what they lead you to expect, uncovering unimaginably beautiful treasures from a lost past and often offering them for free through their site. This reissue brings us the fascinating Dur-Dur Band from Somalia, in the latest of several releases the blog-turned-imprint has had pressed to vinyl.

Despite the original cassette sourcing, the bass sounds fat and juicy in just the right way. This Somalian dance band from the ’80s is some of the happiest music I’ve ever heard. The sound changes throughout the album — songs vary in instrumentation, recording quality, vocals, and keyboard timbre, but that’s to be expected from an early band in a developing area, particularly one that started with four people before tripling in size. The progression we hear is a band striving to be bigger, badder, and ensuring that everyone has a good time. It’s a unique sound that is so natural you’ll wonder where these songs have been all your life, seamlessly blending folk with soul, funk and an indescribable joy that can only ever be heard in the magical African diaspora, from Calypso and ska to highlife.

The soundtrack to the Mogadishu nightclub scene was mostly Western music, after the military coup in 1969 opened Somalia up to electric sounds and American radio. Dur-Dur started in much the same vein, but decided to combine traditional Somalian songs with this fusion of funk and soul that was integral to the urban dance scene. In the early 1990s, the communist government collapsed under the strain of a civil war, many Somali musicians fled the country, and the Mogadishu music scene effectively died. For further historical context, have a listen to a fascinating interview on All Things Considered with some of the band members, now living in Colombus, OH.

Volume 5 resurrects a sound that refuses to die, a vibrant joy that rejects oblivion. We’re hearing the sounds of a Mogadishu that once was, and is now lost forever except in the memories of Somalians uprooted by conflict. With this LP, we have the opportunity to access something that could easily have been lost, and it isn’t just a historical peccadillo enjoyed by a few dilettante geeks; to a certain extent, it’s part of the joy we get from any aesthetic experience. The bass-lines sound intimately familiar, dancing their way between vaguely psychedelic guitar melodies, ecstatic horns, and crooning vocals that remind me of joyous Vietnamese soul. The sheer happiness contained on this album makes more sense in the dismal context that is Somalia: before the country’s fate took a turn for a worse, the 1980s were still a brutal time in which most musicians were forced to sing political propaganda. So-called “private” bands gave the Mogadishu night life a more convivial soundtrack, and had the privilege of singing about everyday topics at parties, dances, and weddings. Their relief at being able to express themselves freely is a joyful, soul-soothing, empowering experience to hear. The three lead singers (backed by three backup singers) trade off songs, mostly singing about relationship troubles (including, in case you were wondering, polygamous household dramas).

As African countries endured the violent anguish of post-colonialism through the 60s, music culture found itself in a struggle to define a modern African identity and the resultant sounds have taken decades to find occidental ears. Great strides are being made by some dedicated souls these days: Soundway‘s extensive discography spans the entire continent, while Now Again reissued Zambian blues-rockers WITCH (an amazing, raw parallel to the heaviness of Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Budgie et al.) Sublime Frequencies, based out of Seattle, unearths lost gems from all over the world in stunningly informative reissues, including many of my favorite African artists, and the Athens-based label Teranga Beat has reissued some crucial psychedelic funk from Senegal and The Gambia in the past few years. Awesome Tapes From Africa dredges up, well, awesome tapes from just about everywhere, including this album by Mogadishu’s pride and joy. Is this enough to reverse centuries of cultural hegemony? Could we see a day in which Dur-Dur Band, the Funkees, or Sinn Sisamouth are known just as widely as Parliament, James Brown, or Elvis? This incredible reissue is evidence that anything is possible.


A1 Dur-Dur Band Introduction
A2 Hayeelin
A3 Halelo
B1 Fagfagley
B2 Ilawad Cashaqa
B3 Garsore Waa Ilaah
C1 Aada Fududey Iga Ahow
C2 Tajir Waa Ilaah
D1 Dholey
D2 Amiina Awdaay
D3 Dooyo

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