Today, there are several appealing and prominent reissues available that feature groove and dance music from Somalia from the 70s and 80s, such as Sweet as Broken Dates (Ostinato) and Mogadisco – Dancing Mogadishu (Analog Africa). While attention to this musical history tends to focus exclusively on the 45 rpm era, I am betting few realize that music of the Somali people was issued on 78, as well. It’s a cloudy history that’s still revealing itself, but by piecing together rarefied details from assorted histories, we can begin to provide a more holistic scrutiny of what was made available, and when.
First it should be stated that the sovereign nation of Somalia as it is today did not exist until 1960. Secondly, the Somali people primarily live, and have lived for millennia, across numerous regions along the Horn of Africa, from eastern Ethiopia to northern Kenya. During the 78 rpm era those regions were messily divided up into colonies: Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland (which united to form today’s Somalia); French Somaliland, which existed from 1883-1967 before first becoming a French republic and eventually the nation of Djibouti; and British Kenya, which became an independent republic in 1964. Only Ethiopia had its independence during this period, apart from a much-resisted Italian occupation that lasted from late 1935 to 1941.
Of course the recording industry, at least during the first half of the 20th century, also was primarily controlled by international conglomerates headquartered in colonial powers, and thus the history as a whole is complicated. It’s no surprise that the first recordings in the Somali language were made explicitly for colonial posterity. These first recordings were made under the auspices of the Musée de la Parole et du Geste in Paris in 1931. That year, hundreds of musicians, dancers, and artisans from French colonies across the globe were brought to Paris for the Paris Colonial Exposition, a massive-scale, six-month event staged at the Bois de Vincennes, essentially meant to celebrate the colonies as a thriving, diverse success. While there, many of these performers made recordings for the Musée, and a substantial number of them were issued commercially, most notably the stunning discs by the famed Malagasy troupe featured on CD reissues by Yazoo and Fremeaux.
In total, the Musée recorded fourteen sides of songs and recitations by a group of soldiers from French Somaliland. All are vocal performances, unaccompanied. The Musée’s recordings were not readily available to the public at large – they were ethnographic recordings, essentially; made for science and posterity. However, six of these sides were grouped on three 78s and commercially issued by Pathé, one year later. At least one of those discs was also issued in Italy, several years after that. These discs were played live at events sponsored by the Musée as late as 1934.
Not all of these recordings were in the Somali language. In fact, what was recorded was a mixture of songs in Somali and the Afar language. The Afar, also known as Dankali, live in Djibouti, Eritrea, and parts of Ethiopia. Of the commercial Pathé releases, only one single side appears to be solely Somali, pictured above. Thankfully all of the sides recorded by the Musée are now digitized along with photos of the singers/soldiers themselves, on the BnF’s Gallica site.
The second center of Somali recording was Addis Ababa. Ethiopia saw three primary recording events during the 78 rpm era. The first was organized by the Germans, who in mid-1935 (or possibly earlier) made approximately 110 discs’ worth of largely Ethiopian music for the Parlophon label (and later, it seems, repressed by the Italian branch of Odeon). One single disc out of those 110 or so was Somali, and was performed unaccompanied by Hassan Galibe Effendi. Below is one side, titled “Oolka.”
The next group of sessions in Addis Ababa was organized by an Eritrean businessman named Saleh Ahmed Checchia. In 1938-1939, he arranged for 124 discs’ worth of music to be issued on the Italian Columbia imprint. This group of recordings was again predominantly Ethiopian, but also included some performances by Eritreans, and one single side of Somali music, a wedding song performed by Ibrahim Aio’.
The third and last of the Ethiopian sessions for 78 rpm release occurred in the mid- to late 1950s, for HMV. Over the course of approximately five years, beginning in 1955 to mark Emperor Haile Selassie’s “Silver Jubilee” (25th year of reign), HMV recorded 67 discs’ worth of music from the region. Within this group were 11 Somali tracks, all spread out on split-sides across multiple discs. Two were by an artist named Godudo Mohamed, another two by Maria Abdalla, but the remaining seven were by oud player and vocalist Ahmed Awad (or “Aoud”). Below is a buoyant track recorded late November 1957 by Awad from these sessions, titled “Dahier” or “Dahyèr.”
The third center of Somali recording during the 78 rpm era was the Arabian Peninsula. As with the Ethiopian sessions, these Somali appearances on disc were only very occasional. This connection, however, makes sense. The trade routes between the Somali coast and the the region go back thousands of years, for one, and Somalis have long lived on the Peninsula, particularly in Yemen. In addition, the Arabian Peninsula was host to a flourishing, local 78 rpm label scene, decades before the UAE saw the glint of a skyscraper. Major labels likely had a difficult time establishing a solid market in the area, especially in the run-up to World War II, when the Depression took hold globally, trade routes were eventually interrupted and recording halted. They tried, though. Labels like HMV and Baidaphon who were active in Baghdad began with baby steps recording music from the region in the late 20s and early 30s, but by the early 1950s, they were competing with dozens of independent labels operating out of Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, or Mumbai.
One major label that recorded artists from the Arabian Peninsula more widely was Odeon. Between 1935 and 1938 they recorded over 100 discs in Aden, and had at least two circulating catalogs advertising their content in both ’37 and ’38. In that batch of recordings was at least one disc by Somali artist Muhammad Ali Hajji al-Somali.
After World War II, independent label owners and performers from the Persian Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula sometimes turned to Mumbai for both recording and pressing discs. This could be, according to scholar Ahmad Al-Salhi, due to the fact that there was a Gulf community in Mumbai, and there was an independent pressing plant there (owned by The National Gramophone Company, whose primary label was Young India) that would clearly produce short runs of 78s for small entrepreneurs, outside of the grip of the EMI mega-conglomerate and their pressing plants. One of these small labels was Saleh Phone, who issued two known Somali 78s by Abdullah Gharshi and Edapai Medban Uoronehi. Additionally, there may have been a connection between Saleh Phone and Salimphone, the label owned by Omani singer and performer Salem Rashed al-Suri. Two additional Somali 78s appeared on al-Suri’s label Salimphone, performed by Mahmud Ismail Hadidi and Anisa Amma Muhammad. Both of these Salimphone discs have “Salehphone” written on their labels. Were they originally issued on Saleh Phone and recorded in Mumbai? This was not a completely uncommon practice. Some discs from the Gulf were re-pressed by other labels that were usurped by other labels, etc.
Disc scans of Somali releases courtesy of Ahmad Al-Salhi.
Aden Crown was a label that was founded ca. 1937 probably right after Odeon had ceased recording in Aden. They were active in the run-up to World War II, and then immediately after the War. Founded by Ali bin Abdullah al-Saffi and his brothers, Aden Crown issued approximately 190 78s which were pressed by Decca in London. Out of those, at least four were in the Somali language. The known performers were Muhammad Hasan al-Barbarawi, Ahmed Harush, Muhammad Kahin Ishaq, and the performer featured on the disc at the top of this post, Hussein Warsima al-Gharami. Likely recorded just after World War II, the music is listed as saut Somali, indicating the popular music of the Gulf, saut, which features oud, violin, and mirwas drum.
Like with many aspects of the early recording industry, this is still an ongoing process of unfolding and will doubtlessly change, but one that will hopefully add to the global history of the medium.
Many thanks to Ahmad Al-Salhi and Francis Falceto for a wealth of information and correspondence. Also a big thanks to Gabriel Lavin and Thomas Henry.
Parlophon B 90940-II (mx 146221)
HMV JOE-46 (mx 0AE 166)
Aden Crown 1190-A (mx RAM 478)