words by Mohamed Samatar
photos by Elizabeth Brumley
The story of Maryan Mursal, the renowned Somali vocalist and composer, is one of perseverance and triumph against all odds. Born in 1950, she became one of the first professional female vocalists of Muslim faith at age sixteen. In the 1980s she fused African, Arab and western music together, helping to form the genre now known as Somali Jazz. While Mursal was enjoying success as a recording artist, touring China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, political unrest grew her in home country. In response, Mursal released a song criticizing the Siad Barre regime, propelling the government to outright ban their country’s biggest star from performing.
This backlash stifled her career, but she continued to trailblaze and support her family by becoming one of the first female taxi drivers in Somalia. The Somali Civil War of the early 1990s eventually forced Mursal and her family to flee the country and embark on a seven-month migration through refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and finally Djibouti, where they were granted asylum by the Danish government.
Close to a decade later in her new home, Mursal befriended a Danish producer and photographer named Soren Kjaer Jensen. Jensen had, by chance, heard Mursal sing at a refugee camp in Ethiopia several years earlier, while then unaware of her legacy in Somalia. After making the connection, Jensen told his friend, the renowned musician and humanitarian Peter Gabriel about Mursal, and Gabriel signed her to his label Real World Records, helping to give her career a much deserved second act.
In the winter of 2015, the sixty-five year old Mursal traveled to the largest Somali community in North America –– the Twin Cities –– for a residency at The Cedar Cultural Center, a venue in the heart of the majority-Somali Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The residency was part of a Cedar program called Midnimo that features Somali artists from Minnesota and around the world in residencies and events that increase understanding of Somali culture through music. In this interview translated from Somali, Mursal opens up about her pioneering beginnings, her turbulent journey and her current life as a Somali-Danish international recording artist.
Greenroom: Do you remember the day you wanted to become an artist?
Maryan Mursal: "I was in the neighborhood, at the age of 14, and I heard these boys playing music in their home. I stood at their front door and no one could move me away because this was in my blood the whole time. Afterwards, they said, 'Come inside, young girl...do you know how to sing?' I replied, 'I can give it a try.' There were many notable male musicians in that room. I came into the room and they began to play a song from back in the day."
GR: What was that song?
MM: "[sings a few lines] That's the one. I sang the whole thing and they said 'You are perfect! What do you think of singing with us at a nightclub?' I said, 'Alright.' My family didn't know I used to sing at the nightclub. [The male musicians] had me memorize this musical they wrote and we were invited to play in Hargeisa [Northern Somalia]. My family found out and my mom beat me. I locked her our out of the house and called the neighbors. My mom said to our neighbors, 'If she quits this musical I will leave her alone but if she takes part of this musical I will punish her.' Thus, I quit the musical. But I enjoyed the songs I memorized. I picked my favorite three. The boys approached me again to keep playing at the nightclub called Bar Quarta, in Mogadishu's District Four. I began to be their opener and I would sing those three songs. I would be paid twenty-five shillings [roughly $.25 in U.S dollars, at the time] per night at Bar Quarta.
Then I began to learn the latest contemporary genres: Rock & Roll, Twist Again, Cha Cha Cha, everything. Fast forward, my family became alright with me singing in the nightclubs and would constantly advise me against older men and becoming addicted to making money. My mom was an innocent women thus, I brought my earnings of twenty-five shillings to her every night. One night, the Minister of Information [Yusuf Ahmed Boukah, '64-'67] came to the nightclub and my friend Ahmed Naji [part of the residency’s backing band] said to him, 'That girl is an artist, go ahead put together a contract and sign her onto Radio Mogadishu.' Ahmed brought me the contract and accompanied me to Radio Mogadishu's studio for an audition. They signed me on the spot. That's how I became a working artist with the government at the age of 16."
GR: Let's talk about radio. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, women were banned from any air time in Somalia, and for the rare occasion it happened radio hosts would alter their name to sound more masculine. How did it feel becoming the first Somali female singer to be aired publicly on the radio?
MM: "Both my mom and dad were city people. As a woman who began singing at the nightclubs, to hear myself on the radio, made me climb onto my bed and faint from the shock. My family sacrificed cattle in this celebratory moment, for all of Somalia. They prayed for me and said 'our girl has been employed as an artist.' They were really happy!"
GR: As your career flourished on, you had a minor setback from singing a particular song that the government wasn't fond of.
MM: "It was the song Culimada Aduunka [World Scholars]. A rumor started that I used the song to disrespect the President at the time and was fired from my job. They did me wrong to the point of being accused of shooting a porn film. I didn't have a place to go. I didn't have any other profession. I was an artist. The other profession that I did have was being a driver. I made my car into a taxi, becoming the first female taxi driver in Somalia. At night I would drive my three-wheeled scooter and during the day my car. That's how I afforded to take my kids to Europe and leave the strenuous time I was in."
GR: When the collapse of the Somali government happened in 1991, where were you?
MM: "At time of the collapse of my country, I returned from Europe in 1989 for my last show in Djibouti, then went back to Mogadishu in the late 1990s. When the coup happened in January of 1991 my bags were packed and that's how I fled. I relocated my two oldest sons to the UK in 1989, and the remaining five I had with me when the coup happened. The youngest was three years-old and the oldest of the five was eleven years-old. I was by myself and on top of that I had two relatives I was taking care of as well, making seven people I was seeking refuge on their behalf. I journeyed for seven months in Africa; Ethiopia, Djibouti, and all over the Horn of Africa."
GR: How was that journey?
MM: "It's hard to even talk about. I made a song about that journey. All the things I went through, the times I fell, the cries, and hardships to the moment I went to Europe. That song is in my album The Journey."
GR: The song “Qax,” correct?
MM: "Yes! The song of mine describes everything. For seven months, I would ride a donkey cart, walk, and ride a car. Thanks to God, I got through the time. Lastly, I ended up in Denmark. I rested there. I couldn't never reciprocate what Denmark did for me. To the point where my children and I had lice in our hairs and our clothes. They cleaned us, gave us a heater and then a house. It's remarkable to talk about."
GR: There was report that claimed a Danish photographer, Soren Kjaer Jensen, stumbled upon you singing to 300 refugees at the Ethiopian refugee camp.
MM: "I was part of the camp, and I would sing to the refugees often. The camp decided to pay me for singing but I would end up giving that money away to the people that lived around me. As I said in one of my songs, 'Ka noli waxii dhacoo, nasiibkayga wali ma dhimanin [Keep living from what has happened, my luck hasn't died].' At the moment, I'm living from it. Whatever happened, I'm still alive. When I was in those streets I would take everything, even if it was a piece of wood because at night I would have to make a fire for my kids. If it's a piece of paper, I would say to myself, 'You might need it to wipe their butts.' When I used to shop from the 'city' at the camps, I would bring back a jug of junk, that I could use later. No junk would be thrown away to the point where I became embarrassed of myself. Thank God, I'm living from it today."
GR: The past evening I was with you, you told me a story about you being a black woman in Denmark in contrast to a celebrity in Somalia. Could you revisit that again?
MM: "When I came to Denmark, three months later I received my status of asylum. But the most interesting part for me –– the star of a woman I was, the star of a Somali woman I was, the celebrated icon I was to my people –– was when I came to Europe I became 'the black woman.' If I was crossing the street I was referred to as 'Oh that black woman that walks across the street.' I became a bit depressed. I convinced myself one day, that I would become known here [Denmark]. I began singing with this Guyanese musician and his band and afterwards I created my own band. We became a buzz around town and flew to Paris to play at a music festival. At the time I had no idea of the excitement left behind from our performance at the festival but when I came back to Denmark, the mayor of my town sent me a bouquet and card saying 'Thanks for representing your country of Denmark'. I still was shocked.
The next day I was in many newspapers around Denmark and Europe stating my breakthrough as a world artist. This Somali woman who just took refuge in Denmark, now sits at a high praise from the world music community. I was even featured in American press that week. I went to my bank in Denmark the next day to deposit checks, and the tellers at the bank were starstruck. For the longest time they knew me as 'that black woman.' The teller said immediately, 'Er du Maryan?' ['Are you Maryan?'] And I said, ‘Yes I am, and today you know my name –– making me really, really happy!’ That moment my depression of being unknown left me, to the point where I would be crossing those same streets as before and everyone now saying, 'Are you Maryan?'
GR: Did your first international record, The Journey, produced by Peter Gabriel, come together after that?
MM: "My band and I were invited to tour the USA for a month and twenty days after the Paris festival then I recorded the album."
GR: Did you see any Somalis at your concerts?
MM: "Why not!? They were front row at most of my concerts with the Somali flag being waved all around."
GR: When was that?
MM: "1996, and back in 1998 for my album tour."
GR: Can you tell us about the experience of working with Peter Gabriel?
MM: "For me I had no idea of his stardom, but I had a manager that Peter communicated with to make two albums with me. The Journey and Waaberi were the albums. Waaberi was an acoustic Oud album with my fellow musicians from the Waaberi group I was in. They mostly lived in London and that's where I recorded that album. The Journey was mostly done at Real World Records studio."
GR: To conclude, the culture you grew up in when you were fourteen and the culture I grew up in as a fourteen year-old are starkly different. Between you and I sitting here together we fill up three generations of Somali history. What kind of advice can you give a young Somali person that has no idea of the wealth of arts and culture that comes from their country and the meaning the culture has for us outside of the contemporary media portrayal? We aren't only the suicide bombers or pirates we've been labeled as. Our young generation and even older generation have no idea where you sit today at the forefront of being an international world artist that has pushed many boundaries.
MM: "Everyone should work to forward their culture. For us, when we entered Europe they wanted us to conform to their culture and identity. The ones going to school are being taught about the Euro-centric ideals and culture. Back in the day the more modestly-dressed the females were, the higher they were valued. Now, modesty is far from the younger generation –– they have minimal respect for their families. Thus, they've become adapted to the West's ways of living and it's part due to the colonial project of assimilating refugees to Europe. To the point where now our girls are being married off to Europeans and aren't excited about our young Somali men. But what I want to say to any young Somali woman is that our Somali men are the most beautiful in the world; their beauty, slender noses, and slick hair, please share your love and beauty with them. And for you [Somali] men out there, flirt with young Somali women! The ladies feel that you guys are really bad at flirting, so figure that out boys. In the end it would help bring Somalia back to her feet - if we run away from each other, we're in the long-run hurting Somalia. That's all I can advise."
MS: Any advice on bringing back Somali Arts or Funka as it's referred to?
MM: "I was happy today to visit the first Somali Museum in the states with many traditional artifacts and stories. And for the organizers of my Midnimo residency I'm happy about the whole experience. From the drivers to the lovely Fadumo and you interviewing me that's cultural wealth for me. Being able to speak in my mother tongue throughout this residency has given me life in so many ways. I am happy!"