If an album has been released by the Real World Records record label, the artist usually either has a fascinating story or an incredible talent; in the case of Maryam Mursal it seems that she has both
Somalia is a country that when mentioned it might immediately conjure up the notion that it has become a sanctuary for pirates, jihadists and warlords. Whilst this is somewhat the case, once upon a time Somalia was arguably considered the pride of the horn of Africa. In the mid-20th century they were once a powerful force in the region. Although Italian and British decolonisation in the area created vast problems, particularly as large portions of the Somali population were left outside in Djibouti and Ethiopia, in the immediate aftermath of independence in 1960 real economic development took place as livestock exports increased and infrastructure was effectively invested in.
“Were it not for the aforementioned hectic context one can imagine behind escaping one’s home country, I would perhaps criticise it, but with this understanding I find the jumping around somewhat endearing...”
It was in this booming era in which Mursal first started making a name for herself as a teenager. This was particularly impressive as she grew-up in a male dominated society. Although she sung traditional Somali music, Mursal claimed to have grown up listening to a wide gamut of Western music in Mogadishu citing The Beatles as one such example. She was clearly also inspired by other women from across the world who were breaking the trend in letting their powerful voices be heard. It is, therefore, unsurprising to find out, when one hears her album released three decades later, that Etta James was one such influence. Mursal performed across the world with a troup called Waaberi that were attached to the Somalian National Theatre and in time became the biggest star in Somalia.
However, as things started to worsen politically in the country so too did they for Mursal. She felt that she had to speak out and so released a song that criticised the dictatorship, which banned her from performing. In this time she became a taxi driver and like many true artists started to gain inspiration from the anger, pain and sadness she felt from seeing her country be torn apart. Siad Barre’s military coup that destroyed the young democratic government saw socialism fail, a brutal drought and geopolitical chaos in the region ensue as the military launched an operation into Ethiopia in which the Soviets ceased their support from Somalia and instead decimated them of their resources. With separatist movements on the rise, the drought escalating into a famine and rebellions on the rise, Mursal saw the conditions in her homeland become ripe for civil war. It was at the moment that Barre died in 1991 that the singer was forced to escape, as the dictator left behind a country divided amongst clans with warlords who competed to fill the vacuum. There were no institutions left to regain control making it a safe haven for foreign separatists and jihadists.
Escaping a massive humanitarian crisis like this was of course not easy for the mother of five to trek for seven months with her children to the Danish embassy in Djibouti. On this harrowing journey she kept a journal which would of course be the source of inspiration for the rather appropriately named album The Journey. However, before going into detail about the actual musical and lyrical content of the album, there is an incredible tale about how the album came to be. Finding asylum in Denmark, Mursal rather serendipitously came across the Danish arranger Soren Kjaer Jensen at a Somalian immigrant camp where she was singing. Jensen, who had been working as a freelance photographer in Somalia in the 80s and had recorded her voice when he heard it on the radio, recognised her unique voice and then introduced her to the legendary record label.
Now that you know the amazing context behind the album, it perhaps makes it easier to understand the authenticity behind the intense emotion that can be heard within Mursal’s sublime vocals. Yet there seems an immediate paradox between the story of her nation in disarray and the high-octane music that accompanies much of her singing. One response to this is perhaps her sense of unwavering hope for her homeland is represented by the sometimes funky beats, while another might be that Mursal’s experience of war-torn Somalia and her escape out of there was a chaotic one and thus only a raucous composition would be appropriate. Whether it is meant to signify optimism, the frenzied realities of war or both it is fair to say that Mursal’s album catches the attention of its listeners.
Whilst there are numerous times where the music could be described as jarring, particularly when one does not have context to Mursal’s amazing backstory, nor an understanding of her powerful lyrics, so too can it be labelled as fun. The opening track Lei Lei is my favourite by quite some way. I love the percussion and the horn section on this track so much. Numerous genres are tackled and there seems to be no narrative arc to the music. Were it not for the aforementioned hectic context one can imagine behind escaping one’s home country, I would perhaps criticise it, but with this understanding I find the jumping around somewhat endearing and appreciate it on an intellectual level, even if it does not make for the most relaxing listening experience. For example the next track Kufilaw is an accomplished desert rock track, before her most famous song Somali Udiida Ceb, a cinematic pop song with amazing strings and unbelievably empowering lyrics directed at her compatriots, goes into the oud-heavy funk track Sodewou. When you think it can’t get any crazier the wildly experimental 11-minute Hamar comes in. It is a track that starts off slowly and beautifully which at one point has enough of a techno beat to satisfy even the most hardcore of ravers.
This is then followed by the track most explicitly addresses the traumatic nature of the refugee experience. The lyrics of Qax still bear relevance to those suffering this plight across the world: “I stumble, I stagger, I ramble on. The day I leave Mogadishu the air is full of gunfire. All over you see dead bodies and blood is on the hands. Some atrocities I must cover my eyes not to see. I stumble, I stagger, I ramble on.” This harsh reality that Mursal sings about amidst such an uplifting backdrop is what makes this so wonderful as an album. The final-track Fejigno (translated as ‘Beware’ in English) seems to once again juxtapose serious content this time with an almost bluegrassy tune. Whilst this album is not necessarily my favourite, sometimes leaving me finding it difficult to focus on her glorious voice as the cacophonous music tried to take centre-stage, I definitely enjoyed it and have true admiration for her depiction of the heart-breaking realities of seeking refuge elsewhere from your homeland. She also massively succeeds in demonstrating that while Somalia is a land often painted in a dark and gloomy light, that amidst the sadness there are rays of hope that lie in its people living there and dispersed across the globe.