Singing Love In(To) Somaliland: Love Songs, “Heritage Preservation”, and the Shaping of Post-War Publics

Christina J. Woolner

In August 2014, Hiddo Dhawr – a cultural restaurant and “tourism village” – opened its doors in Hargeysa, becoming the first live music venue to operate in Somaliland since the war. In this chapter, I explore how Hiddo Dhawr, and particularly the live performance of old love songs, are implicated in the shaping of post-war publics in contemporary Somaliland. Drawing on ethnographic data, I seek to unravel how Hiddo Dhawr’s mission of “heritage preservation”, twinned with its near-exclusive focus on love songs, work to create space for the performance of music in contested terrain, providing audiences with the resources to reflect on the past, imagine different futures, and enact different ways of being in the present. I suggest that in so doing, Hiddo Dhawr’s audiences constitute a kind of alternative public, one where a “traditional” Somali identity is celebrated while audiences are freed to push the limits of everyday social conventions.



On August 26, 2014, Hiddo Dhawr – a cultural restaurant and “tourism village” – opened its doors in Hargeysa. While a host of new restaurants and cafés have opened across the city in recent years, Hiddo Dhawr is no ordinary restaurant. Roughly translating as “take care of heritage”, the restaurant became the first and only live music venue to operate in Somaliland since the civil war decimated the capital, displaced the artistic community and, according to some Somali commentators (Afrax 1994; Samatar 2010), precipitated the demise of Somalis’ artistic soul. Two evenings a week, Hiddo Dhawr’s house musicians delight audiences diverse in age and gender with love songs popular from the 1950s-80s, now “contextually recomposed” (Johnson 2010: 239) and somewhat nostalgically re-cast as “traditional” or “classic” Somali music. Audience members hum along to popular vocal melodies, accompanied simply by an cuud1 (oud) and drums, while enjoying traditional Somali dishes of camel meat, suqaar, (meat stew) shuuro (cornmeal porridge) and laxoox (pancakes made from sorghum). While not immune to criticism – particularly from conservative religious groups who view music as haaraan (Islamically forbidden) – in its early years of operation the venue has gained a reputation as both the “theatre” of Hargeysa and a key center of “heritage preservation”, indelibly shaping the city’s contested urban landscape in the process.2

Starting from Barber’s premise that popular arts both reflect and inform processes of social change – as both “constellations of social, political and economic relationships” and “expressive acts […] through which consciousness is articulated and communicated (1987: 2, 4) – in this chapter I explore how Hiddo Dhawr, and particularly the live performance of old love songs, are implicated in the shaping of post-war publics in contemporary Somaliland. I am particularly interested in unraveling how Hiddo Dhawr’s mission of “heritage preservation”, twinned with a commitment to the live performance of pre-war love songs both reflect contemporary socio-political-religious dynamics of the city while actively seeking to re-shape Hargeysa’s urban landscape. In what follows, I argue that by recourse to “heritage preservation”, Hiddo Dhawr has opened space for a music venue to operate in contested terrain, and in so doing has provided people with resources to reflect on the past and its potential enduring importance. Yet rather than simply being a space for nostalgic reflection on an irretrievable (and romanticized) past, I suggest that Hiddo Dhawr’s focus on love songs, and the space occasioned by their live performance, provides audiences with resources to imagine different futures and to enact alternative ways of being in the present. In this way, Hiddo Dhawr’s audiences constitute a kind of alternative public, one where a “traditional” Somali identity is celebrated while audiences are freed to push the limits of everyday social conventions.

This chapter draws on ethnographic research conducted from July 2015 to December 2016 as part of my broader Ph.D. research,3 which focuses on the social and political lives of love songs in contemporary Somaliland. I proceed in three parts. First, to “set the stage”, so to speak, for an understanding of Hiddo Dhawr’s significance for Hargeysa’s contemporary cultural landscape, I provide an overview of the city’s pre-and post-war music scene. Second, I turn to an ethnographic consideration of how Hiddo Dhawr’s founding and commitment to “heritage preservation” have opened space for the performance of love songs, and provide a description of what this space looks like in practice. Third, drawing on insight from musicians and audience members, I attempt to unpack why Hiddo Dhawr has emerged as it has, and consider its unfolding impact on post-war public spaces. I conclude with a brief reflection on the possible relationships between audiences, the public, and processes of social change. This chapter is both an exploration in the multifaceted and often subtle ways that music “speaks”, and an attempt to shed light on the contours and contestations of everyday life in a post-war, unrecognized state.

Hargeysa’s Pre- and Post-War Music Scene

Understanding Hiddo Dhawr’s significance for Hargeysa’s cultural landscape requires comprehending something of the socio-political and artistic context into which it was born. While a full accounting of Somalis’ musical heritage is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is important to highlight that music has long been both a source of pride and a site of contestation, put to different uses as the socio-political climates of various historical eras demanded.4 In this section, I provide a basic overview of Hargeysa’s pre-war music scene, before considering the impact of the war and various post-war developments on Hargeysa’s urban soundscapes.

Fondly known as Hoyga Suugaanta, or the “home of literature”, Hargeysa has long been a critical site of Somali artistic production.5 It was in Hargeysa that the first Somali theatre group, Hargeysawi emerged in the 1950s, and the first cooperative of musicians, Walaalaha Hargeysa ( “The Hargeysa Brothers”), was established (Ducaale 2002: 36). Members of this group, including Cabdullahi Qarshe, are widely credited with ushering in a new era in Somali artistic production, fusing traditional nomadic poetic genres with Arabic, Indian, Sufi and Western musical influences to create qaraami – love songs performed by and for mixed-gender audiences, accompanied by an cuud and drums. Radio Hargeysa, the first Somali-language broadcast service in the region,6 also played a critical role in mainstreaming music into Somali social and political life, helping to quell the criticism early musicians faced from both religious and colonial authorities (cf. Adam 2001; Johnson 1996). By the time of independence in 1960, Hargeysa had developed into an energetic artistic hub, and music played an important part in fomenting feelings of nationalism and Soomaalinnimo (Somaliness) in the early years of independence.

While Mogadishu was the center of Siyad Barre’s regime and the many state-sponsored artistic troupes it developed, Somalilanders are quick to point out that many of the most famous national artists of this era began their careers in Hargeysa. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the large National Theatre regularly hosted plays, concerts, and other cultural events, and many national artists and government-sponsored and associated bands – like Waaberi Hargeysa, General Da’uud, Horseed, and Danan Hargeysa – were based in the city. Hargeysa residents fondly reminisce about roadside merchants who copied cassettes of the most popular singers for eager fans while they waited, public buses competing for bragging rights as to who could play their music the loudest and attending regular open-air concerts with thousands of other music-lovers at the outdoor Timo-Cadde basketball court.

This music-loving hub of Somali artistic production, however, was quite literally decimated in 1988, when aerial bombardments by Barre’s regime, by now engaged in a full-blown war with the Somali National Movement (SNM), turned much of the city to rubble. The National Theatre was “deliberately and totally razed to the ground” (Ducaale 2002: 38), the homes of national artists were demolished or pillaged, instruments were stolen and sold, ruined or converted for other purposes, Radio Hargeysa’s musical archives were looted, and artists, along with much of the rest of the population, were forced into refugee camps. Significantly, musicians – including some who would later become the core of Hiddo Dhawr – did continue to make music, even in refugee camps. Music sung directly for the troops, as well as broadcast over Radio Halgan (halgan = “struggle”), was used to support the SNM’s struggle. After declaring independence from the rest of the former Somali Democratic Republic in 1991, music also featured in the series of reconciliation conferences dedicated to re-building Somaliland in the wake of the civil war. Nevertheless, so great was the violence and its social-psychological effects that were to follow that in the wake of the war at least two Somali scholars have lamented the “loss of [Somalis’] literary soul” (Samatar 2010: 208; see also Afrax 1994).

In the decades since declaring independence, Somaliland has managed to achieve an impressive level of stability, and social-political reconstruction efforts in various sectors have fostered modest development. The artistic community, however, has been much slower to recover. Many of the artists who fled during the war eventually made new homes in the diaspora and those who did return to Hargeysa found little opportunity to practice their craft. Instruments were nearly impossible to find, the city’s primary stage (the National Theatre) had been destroyed, reconstruction efforts were focused in other areas, and the strong financial and organizational government support for the arts provided under Barre disappeared. In 1993, President Cigaal did put in place efforts to organize and support artists, and today over 100 artists are on the payroll of the Ministry of Information, Culture and National Awareness. However, the support they receive is insufficient to launch major productions, and their responsibilities do not extend beyond performing for national holidays; artists are thus “under-employed and have suffered a concomitant decline in morale, creativity and prestige” (Ducaale 2002: 38). While groups in the diaspora continued to produce music, it was not until 2013 that the first locally-based music group, Xidigaha Geeska ( “The Stars of the Horn”), established itself. While this is certainly a welcome development, younger musicians are frequently lambasted by older artists and music-lovers of all ages for their reliance on the use of the synthesizer instead of more complex instruments, lack of musical knowledge and skill, and lyrics deemed superficial and frivolous compared to earlier times. Concerts by younger artists are few and far between, and usually rely entirely on playback and lip-synching.

Beyond constraints of resource and skill, the changing religious landscape of Hargeysa has had a further impact on the artistic scene. While Islam has deep roots in the Somali regions, public and private forms of religiosity have undergone significant transformations since the war. Although reform Islamic movements took root in the region from the 1950s, they were repressed by Barre’s agenda of “scientific socialism”; when the state collapsed, however, such movements gained influence, seeking to reform or displace the Sufi traditions that previously predominated (Adam 2010; Hoehne 2015). While many turned to religion in the 1990s in the wake of war and state collapse, since the early 2000s funding for mosques and schools from Salafist groups in the Gulf – who uniformly and unambiguously teach that music is haaraan (forbidden) – has further altered the city’s religious landscape. Significantly, the conflict between Salafists who oppose music, and those who take a less rigid approach to music’s religious permissibility (and other religious issues more generally) is frequently described as a competition for “audiences”: if people are enjoying music, or frequenting places where music is played, they are less likely to be praying in the mosque.

While the penetration of reformist, Salafist-inspired Islam is difficult to ascertain, it has certainly had an impact on Hargeysa’s urban soundscapes, individuals’ private music-listening habits, and the socio-economic status of artists. Although one may hear music from inside a car or bus, or filtering onto the street from teashops and majlis (qat7chewing house), for the most part music is conspicuously absent from public spaces. Today it is the five-daily aadaan (call to prayer) that echo from the city’s hundreds of mosques that define Hargeysa’s urban soundscapes. While many still enjoy listening to music, and some will challenge the notion that music is always haaraan, some of my most avid music-loving friends concede that it “might be haaraan” (even if a “minor” sin) and that they “probably shouldn’t listen to too much music”. Most music is thus enjoyed in private, and for some is accompanied by a sense of shame or guilt. The status of artists has likewise been affected; while they are sometimes treated as cultural or national heroes, most live socially and economically precarious and marginalized lives. Few artists receive adequate compensation for their work, and despite public adoration for singers, music remains a profession that, as one friend put it, “no one would ever want their daughter to pursue”. While being a poet remains a respectable pursuit, the decision for youth, particularly young women, to sing is often fraught with familial and personal anxiety. Even the children of musicians and poets are sometimes encouraged against following in their parents’ footsteps. The complicated social position occupied by artists is perhaps best summed up by a saying often repeated by artists themselves: fannaanku waa ubax guddaafad ka dhex baxay ( “artists are flowers growing in the rubbish”): admired for their beauty, yet poorly cared for, tossed aside and forgotten.

The government, it should be noted, has an ambiguous relationship both to these religious groups and to music. State-run Radio Hargeysa continues to broadcast music, the government organizes large nationalist-flavored outdoor concerts for Somaliland’s two independence celebrations (18 May and 26 June), and, as mentioned above, over 100 artists remain on the government payroll. Despite this clear government support for artists, members of the government have periodically spoken out against music. In August 2016, for example, the Minister of Religious Affairs canceled a concert of a young female singer from Puntland over complaints from religious leaders that that her online music videos suggest she “had a bad culture” and “didn’t behave like a Muslim.” While alternative explanations for why the concert was canceled have been suggested,8 that religion was used as the primary public justification highlights the ways in which the government will at least pay lip-service to the concerns of financially-powerful religious groups when it suits their interests. Whatever the case may be, this incident helps to illustrate that Hargeysa’s contemporary cultural (and political) landscape is contested to say the least. While still shaped by the memory of a rich (if sometimes controversial) artistic history, today’s urban soundscapes bear the indelible marks of a devastating war, and have been further impacted by broader socio-political and religious changes in Somaliland’s precarious, internationally-unrecognized, post-war development. It is into this complex and contested terrain that Hiddo Dhawr was born.

Making Space for Love Songs: “Taking Care of Heritage” in Contested Terrain

Given the contested urban environment into which it emerged, it is in many ways a wonder that a live music venue has come to operate at all. How, then, has Hiddo Dhawr come into being? What do “taking care of heritage” and the live performance of love songs look like in such a context? In this section, I detail how Hiddo Dhawr, guided by a mission of “taking care of heritage” came into existence in the first place. I then explore what this “heritage preservation” looks like in practice: first, by considering how “tradition” or “heritage” – including old love songs – are envisaged and presented; and then by detailing a typical performance evening, and the atmosphere occasioned by the live performance of love songs.

Like many new cafés and restaurants in Hargeysa in recent years, Hiddo Dhawr opened its doors thanks to the initiative of two diaspora Somalilanders: Ismaaciil Cawl, a Dutch-Somali businessman and development worker; and Sahra Halgan, a singer. During his teenage and early adult years in Holland, Ismaaciil found it “difficult to feel at home”. To cope with this sense of displacement, he would listen to Somali music and read everything he could get from his homeland. On returning to Somaliland in 2012, however, Hargeysa was no longer the place he remembered from his childhood. Of this first trip back to his homeland he recalled: “there were new buildings and new cars, and nothing I recognized from when I was young.” Inspired in part by travels abroad, where he had enjoyed museums and cultural centers, he endeavored to return home and open a center devoted to preserving Somali heritage.

While Ismaaciil’s early proposals to build a village of traditional aqallo (nomadic huts) and get people to pay to visit were met with laughter, he eventually found a kindred spirit in Sahra Halgan, who would become the public face of Hiddo Dhawr. The granddaughter of a folklore dancer and singer, who explains that she has music “in [her] blood”, Sahra first rose to fame as a member of the SNM in the late 1980s. During this time she used her music to soothe weary soldiers, and to rally support for their cause, earning the nickname “Halgan” from her association with Radio Halgan. While Sahra performed at the 1994 Burco Conference, soon thereafter she became disillusioned with continued inter-clan conflict and migrated to France. In France, she went on to a successful singing career and continues to regularly tour and record albums with her band The Sahra Halgan Trio. Like Ismaaciil, on trips back to Hargeysa she was saddened by what she found, particularly the state of the artistic sphere, lamenting the failure to rebuild the National Theatre, and the fact that “artists had no place to call home anymore.” Like Ismaaciil, in her tours abroad she had been impressed by various venues dedicated to preserving and celebrating the culture and heritage of different locales. Driven by a shared commitment to “showcasing Somaliland’s cultural productions”, Sahra gathered a number of artists with whom she had collaborated during her SNM years, including the cuud player Cabdinaasir Macallin Caydiid, to discuss the idea. While one of the collaborating musicians originally suggested the name Dhaqan Dhawr (“take care of culture”), concerns were raised about its similarity to the term “dhaqan celis” (“return to culture”) – a pejorative term used to describe diaspora kids who come to Hargeysa in the summers, sent by parents afraid they are losing their language and culture and considered by some locals to be a nuisance. While the alliteration in “Dhaqan Dhawr” would have resonated to Somali ears, wanting to avoid any associations with “dhaqan celis” eventually they settled on the term “Hiddo”, which roughly translates as “heritage”. And thus Hiddo Dhawr was born.

While generally warmly received, the venue has not been without controversy. Early in their operation, they were approached by a group of conservative religious leaders, who wished to voice their concerns about the inappropriate activities mixed-gender audiences of music might get up to, and specifically highlighted that they heard the venue was serving alcohol. In response, the manager invited them to visit the venue, to clearly see for themselves that alcohol was not being served. According to Ismaaciil, once they clarified that “heritage preservation” was their principal mission, these leaders agreed to leave them alone. The fact that they do not serve alcohol, those female singers are always covered when on stage, and that they encourage patrons to dress modestly also left their religious objectors with weak grounds for further harassment. Reflecting on this early criticism, Sahra, is more assertive in her response: “I liberated this land with my cuud. I have every right to practice my art.” Elsewhere in the city, a number of diaspora-owned restaurants disparaged for playing “Western music” and allowing men and women to mix freely face frequent harassment and periodic visits from security forces sent to investigate reports of nefarious mixed-gender activities. One of the most popular of these cafés, which periodically hosted music evenings, shut down less than two years after opening when the imam of a local mosque seemed to make it his personal mission to encourage neighbors to make it difficult for the venue to operate. The fate of a female singer who reportedly “did not behave like a Muslim” was already recounted above. Yet by recourse to “heritage preservation,” upholding standards of “good culture”, and drawing on Sahra’s social and political capital as an SNM veteran, Hiddo Dhawr has been largely allowed to carry out its business undisturbed.

Put into practice, Sahra and Ismaaciil’s commitment to “taking care of heritage” has resulted in a somewhat eclectic reconstruction and presentation of rural, nomadic life, the showcasing of music of a more recent, urban vintage, and contemporary nationalist symbols. The grounds are populated by traditional nomadic huts (aqallo) lined with textiles woven by women, where guests can enjoy meals of “traditional” Somali food, such as camel meat, suqaar, shuuro and laxoox – alongside more recent additions to Somali cuisine, like pasta, rice and French fries. Other rural implements – wooden milk vessels, camel bells, headrests, and vats for churning camel milk – decorate the grounds, and are artistically represented on the compound walls. Traditional textiles and fabrics, and pictures of nomadic scenes adorn the two music halls. Guests may sit on kambadh, four-legged stools fashioned from wood and goat hide – or, in response to complaints of sore backs and buttocks, on black leather couches or upright chairs. The two music halls bear the names of two of Sahra’s greatest inspirations: her grandfather, Nimcaan Hilaac Dheere, and Maxamed Mooge, a popular singer-songwriter and SNM fighter who died during the struggle. Visitors also get a good dose of nationalistic pride: a large map and flag of Somaliland greet visitors at the entrance, and inside the larger music hall hangs a banner featuring Somaliland’s flag alongside other national flags, presenting Somaliland as a member in the community of nations. Lights shaped like traditional charcoal incense burners, and painted patriotic red, green, and white, illuminate the stage. And it is from this stage that a core group of about ten artists take turns performing live music, consisting of vocal solos and duets accompanied simply by an cuud and drums.

While most of the heritage on display at Hiddo Dhawr depicts a rural, nomadic past, the music performed here is of relatively recent, urban origin – even if it regularly draws on rich pastoral imagery. The venue’s repertoire includes the simple melodies and cuud-accompanied qaraami of the 1950s, as well as more recent songs from the “heyday” of Somali music (1960s-80s), now scaled back in instrumentation to include only cuud and drums. As elsewhere in Africa,9 music of this era was connected both to the mood of nationalist excitement of the late colonial and early-independence era, urbanization, and accompanying changes in social attitudes, particularly towards gender relations, love, and companionate marriage. These songs run the gamut from women’s songs that give voice to love’s suffering and grievances, men’s songs that similarly express the pain of love, songs in which men sing women’s praises, and duet’s that express a couple’s satisfaction or frustration with each other. In their time, these songs worked to “reimagine courtship and put at its center romantic love and mutual consent”, thus elevating the ideal of companionate marriage (Kapteijns 1999: 140). In a setting where marriage partners were (and remain) defined by clan and socioeconomic status, and where individuals’ love ambitions are often thwarted by familial and broader social expectations, the intimate aspirations of love and romance expressed in these songs entailed a kind of claim to new types of social relations, even as they strategically used “‘tradition’ as an oratorical and moral weapon” to sway their audiences and love-addressees (Kapteijns 1999: 140). Described at the time as “modern” Somali songs (Johnson 1996 [1974]), these songs depicted changing social norms, at once reflecting and stretching social conventions. At Hiddo Dhawr, however, they have been “contextually recomposed” (Johnson 2010: 239) and “retrospectively redefined” (Waterman 1997) as “heritage” that needs to be preserved, particularly considering what is perceived to be the sorry state of contemporary or “modern” artistic production.

On Thursday and Friday evenings – and summertime Mondays, to accommodate large diaspora holiday crowds – these songs come alive, brought to life by a dedicated group of musicians and the energetic audiences that gather to see them perform. These evenings go something like this: from about 9 pm visitors make their way through two security checkpoints, before lining up to pay for their pre-booked tickets. A broad cross-section of Somalilanders, from young people to retirees, pass through the doors: groups of middle-class women celebrating birthdays and weddings (sometimes with children in tow); politicians and businessmen entertaining potential partners; diaspora men and women on holiday for the summer; groups of colleagues from local NGOs, with the occasional foreign guest; young couples of varying means out for a night of entertainment; and groups offriends of more modest means, who have saved for a rare and special night out, or are being treated by more affluent friends. While in daily interactions – in business, politics, education, and on the street – men and women are usually separated, and women increasingly expected to uphold conservative dress codes, at Hiddo Dhawr they mingle freely, laughing and joking with each other as they find their seats. Furtive eyes glance around to see who has arrived with whom, and who is wearing what. Colorful silk scarves slip off of carefully-coiffed-though-usually-unseen-hair, to rest on dirac10-clad shoulders. While there is a hierarchy of sorts to the pre-assigned seating arrangements – the coveted leather seats at the front usually go to politicians, business leaders and special guests – when the music begins these distinctions fade, as heads nod in time to the music. As a friend remarked after finding himself at a table near the President of his university, “people can’t help but move to the music together.”

Even though most of the repertoire is older than a large portion of the audience, audience members energetically sing along to most of the songs, originally performed by the “giants” of pre-war Somali music. A male vocalist sings “Balambaallis” ( “butterfly”) – first made popular by Xasan Adan Samatar – which compares the (virgin) woman he loves to a beautiful (untouched) pastoral landscape. Another song by Maxamed Saleban Tubeec compares the search for a good and respectable woman to the wait for a camel to give milk after a drought, while “Gar Eexo” ( “biased verdict”), a song by Cumar Dhuule, discusses the challenges of marriage, and the need for good fortune and God’s mercy to make a marriage work. Songs by Axmed Gacayte, Maxamed Mooge, and Axmed Cali Cigaal follow. A young female singer takes to the stage to perform Magool’s “Shimbiryahow ma duushaa?” (“Oh bird, can you fly?”), a song that laments a woman’s love for a man refused to her and pleads with a bird to send a message to her far-away beloved. Eventually, Sahra herself takes to the stage to perform a set of calaacal, including songs like Sahra Axmed’s “Laqanyada jacaylka” ( “love nausea”), Magool’s “Siday laabtu doonto” ( “as the heart [chest] desires”), and a set of songs by Khadra Dahir, the “mother of love” and queen of calaacal. She closes the first half with Khadra Daahir’s “Caashaqu ogeysiis ma leeyahay?” ( “can love be publically announced?”), a song in which a young woman sings of the pain of not being able to announce her love, constrained by expectations of female modesty and bashfulness, comparing her longing to that of a milking she-camel crying after her calf. Women who empathize with the pain in Sahra’s re-voicing of Khadra’s words join her on stage, showing solidarity by patting her head, dancing alongside her, and showering her with Somaliland shillings.

When the artists break around 11: 30, the energy of the audience is channeled into a raucous joke-telling and sing-a-long session. A large orange microphone is passed through the audience, and those who wish (or are cajoled) sing their favorite songs, recite poems or tell stories and jokes. Sahra has described this part of the evening as a large group therapy session – it provides people the opportunity to sing, and to nostalgically reflect on past loves, or to return to the moment in history when they first encountered these songs. Others have told me that this is a particularly good opportunity to get feelings and emotions of love (both joyful and sorrowful) off your chest – feelings you would never have occasion to otherwise express in public, and whose voicing in song in this setting might also serve to impress the girl you are trying to woo. This is, after all, the best place in town to bring a date. Though discreet in their coupling and likely to deny that what they are doing there is “dating”, couples can be seen exchanging flirtatious glances or stepping out for some private conversation time in one of the aqal. Inside the main hall, the microphone circulates for the better part of an hour, and audience members relish in the opportunity to sing, tell stories, and to make each other laugh.

Sahra’s “therapy” image aptly describes the energy and mood during the performances. There is a palpable energy in the hall not only of excitement but also of relaxation and relief – an energy that continues to grow as the musicians re-take the stage for the second set. As the only regular entertainment venue in town, Hiddo Dhawr is, I’m told, the best place to come to recover from the pressure of the work-week and other stresses of life. As one of the regular musicians put it, Hiddo Dhawr is a kind of “frustration hospital”, a place to come to clear your head of all that might worry you. Whether one is tired from housework, lonely and worried about a friend who has left on tahriib,11 anxious about one’s own love life, or stressed about employment prospects, Hiddo Dhawr provides audiences with the opportunity to leave these worries behind, because, as one friend explained, “when everyone is singing, there is positive energy everywhere, [there is] nowhere to be negative or sad. When you go to Hiddo Dhawr, you will be happy, and this happiness carries you through the next week.” When the music finally comes to an end in the early hours of the morning, friends continue to chat and joke with each other, reluctant to depart, preferring rather to dwell in the energy and escape the evening has provided. Or, as a friend explained, exhaling deeply when I asked him how he felt at the end of the evening: “I feel repaired. When you listen to the cuud, by the time the evening comes to an end, you feel that you yourself are repaired.”

Making Sense of Love Songs: Resistance, Nostalgia, Fantasy and Freedom

While it is still early days in Hiddo Dhawr’s operation and its effect on the shape of Somaliland’s post-war landscape is continually unfolding, the narrative above begins to reveal some of the ways that Hiddo Dhawr’s presence is serving to re-shape Hargeysa’s post-war urban landscape. In this section, I provide some provisional analysis of the ways in which the venue’s mission of “heritage preservation”, twinned with its near-exclusive performance of old love songs, are making their mark on Hargeysa’s contested urban soundscapes, and providing audiences with the space in which to reflect on the past, imagine the future, and enact different ways of being in the present.

As the first music venue to operate since the civil war, the importance of Hiddo Dhawr’s simple presence in the city cannot be overstated. Indeed, that a center dedicated to the performance of live music could emerge in the first place is in many respects a wonder at all. As many of its patrons describe it, it has become the city’s main “theatre”, filling the large hole in the city’s cultural landscape left by the destruction of the National Theatre nearly three decades ago (and so-far unsuccessful efforts to rebuild it) – and, in so doing, providing both a stage for artists long stage-less and a space for music-loving audiences to convene. In a setting where the music itself is contested, Hiddo Dhawr’s very establishment entails an implicit claim to inclusion, and demand for the respect that artists once enjoyed. Sahra’s comment – “I liberated this land with my cuud, I have every right to practice my art” – in no uncertain terms suggests Hiddo Dhawr’s very establishment entails, at least in part, a challenge to the existing political-religious status quo. As Nooshin notes, where music’s permissibility is contested, its “very presence can become a signifier of agency” and a “medium for exercising social and political control” (2009: 30, 25). In a setting where both music’s opponents and supporters wield “culture” as a rallying cry (Hadeed 2015), it is no coincidence that Somaliland’s first post-war music venue has come into being by presenting music as a display of “traditional” culture, alongside displays of Somaliland patriotism, to be preserved and celebrated. As one cultural activist once remarked to me, “you can’t call Hadraawi [a popular poet] un-Somali!”; as long as artistic projects are built around celebrated cultural icons and established national heroes, they remain somewhat protected from a certain form of criticism. Artistic projects that fall outside what is deemed “good Somali culture” have not fared so well.

While Hiddo Dhawr’s mission to “take care of heritage” has contributed to its reputation as a respectable cultural institution, able to operate in contested political-religious terrain, its impact on Somaliland’s post-war public spaces goes far beyond its mere presence. “Taking care of heritage” is, after all, not simply a way to justify their presence, but a mission that grows out of a genuine desire to recover and celebrate ways of being disrupted by war, and further re-figured by decades of political instability and socio-economic uncertainty. Similar “returns” to the past, particularly in times of uncertainty, have been noted elsewhere in the region. Writing about the emergence of “ethnic” theme nights in Nairobi’s night clubs, Ogude suggests that “desires to fall back on a known tradition in the cityscape” are a kind of “native cosmopolitanism”, which is “indicative of local ways of dealing with modern subjectivity and, quite often, an overwhelming global mass culture” (2012: 162). Nyairo, similarly, suggests that such “romanticized returns work as symbolic gestures whose purpose is providing the idioms and metaphors for confronting the past, thus becoming valuable tools in negotiating the political and even the cultural impasse of the present” (in Ogude 2012: 162). In a time of political uncertainty, economic precariousness, and rapid social change, it follows that Hiddo Dhawr represents one such symbolic gesture, one that simultaneously nods to Somalis’ nomadic rural heritage, and a more recent liberal urban culture; this selective and romanticized retrospective provides patrons with a sense of “Somaliness” and historical continuity, as well as the imaginative tools to remember and reflect on the past and its potential enduring importance in the present.

Significantly, what exactly is at work in the “romanticized return” Hiddo Dhawr embodies varies by generation and by whether individuals have lived in the diaspora. For those of Sahra’s generation and older, there is a very strong element of nostalgia in a return to this music, a desire to, as Sahra puts it, “relive the era where there was a national theatre and people respected artists.” As commentators of the emergence of nostalgia elsewhere on the continent have noted, “nostalgic discourses about the past often represent a means of articulating the failures, dilemmas, and challenges of the present” (Omojolo 2009: 249; cf. Bissell 2005). In many respects, Hiddo Dhawr’s founding itself was prompted by dissatisfaction with the current socio-political, economic and cultural landscape of Hargeysa, and a sense of frustration and alienation particularly pronounced among the city’s diaspora returnees – a sense of alienation reflected in Ismaaciil’s lament that Hargeysa was full of “new buildings and new cars, and nothing [he] recognized from when [he] was young.” As another diaspora returnee engaged in cultural activist work once remarked to me, he and his peers “used to love a different Somaliland” – a Somaliland where music streamed onto the streets from teashops, and you could buy cassettes of your favorite artists from roadside vendors. For those who remember pre-war Hargeysa, Hiddo Dhawr provides, in Sahra’s words, a kind of “therapy”, allowing patrons to return to an earlier, happier, easier time. Yet it is also simultaneously a statement of dissatisfaction about the present context, and an attempt to re-assert something of the past into Hargeysa’s contemporary urban landscape.

That Hiddo Dhawr is about more than a nostalgic reflection on an irretrievable past is evidenced most clearly in the experiences of the “post-collapse generation”, i.e. those born around or after the time of the war. Part of Hiddo Dhawr’s vision, after all, is to expose a younger generation to the “cultural productions” of the past in order to restore respect for artistic production, instill a sense of pride in what is here styled as an “authentic” or “traditional” Somali identity, and inspire further rehabilitation of pre-war ways of being. And there are early signs that Hiddo Dhawr is succeeding in doing just that. Singing on stage has inspired some younger performers to establish a group dedicated to (re) learning the art of live music. And the experience of listening to music surrounded by “traditional” materials has served as an effective medium to (re) connect “post-collapse” Somalilanders to their past. Two young female friends explained that Hiddo Dhawr is “a place that makes you feel alive,” that “makes you to feel unique that you have your own Somali culture, your own Somali food”. Another young patron puts it this way: “Hiddo Dhawr is the backbone of the Somali traditional system. It reminds the people of the old days, the materials, the food, and the cuud. My generation, we forgot this system, but Hiddo Dhawr is teaching us how things used to be.” Songs are critical to this, for it is “in old songs [that] you can get proverbs, and [learn] about how Somali society was arranged, how people got married, and learn your history… you feel how things were… and you compare the situation to these new decades, and you think about where you are going in the future.” As another friend explained, this “traditional” music is important, because “if you know your culture, and how your people lived [before], [you] will know [who you] are now.” Hiddo Dhawr’s mission of “heritage preservation” has certainly struck a chord with patrons eager to encounter their own past in ways that help them make sense of current challenges.

Yet, as the above description suggests, Hiddo Dhawr is much more than a museum, where “heritage” is passively preserved and presented: it is the city’s hottest (and only) entertainment venue. And, I would argue, it is the venue’s exclusive focus on love songs, and the space occasioned by their live performance, that makes Hiddo Dhawr particularly significant. For love in this context has long been conceived as a clan-transcending, universal condition that is blind to political ambition and socio-economic cleavages, and singers of love songs are revered (even if sometimes socially marginalized) as the a-political, social-norm-defying-and-transcending bearers of otherwise taboo messages. As one Somali proverb attests, “abwaan qabiil maleh” (“a poet is without clan”). While she herself has dabbled in (opposition) politics – to the criticism of some patrons, who suggest artists ought to remain a-political – Sahra herself recognizes the power of love songs to act in this way. She explains her decision to exclusively sing love songs thus: “When you see how people become consumed with things like clan and tribalism, it is good to shift and make them think of something different. Love is the only thing that binds people together, with no animosity.” She further explains: “We live in one of the most restive, conflict-ridden regions. Killings and divisive political games dominate media coverage. People need a break from it. [At Hiddo Dhawr], we give them the chance to hear something different.”

Perhaps precisely because love in the real world is often constrained by the very realities it has the possibility to transcend – particularly clan and socio-economic status – “hearing something different” has given audiences fodder to reflect both on their own experiences of love’s suffering and joy, and to fantasize and imagine idealist and other-wordly love futures. Even if many of these songs contain stories of thwarted love or love constrained by social circumstances, they simultaneously represent “an aspiration or a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way” (Berlant 1998: 281). Love, after all, is a future-oriented emotion: it “project [s] into the future and infuse [s]… subjects with hope that their dreams of fulfillment will come to pass” (Fair 2009: 79). Young friends have explained, for example, that there is nothing quite like sitting in a traditional aqal with the person you love, listening to the music, reflecting on your own love story, and imagining what your future love journey might bring; love songs and the emotions and love-images they evoke serve as the fuel for these conversations. As one young female patron mused about what happens when she listens to old love songs: “Sometimes I remember my old days, the love that I had, my best days. And sometimes if it’s a sad song, I remember a failed love that happened before and I am sad. But other times […] I imagine the future that is coming. The songs help me to imagine my love future.”

Beyond simply providing fodder for fantasizing about one’s potential “love futures,” perhaps the most immediate impact Hiddo Dhawr has for its audiences is the space it provides to enact different ways of being in the present. For a few hours, audience members are able “escape” both the stress and social conventions – particularly regarding gendered expectations – more common in everyday interactions. The space occasioned by the live performance of love songs is one in which audiences are free to “try on” different ways of expressing themselves – in dress, in mannerism, in speech, in the emotions they can convey. I’m told, after all, that at Hiddo Dhawr there is “free life, free music, free everything”, and you do not need to feel ashamed about enjoying yourself. Because when you come to Hiddo Dhawr, you come, as one patron explained, “wearing the shirt of love” – a “shirt” that frees its wearers from judgment and many of the social conventions of daily life. As Ogude finds of ethnic theme nights in Kenya’s nightclubs, “[t] he recourse to ‘traditional’ forms of music [serves] to free the audience of those inhibitions of open expression of pleasure” (2012: 157). In this way, Hiddo Dhawr functions as a kind of alternative public, one where, by recourse to “tradition”, audiences are freed to express otherwise taboo emotions and enact ways of being that stretch social expectations and transcend the socio-economic, clan and political cleavages that define daily life.

Conclusion: Of Audiences and Alternative Publics

Christina J. Woolner
Christina J. Woolner in Laas Geel, Somaliland

To summarize, in this chapter I have suggested that through recourse to “heritage preservation”, combined with Sahra’s SNM credentials, Hiddo Dhawr has established itself as a culturally-acceptable venue and laid claim to a right to exist in Hargeysa’s contested urban landscape. While there is certainly a nostalgic dimension to the way “tradition” has been “retrospectively defined” (Waterman 1997) in this space, rather than simply providing space to reminisce on an irretrievable past, Hiddo Dhawr is providing audiences with alternative resources with which to reflect on the current context of their lives. I have also suggested that a focus on love songs, and the space occasioned by their live performance, have provided patrons with additional imaginative resources and the space in which to “try on” different ways of being – freed, in part, by recourse to “tradition.” Inasmuch as audiences constitute their own kind of “public” (Barber 1997), Hiddo Dhawr functions as a kind of alternative public, one where an “authentic” “traditional” Somali identity is celebrated at the same time that audiences are freed to stretch social conventions. Significantly, in part because of its mission of “heritage preservation”, Hiddo Dhawr does not represent a “counterpublic” in the way that Warner defines the term, i.e. a public, comprised of a subaltern group, which is “constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public… [that] maintains an awareness of its subordinate status” (2002: 423-424). Although Hiddo Dhawr’s audiences comprise their own kind of alternative public, they are also members of Hargeysa’s broader “dominant” public. While conflict with certain religious elements of the population features in Hiddo Dhawr’s existence, the venue does not seek to simply resist or subvert popular narratives of what it means to be a Somalilander; rather, it seeks to transform Hargeysa’s “dominant public” by, as one friend put it, “making singing together normal again.” If “ways of being an audience are made possible only by existing ways of being in society” (Barber 1997: 348), then the alternative public Hiddo Dhawr represents serves to remind its patrons that there are indeed other ways of being – ways of being that are simultaneously rooted in history yet stretch contemporary social norms.

I have, of course, but scratched the surface of the ways in which Hiddo Dhawr may be potentially implicated in the re-shaping of post-war public space in Somaliland. This is a story still in the writing. As Barber (1987: 4) reminds us, popular arts do not simply “reflect an already-constituted consciousness,” but rather may reveal a critique that is not yet fully formed. As popular arts are both constrained and enabled by particular configurations of power (Okome & Newell 2012: 41), the “moments of freedom” (Fabian 1998) they provide may be as fleeting as the term “moment” suggests. Perhaps it would be apt to conclude that, as has always been the case for Somali audiences of the oral arts, qof walba xaggii gubeysa ayuu ula kacaa – each person takes it to the place where the pain burns. It is Hiddo Dhawr’s audiences, and their interaction with the broader public (s) of which they are a part, who will ultimately be responsible for interpreting and re-interpreting, retrospectively re-defining and presently re-imagining how love songs will continue to shape the contested everyday fabric of a nation unfolding.


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Woolner, C. 2016. Hiddo Dhawr: Singing Love in (to) Somaliland. CamthropodThe Cambridge Anthropology Podcast, Episode 5. Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Available online at: http://www.socanth. cam. episode- 5–hiddo-dhawr–singing-love-in-to–somaliland—by-christina-woolner


1 In Somali, the Arabic letter “ayn” is rendered as a “c”. For readers unfamiliar with this sound, omit the letter “c” when reading, i.e., read “Cali” as “Ali”, or cuud as “oud”.

2 This chapter develops themes and material that I first presented in the podcast “Hiddo Dhawr: Singing Love in (to) Somaliland”, for Camthropod (see Woolner 2016).

3 Apart from certain public figures and artists, to respect the privacy of my many interlocutors and to honor agreements of confidentiality I have withheld names and identifying details throughout this piece. All quoted interviews occurred in Hargeysa between July 2015 and December 2016.

4 For more on the evolution of Somali music, particularly its links to political developments, see Johnson (1996) or Hassan (this volume). For a gendered analysis of artistic developments, see Kapteijns (1999).

5 In addition to the referenced literature, the information contained in this section was obtained through dozens of interviews with older and younger artists, as well as others knowledgeable about the development of Somali music.

6 Though it was originally called Radio Goodir (“Kudu”).

7 Qat (also known as chat or khat, and the Kenyan variety known as miraa) is a shrub or small tree whose leaves are chewed in a variety of social and religious settings for their stimulating effect. Chewing qat could be described as a national past-time for most men in Somaliland.

8 Some other reasons for the show’s cancellation that have circulated include local artists feeling threatened by a singer from Puntland, and possible clan tensions (as the singer was from Puntland, she would have had poor clan connections to mobilize on her behalf). The incident has also led to mockery of the Minister, who has been teased/called out for watching online music videos of young women, earning him the nickname “Khaliil Indho” (after the singer’s name, Nasteexa Indho). He’s also been trolled on Facebook, with critics re-posting a picture of him shaking hands with the First Lady and highlighting his own double standards (strict practicing Muslims will not shake hands with a member of the opposite sex).

9 For a discussion of the urban origins of “popular art”, see Barber (1987). Waterman (1997) also provides an account of the intersection of popular art, nationalism, and the re-definition of “tradition” in urban spaces.

10 A dirac is a style of dress made of loose-fitting though sometimes rather sheer fabric worn by women at weddings and other celebrations. In this context, it is sometimes referred to as a “traditional” form of dress.

11 Tahriib refers to illegal migration abroad, usually to Europe via North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. It is widely considered one of the greatest social problems facing Somaliland’s youth.


Christina J. Woolner

Christina J. WoolnerIs a Ph.D. candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (King’s College), where she is completing a dissertation on the social and political lives of love songs in contemporary Hargeysa. Building on a long-standing interest in the role of narrative and storytelling in war and peace-building processes, her current research explores issues of voice and voicing, the mediation of experiences of intimacy, and the intersection of the personal and the political. She holds an MPhil in Social Anthropology (Cambridge) and an MA in International Peace Studies (Notre Dame), and has worked as a lecturer in peace studies at various universities in Canada and Somaliland.

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