Can you comprehend? Four-year journey from Somalia’s beginner violinist to TV orchestra success
Maryan Ali Mohamed, born during the Somali civil war, had always dreamed of performing on stage. She spent countless hours imitating musicians on TV and had a desire to learn an instrument. In 2019, she finally picked up a violin. Now, at 33 years old, she is part of a Somali orchestra consisting of 40 musicians.
Although Somalia does not have an official national orchestra, a group of musicians has come together for the first time to perform on television. Men and women dressed elegantly in suits and satin play trumpets, drums, and ouds, a traditional string instrument. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” exclaimed Fadumo Hussien, a 70-year-old grandmother watching from her living room in Mogadishu.
The aim of these performances, organized by Astaan TV, a production company based in Mogadishu, is to revitalize Somali music. “We brought this orchestra together and provided a space for them to rehearse,” stated Mohamed Abdiwali, one of the event organizers. “Now they can play classical Somali music.”
These meticulously crafted shows are aired online and on local TV to ensure the younger generation, both musicians and viewers, learn about the history of Somali music. “Historically, Somalia had bands with a limited number of instruments,” explained Jama Musse Jama, director of the Hargeisa Cultural Centre. Orchestras, with their larger size and focus on classical music, prioritize collaboration and synchronicity. “It’s all about coming together,” added Dr. Jama, citing the harmonious sounds of Egyptian and Sudanese orchestras.
Musicians for this project were carefully chosen from across the country, including seasoned instrumentalists and emerging talents like Maryan Ali Mohamed. “I usually play alone or with a small group, but I’ve never experienced anything on this scale before,” she shared with the BBC. A few years ago, as part of a community program in Mogadishu, she started taking violin lessons and now uses YouTube videos to practice. “I am so grateful to be here,” she expressed with a smile.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, Somalia has faced political instability and conflict, which has had a detrimental impact on cultural institutions. “Somali music has been homeless for years,” lamented Dr. Jama.
The National Theatre in Mogadishu, which opened its doors in 1967, was once the cultural hub of the city. It hosted plays, musical performances, and film festivals, attracting a diverse audience. “Beyond being a physical building, we need to encourage musicians and artists to come together, share ideas, and create something tangible,” emphasized Dr. Jama. Unfortunately, during the civil war, rival militias fought over the theatre, and its roof even collapsed due to mortar attacks.
Fortunately, cultural institutions and expressions are now being revived in Somalia, as evidenced by the return of cinemas, art exhibitions, and Somali TV shows. The National Theatre reopened in 2020 and now hosts various events, including the Mogadishu Book Fair. In Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, live music nights featuring traditional Somali music and cuisine are on the rise. According to Dr. Jama, this is crucial for preserving and passing down the country’s rich culture to future generations.
“Somali music is not well documented,” Dr. Jama told the BBC. “We lack musical notations, and performances often remain in the memory of the singer alone.” This is why a televised orchestra performance holds such significance. “By documenting this, we are creating something tangible for the next generation to see, understand, and appreciate. It’s a victory for Somali music.”