Never have I felt so much hope and gloom at the same time for Somali music; that wonderful aesthetic product by default of the otherwise harsh Somali pastoral life. Onboard a plane from Minneapolis to Washington DC, I read an interview that Professor Ahmed I. Samater conducted with Maryam Omar Ali, commonly known as Aryette, a woman with a passion for Somali music and literature.
The lengthy interview which ran over 20 pages was published in Bildhaan, an International Journal of Somali Studies, which I picked up while attending a Tol Convention in Minneapolis in early April.
With an ear for music since childhood, Maryan explained how she managed to possess a collection of about 9000 audio cassettes of Somali music and Somali plays. Among her collection are the original and finest songs of the celebrated singers such as Magool, Mohamed Suleiman, Omar Dhuule, Zahra Ahmed, Maandeeq, Baxsan, Fadumo Qasim and others as well as some of the memorable plays of the sixties and seventies. They include Shabeel Nagood and Gaarabildhaan, the two great works of the legendary Hassan Sheikh Muumin. She has also in her possession Galbeed waa la xoreeyey by Hassan Abdillaahi Ganay, Kariye’s Jacaylkii Waalaye Aynu Weeraka aadno and Osman Adan Askari’s Wadhafkiyo Shimbirihii War Iskuma Hayaan of which Maryan herself has authored the script and some of the songs.
Mentioning her leaning towards the patriotic songs of the early sixties which Professor Samatar calls the “honeymoon years of the 1960s”, Maryan’s talked about the memorable lyrics of the time such as Mohamed Suleiman’s “Dharaartaan Waxyeeladii dhaqdhaqay” and Osman Mohamed and Nooleya’s “Naa Kaalayo bal kaalay aan gelin soconee”.
Citing Magool as Somali singer par excellence, Maryan describes the singer’s rendition of “Kii Dhaba Jayaclkuna” as occupying a special place in her “aesthetic taste.”
At one point, Maryan has even raised Professor Samatar’s interest by emphatically insisting on the artists being better observers of the society’s ills and foreseeing the future than the scholars.
“Somali scholars often think of themselves, perhaps pretentiously, as the brains, eyes, and ears of the nation. Are you saying that the artists are equal to them?” asked Dr. Samatar.
“Yes, and, I believe, they are even better than you scholars!” Maryan said,” Fannaanin live closer to durable myths, yet they are unafraid to peek into the future.”
Still amused by the idea, Dr. Samatar asked Maryan to elaborate more, to which she responded: “First, at the general level, I believe that a Fannaanin and Abwaan usually demonstrate a courageous allegiance to a vision of truth and delicate sensibilities that, together, define their sense of being in the world.” She also cited that the Abwaans and Fannaanin as “creators and keepers of the best of the Somali tradition. They were a major element in the rise of collective consciousness and the efforts towards decolonization. With the dawn of independence, they kept a flickering vision of national unity and purpose among the people and warned of the gravity of the gathering menace that was to envelop them.”
She however got my unequivocal admiration with her concluding testimony about what arts (fann) mean for her.
“There are, in my opinion, two perspectives of this topic,” she said in the interview. “One sees Fann as a source of passing time or fleeting entertainment (madadaalo). Thus, there is neither such attention paid to nor appreciation of the hard creative labor that lies behind the composition and the event. The second understands Fann as a precious marrow in the making of strong bones of a culture and national identity. Among the lasting indicators of the dignity of a society is the degree of excellence of its Fann production.”
With these powerful words lingering in mind I couldn’t help comparing Maryan’s admirable 35 year long passion, as she explained to me in a telephone conversation later, in preserving the Somali musical heritage to that of Rose Valland who saved the French art treasure from being stolen and looted during the Nazi occupation of Paris. What makes Maryan’s collection unique, however, is that she does not only collect songs as anyone of us would, but she indexes them, classifies and categorizes them according to their themes and genres, digitalizes them, labels them with the names of singers, lyric writers and music composers and eventually archives them. She undertakes this tremendous work which consumes both her energy and resources while fighting off a breast cancer that may have weakened her body but never her zeal and devotion for saving Somali music for posterity.
Somali music and literary heritage in my view are the only monuments that Somali people truly share and commonly admire, and Maryan’s passion for collection has made them a paradise regained of what would otherwise have been lost forever. As Maryan’s words took me back to “the honeymoon years of the 1960s”, I spent the rest of the two-hour flight reminiscing about the glorious past, the great music and the iconic poetry of the Somali people. I even hoped that the day would come when Maryan and probably other anonymous curators of Somali music and Somali artifacts would be honored just like Valland for saving the nation’s cultural heritage during these trying years of the Somali history.
But as soon as I landed at Dulles airport I woke up from my dream world to Washington’s warm spring weather and the gloomy news of Somali Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam extremists banning Somali radios and TV stations in the areas they control from playing Somali music. It is on reading about this barbaric drive of cultural genocide that I decided to give a call to Maryan and thank her for being a Godsend cultural custodian who would be getting the recognition she deserves for her priceless efforts from future generations and would be rewarded for her good deeds to humanity in the world hereafter. There is no doubt that once the terror reign of Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam with their philistine treatment of art and music and their hatred for cultural beauty are long forgotten in the dustbin of history, Maryan Ali’s name will resonate with generations of lovers and scholars of Somali music and literary treasures.