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Photograph of some Somali poetry books available in the Library of Congress collections, courtesy of Abdulahi Ahmed

Blake Robinson recordings of Somali music and poetry

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 The following is a guest post by Abdulahi Ahmed, Reference Librarian in the African and Middle Eastern Division

 

From August 2–4, 1959, Blake W. Robinson, a public relations assistant with the United States Information Service (USIS) in Mogadishu, recorded Somali poetry, music, and dances during the Dabshidka and Istunka celebrations in Afgooye and in Mogadishu, Somalia. Various ethnic groups at Walaweyn have additional songs and dances recorded by Mr. Robinson in his fieldwork, whereas future poet Farah Elmi Ali (also known as Farah Geed) recited poems from well-known poets in addition to his own.

Map of Somalia [Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2002]
Somalia is often called the Land of Poets. Poets are so highly regarded in Somalia that they have stopped battles or started new ones. Reciting well-known poetry and creating new lines has long been a part of the coming-of-age ceremony for young men and women.

In the Somali tradition poems are typically passed down through generations, preserving the values, virtues, and struggles of the Somali people in the greater Horn of Africa. Somali poetry is very much an oral tradition that is deeply rooted in the culture of the country. Hence, Somalis express their heritage, history, and identity through poetry which celebrates and recounts the stories of their people.

Somali folk dances = Ciyaaraha hiddaha iyo dhaqanka Soomaaliyeed / Abdulahi A. Ahmed “Somaliyow” ; farshaxanka/arts and illustrations by Gadhle Arts, Cali Nuur Gadhle.

Poetry contests, poetry battles, and poetry series are very common among Somalis, where poets from far and wide come to compete against each other. The series of poetry combat known as Guba (1923–40s), Silsilada Xaydha (1940s), and Siinley, are a clear demonstration that poets are highly valued, discussed, and well-known to most Somalis.

The use of clan poetry is also closely linked to Somalia’s complicated socio-political past which has often contributed to clan-related conflicts and tensions. The importance of poets in Somali society is something that cannot be underestimated.  Aside from the significance of their cultural contributions, the eminent status poets enjoy in Somali society enables them to directly influence events and their outcomes. A prime example, two of the “combat poems” in Blake Robinson’s recordings are from the “Guba chain of poems”, a collection of about 20 poems that began around 1923 by Cali Dhuux Adan, Qamaan Bulxan and 12 other rival poets who exchanged this poetic combat for over 20 years. The Guba (burn/fire) series involved, at least in part, a sequence of claims and counterclaims over acquisition and loss of resources, including livestock, people, land (grazing and wells), and most importantly, honor.

‘Stringing coral beads’ : the religious poetry of Brava (c.1890-1975) : a source publication of Chimiini texts and English translations / edited and translated by Alessandra Vianello, Lidwien Kapteijns, Mohamed Kassim.

In the aftermath of the British-Somali Darwish wars (1900-1920), the Isaq tribe attacked and occupied the Ogaden tribal lands and drove the native Ogadens out while seizing great expanses of land, wells, and many camels. At that time, poet Cali Dhuux Aadan composed the first Guba poem (Deleb) with the intention of inciting resentment and revenge among the Ogaden. Qamaan Bulxan, on the other hand, blamed Cali Dhuux for advocating war and bloody retaliation. Instead, Qamaan Bulxan advocated for peace in his (Dabuub) poem and cited the Islamic doctrine that teaches followers to maintain faith, harmony and refrain from encouraging hostility and violence among the Somali tribes.  Both poems are available in the Blake Robinson recordings.

In conclusion, the influence poets have over events in Somali society is substantial. Thus, in addition to creating the exquisite poetry that forms the core of Somali culture, poets can incite clan conflicts through their work and use it as a powerful tool for spreading messages of peace. They can also unite and mobilize Somalis to defend their nation against foreign invaders as in the case of Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan fighting the British colonizers. A proverb among the Somali people states that a gifted poet has the power to foster both peace and hatred; he can ignite a fresh dispute or exacerbate an existing one.

The Blake Robinson recordings of Somali music and poetry are available in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.

 

Further Reading:

Silsiladda Guba = Guba poems [compiled by] Abdullahi Hassan Roble

Silsiladdii Hurgumo: Khaliif Shiikh Maxamuud ; Shaafici Xasan Maxamed

Culture and Customs of Somalia / Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi

Oral poetry and Somali nationalism: the case of Sayyid Maḥammad ʻAbdille Ḥasan / Said S. Samatar.

A Somali Poetic Combat / B. W. Andrzejewski and Musa H.I. Galal, Journal of African languages, v. 2, pt. 1; 1963

“Istunka- A Yearly Ritual” /Abdulahi Ahmed (Somaliyow) Sept 17, 2015

Comments

  1. Thank you for this article I was not aware of this collection. I have a small collection of artisanal Somali music cassettes which I collected in the 70s & 80s.

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