He is as distinguished as any Somali of national accomplishment. Still tall with a straight back, the gait strong, the mind in full alert, the greatest living Somali master of the oud (kaman), Ahmed Ismail Hussein, Hudeydi, is now nearly eighty.
Like almost a million of his compatriots, he is in exile from the continuing violent misery that is the Somali Republic. It is December 27, 2007. We just ended a delicious and long lunch at one of London’s best Indian restaurants, a stone’s throw from the British Museum.
He looks as formidable as the late André Segovia, the renowned Spanish and world-class guitarist who transformed that instrument into a treasure of classical music. If Hudeydi was born to a country more integrated into the world, he could have been regarded as the Segovia of the oud—famous, rich, and more…We are sitting in my hotel room on a cool day in London, one of his many kaman instruments lovingly held on his lap and the famous and big right-hand fingers itching to strike and set us in at once a tantalizingly sweet and sour mood. There is little doubt that Hudeydi is a gifted man, a virtuoso that not only can manipulate the strings to exquisite sounds, but has proven to be capable of astonishing patriotic and romantic song compositions.
Moreover, his knowledge of Somali musical performance is among the most arresting, with discriminating judgments to boot. Even a cursory examination of his lifetime of artistry will find it difficult to disentangle his breathtaking technical potency from deep-seated personal integrity and careful situational intelligence.
This is particularly remarkable given the long years of exile and personal economic brittleness. Perhaps all of the above are part of his durable allure. Hudeydi was an official guest of Macalester College in the summer of 2004, when he, in the company of other artists, such as Fadumo Qassim Hiloule and Abdinoor Allaleh, performed, to full capacity, at the Concert Hall. During this London occasion, I had an opportunity to persuade him to visit with me and respond to a few questions. We conducted the interview in Somali.
Ahmed I. Samatar: Welcome Mr. Hudeydi.
Hudeydi: Thank you, Professor Ahmed.
AIS: Before we go further, what does the Somali word fuun mean to you?
Hudeydi: Fuun connotes artistic activities that are, at their most thrilling, even hypnotizing, and worthy of celebration. Such creation ranges widely, from musical mastery in the playing of the flute, the oud, the drums, beautiful singing voice, composition of drama or poetry, to painting, sculpture, and sweet writing. In short, fuun conjures up high-quality artistic creativity—evocative power that is almost magical.
AIS: How did you come to be a kaman player?
Hudeydi: From very early in my youth in British Aden [Yemen] I knew I had a fascination with music. Whenever I saw the police contingent playing their drums and marching, I would run to them, walk behind, and let myself imagine I was one of them beating on those drums. I would get carried away, losing the sense of time, until a member of the family would find me and take me home. At elementary school, I used every opportunity to turn the top of my wooden desk into a drum-like surface, with the fingers of both of my hands impatient to experiment. I became quite good at it and my classmates were impressed. Then an event of major significance happened: a man by the name of Abdillahi Qarshe arrived in Aden.
AIS: You mean the legendary Qarshe? The composer of such classic nationalist songs as Qolaba Calankeedu Waa Caynee and Aqoon La’aani Waa Iftiin La’aan?
Hudeydi: Yes! But he was young and obscure then—all of that renown was years and years away. He grew up in Aden but left and then returned with a reputation as a Fanaan. I quickly decided to court his attention and, hence, offered to play the drums to accompany his oud performances. At this time, Qarshe was not highly skilled in his playing but he was distinctive in being the first Somali in the area to publicly and fully pick up the challenge and, in addition, began to sing against colonialism. I met him soon. One day, in an intimate setting, I began to touch and caress his kaman. He noticed this immediately, retrieved the kaman from me gently, and then inquired about what things my father had bought for me to enter school. I replied that the items were books and pencils. Qarshe said that was fine, but I should also buy a basic kaman. I took the advice to heart and within no time had my own piece. In this formative moment, Qarshe was key—he did not give me lessons, but he inspired and encouraged me to take up the practice. At the time I had bought my own kaman, the two artists who taught the techniques were the late Abdi Afweyne (who had done some performances in Djibouti) and Hassan Nahaari—iconic names in the early history of Somali kaman performance. They used to rent their pieces when they wanted to rehearse or perform. Since I had my own kaman, they needed me, so I got many opportunities to do my practice. After three months of intensive learning, I became more confident, with my name becoming increasingly associated with the instrument. You see, Ahmed, kaman playing is primarily dependent on rhythmic balance. The greater a performer’s inner sense of rhythm, the more stunning the sounds. That is the constitutive secret.
AIS: Rhythm, what does it mean?
Hudeydi: Rhythm has a number of elements, but two stand out, in my opinion: emphasis on a beat and timing or the movement of a touch. The first is the product of the concrete encounter between the appropriate part of the human body and the instrument; the second relates to the velocity of the action. But remember this: though both might seem mechanical in the first instance, the complete act is thrust forth by a less visible but a generative, sensitive, and indispensable force of artistic imagination.
AIS: How long did you stay in Aden?
Hudeydi: Until I became Doob Guraan. That is, till around the age of 25 years.
AIS: Between early youth and Doob Guraan, did you perform occasionally or did you decide to dedicate your whole energy to mastering the instrument?
Hudeydi: No, no! I became a total devotee, and the Somalis in Aden encouraged me a great deal. In a citywide carnival organized at that time, Somalis were invited to participate. I was one of the younger artists asked to make a contribution. Consequently, members of the community brought to me two white “traditional” sheets, or go’yaal, and draped them around me: one on the lower body, the other on the torso. This outfit, one I had never seen before that day, was accompanied by sandal shoes, “Faygamuur,” made of wood, and a prayer rug. It was really at once a strange and beautiful profile—a very unique and, for many, authentic Somali dress! Then I was handed the oud and performed solo. Other competing communities filled out a small orchestra. In the end, the combination of the dress and the playing of the oud, Somali style, created enough of an alluring moment for the judges to declare me the winner of the first prize.
AIS: I assume at this time your parents were alive?
AIS: How did they react to the direction your interests and life were heading?
Hudeydi: We were at war with each other—kick and punch became the medium of our encounters. For them, it was as if their boy was deciding to destroy his life before it even bloomed. You see, both of them hated and despised what we call fuun.
AIS: Apparently, like the majority of Somalis of their age, and some of the other generations to follow, they believed a career in fuun was tantamount to failure and social disgrace?
AIS: Did they ever change their minds?
Hudeydi: They never did and, in fact, died disconsolate over what they felt to be my cursed fate. Fortunately, however, my father’s brother lived long enough to reverse his judgment and, therefore, gave me his blessings.
AIS: Heavy sadness but a bit of sweetness, too! What period are we talking about? After the Second World War?
Hudeydi: Yes, right after the War. This is the time when Bellwo will appear as a genre in Somali singing and musical imagination.
AIS: When did you leave Aden?
Hudeydi: First time was 1949. I left Aden for the sole purpose of wanting to be heard over the new Radio Hargeisa. I arrived there and played the drums for the rising star, Abdillahi Qarshe. After a brief period, I returned to Aden. At this stage in my life, my competence in the spoken Somali language was elementary and poorly developed. It was my enchantment with fuun that taught me to appreciate the combined elegance and muscularity of the Somali language. Moreover, the political songs of the age were mesmerizing to me and, consequently, I threw myself into this cultural milieu.
AIS: In Hargeisa, you stayed for a while and then, feeling excited, returned to Aden?
Hudeydi: Yes. While in Aden, I took part in another competition, one focused on the composition of nationalist/independence songs that were being prepared for the grand celebration of 1960. My compositions were sent to Hargeisa. You see, when the independence of British Somaliland was being declared, the British colonial office in Aden arranged an impressive celebration, bigger than the one set in Hargeisa. At that time, Mr. Mohamed Hashi Abdi, an officer of Radio Hargeisa, was sent to Aden. Some members of the community convinced Mr. Abdi that I was a suitable young person to make an artistic contribution to the festival that would accompany the raising of the flag of independence. This was an instantiation of the famous exaggeration that Somali Adenis were known for! Mr. Abdi decided to record one of my compositions and gave it the name “Dhalad,” or Birth. That song became my initial identity and with it I moved to Hargeisa permanently.
AIS: It was then the year 1960?
AIS: Who was at Radio Hargeisa? This is the institution and the city in which you would settle, correct?
Hudeydi: Yes. When I left for the new Somali Republic, I was already registered as an employee of Radio Hargeisa, and a member of its artistic group. Mohamed Hashi Abdi took care of the details. But my formal host would be a man by the name of Abbas Dooreh.
AIS: What form of transport did you take from Aden? A plane?
Hudeydi: No, I took a boat to the tiny coastal fishing village of Meid. During those days, there was a cohort of young educated and professional Somali men who dominated social life in Hargeisa. To cut down on their uppity prominence, they were exiled to the remote outpost of Dayaha, near Erigavo. Among them were Abdisalaam Haji Aden, Hassan Ali Henery, Ku Adeyeh, Nine, and others.
AIS: Who exiled them? The colonial British?
H: No. They were posted by the new Somali political and business leaders who became somewhat envious of this educated group’s popularity among the denizens of Hargeisa. The assignment was for the cohorts to teach at the new intermediate school in Dayaha, and Abdisalaam Haji Aden was appointed as the Principal. At Meid, the customs officer sent them word that a young man of “maddening skill” in playing the oud had arrived. The Dayaha associates sent me a vehicle, a nice vehicle—a Land Rover—immediately. When I arrived, they requested that I arrange a performance. In a few weeks, I composed a play called “Magaalo,” or Town. The day coincided with Eid celebrations. The event was supplemented with a fabulous football game the following afternoon. This was a success, so, after a few days, we decided to take the show to the tad bigger town, Burao, to the west. This was the first time in the modern history of Burao in which an artistic performance was brought to its citizens from further east. In addition, Burao lost a competitive football game to a team from Erigavo/Dayaha. Because of an ongoing but convivial rivalry, and in a well-understood friendly manner, we rubbed in both victories on Burao’s folks. A good time was had at first. But the occasion did not end in complete happiness. After the professionals and the young people, who loved the fuun, began to fix their admiring and intense attention on me, a bit of envy rose among the other artists. Some even went to the extent of pouring ghee in my oud instrument! This is the time when I composed this verse:
Hadaanan ka cuslayn xagaaga cidlaay
Ciirsilaay anna kaa calool go’ay.
If I am not precious to you, Oh Ms. Nothing,
And your succor is no more, I, too, have given up on you.
I stayed in Hargeisa for a brief period and then I left for Djibouti, which was then a French colony.
AIS: This was when, and why?
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