Kick back, relax, and maybe even dance along to some disco funk from a time in Somalia's history where briefly musical creativity was allowed to flourish
Occasionally the history of a band intertwines with the history of a country or the world, and other times, the history of the country intertwines with it. Somalia’s recent history has been marred by violence, piracy, and war, with films like Black Hawk Down and Captain Phillips filling the popular imagination of a land that is war-torn, lawless, and desolate. However, during the 1980s while the country was under the iron grip of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, while human rights abuses were frequent and authoritarianism was the order of the day, there was enough freedom for there to be a burgeoning music scene, into which the Dur-Dur Band enter the fray. Having broken away from the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, Somalia became open to music from around the world, and funk, soul, and disco became popular. This, alongside being boosted by the creation of state-run cultural institutions such as Radio Mogadishu and the Somali National Theatre, Dur-Dur Band became one of the most popular bands in Somalia at that time, recording many albums and playing many concerts. However, it was not to last. By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Siad Barre had becoming increasingly more brutal and authoritarian due to his desire to subdue the various clans that opposed his rule, culminating in the Isaaq genocide in what is now Somaliland, and his paranoia reached the point where the military viciously enforced bans on public assembly, kidnapping and murdering in the dead of night those it suspected of insurrection. The country descended into civil war, and the band were dispersed across Ethiopia, Djibouti, and eventually the United States.
“The lost world of Somali funk feels vibrant on this record. I listen to this album and I feel transported back to the once-grand Juba Hotel in Mogadishu, where Dur-Dur Band played many of their concerts.”
This album, Volume 5, was released in 1987, and it was remastered and rereleased in 2013 by the US-based record label Awesome Tapes from Africa to critical acclaim. Whether or not it is a compilation, it opens a fascinating window into the disco culture of Somalia and East Africa more generally in the 1980s. 'Dur-dur' means ‘spring’ in the Somali language, which I find to be an appropriate name for a band whose energy is so fresh. The lost world of Somali funk feels vibrant on this record. I listen to this album and I feel transported back to the once-grand Juba Hotel in Mogadishu, where Dur-Dur Band played many of their concerts. The album begins with Dur-Dur Band Introduction, which sounds like an introduction you’d either hear on Radio Mogadishu in 1987, or perhaps from a compere bringing the band onto the stage. Though it’s not a song and thus not something I listen back to often, I can’t deny it’s a nice touch to the album when taken as a whole, as it allows me, even without understanding the words, to prepare myself for what is about to come.
Their music has an undeniable American influence as it is nominally disco and funk music, but on tracks like Ilawad Cashaqa there is an undeniable influence of tizita music from across the border in Ethiopia, featuring horns that would not sound out of place on a Mahmoud Ahmed track, yet that does get mixed in with tight funk guitar playing, keeping its disco feel. However, songs like Dooyo, which for my money is the pick of the bunch, are almost purely, joyously, unashamedly disco songs which aim to get you on the dancefloor. However, there are plenty of songs that show musical creativity and curiosity. In that vein, Hayeelin uses its guitar in a quasi-rock style, while Dholey is a track that uses a reggae beat upon which to overlay soulful vocals and smooth saxophone. It is clear that though Dur-Dur Band cut their teeth on disco, they listened widely to whatever was available and incorporated as much as they could into their records.
While it might not be the best disco record I’ve ever heard, it’s inventive and hugely enjoyable, but there’s another aspect to its appeal. With an album like this, the fun of it is not just the music, but the images it evokes. In a way similar to the work of Sinn Sisamouth, it evokes a lost era that can probably never be fully revived. That said, the band did not fully disintegrate in 1991. Their legacy lives on in Somali communities around the world. In 2014, the surviving members of the band reformed in Minneapolis for a concert, and since 2011 there has been a tribute band based in London called Dur-Dur Band International, with whom some of the original band members have performed. The band were formed and forcibly disbanded due to the wider forces of history, forces that end up shaping all our lives in some way or other, forces that can make us all feel insignificant and powerless. But, in that relatively brief time, they touched people’s lives, so much so that they were revived decades after their last concert. That has to count for something, after all.