One of the finer imports to grace 2019 was this little gem from French label Buda Musique, which is best known for their long-running Ethiopiques series. This project, the third album from singer Sahra Halgan, is the label’s latest foray into the music of Somaliland — the disputed, breakaway region in the Horn of Africa that’s not to be confused with its larger neighbor, Somalia.
In case you’re not steeped in the minutiae of East African geopolitics, here’s a quick rundown: Somaliland is the northwestern region of Somalia that’s long been set apart, politically, from their Somali cousins. In the colonial era, the region was a British protectorate, while the rest of Somalia flew an Italian flag, and Somalilanders had their own nation for a brief, shining five days in 1960, before being absorbed into the newly independent Republic of Somalia.
Somaliland was the first to rise up against the dictator Siad Barre in the 1980s, and the Somali National Movement that eventually overthrew him was strong there. They paid a heavy price for their resistance, and bombings and reprisals from the regime forced many refugees to flee abroad before the regime’s fall in 1991. In that same year Somaliland declared independence, negotiated a separate peace, and managed to opt out of the the civil war that engulfed the rest of Somalia in ensuing decades.
Since then Somaliland has emerged as a bastion of stability and democracy — but still struggles for international diplomatic recognition as an independent Republic, chafing under its official UN designation as an “autonomous region”.
Enter Sahra Halgan, who’s been one of the strongest voices in the struggle for the recognition of Somaliland’s independence, both as a musician and cultural activist — as well as a former member of the Somali National Movement. Halgan began singing at the age of thirteen, in defiance of the traditional roles of the powerful Issa clan to which she was born. She first came to national acclaim during the fight to overthrow the Barre regime, as a self-taught nurse on the frontline who also sang to comfort the wounded and strengthen the morale of the SNM fighting men. It was here that the earned the affectionate nickname “Halgan” — Somali for “fighter” — that she still uses to this day.
After the war, Halgan was one of the many Somalilanders granted political asylum in France in the early 90s. There she spent decades in the city of Lyon, eking out a living as a cafeteria worker and performing music on the side at weddings and other community events. About 12 years ago Halgan linked up with two French musicians and re-ignited her career. Since then, she’s recorded two previous albums as leader of a trio, one in 2009 for the French song-collecting organization CMTRA , and another, Faransiskiyo Somaliland for Buda Musique in 2016. She’s also returned to Somaliland, to found the Hidda-Dhawr collective — a space for the arts and culture in her hometown of Hargeisa — and splits her time between France and Somaliland.
Her latest album, Was Dardaaran is the culmination of her journey so far. The album takes it’s title from a polite form of address that Somalis use to speak to the powerful — but don’t mistake this for timidity on Halgan’s part: this is a bold, brash, statement of a record that kicks down doors and announces Halgan’s international arrival.
Don’t expect straight-ahead Somali music here, though. Like her previous album, this is a multinational project with a hybrid sound that owes much of its sonic palette to Sahelian “Desert Rock” guitar-slingers like Tinariwen, Bombino, and Mdour Moctar.
Don’t expect delicately-picked ouds accompanied by stately sung poetry, or even the swinging, modal funk of Somali groups like Dur Dur Band. Instead, think big, ballsy, distorted guitar riffs that build and repeat hypnotically, backed by a rocking backbeat and punctuated by call-and response choruses. These riffs come courtesy of Maël Salètes - a veteran of French band Maczade Carpate and duo L’Étrangleuse — and kick the album into immediate overdrive on the opening track “Kiidhaba”.
Thumping percussion comes courtesy of Aymeric Krol, a founding member of Franco-Malian ensemble BKO Quintet, who plays a rumbling battery of hand percussion and cymbals that propels rockers like “Alaah” and “Desha Dheshu” forward as surely as any set of conventional trap drums.
The wildcard here is the swirling, discretely psychedelic keyboards of Graham Mushnik, the latest addition to the group. Mushnik injects a bit of spooky atmosphere into the album, using his keyboards judiciously, he lets the guitar take the lead, then bubbling up in the mix like a fizzy splash of tonic water on tracks like “Caaqil” and Xarago”.
Of course the real star is Sahra Halgan herself, and her performance doesn’t disappoint. As a singer, she’s easily capable of belting out the big vocal numbers aimed at the back rows — but with a distinctive, quivering warble that’s used to great effect on songs like “Kidhara” and “Hiddo”. While she punctuates the dramatic “Talo” with hair-raising ululations so unexpected that listeners might jump out of their seats mid-song.
But Was Dardaaran isn’t all high-energy desert rock.“Dur Dur” is a chugging, mid-tempo traditional Somali qaarami that feels more akin to the “desert blues” of Northern Mali, and slow burning “Bayr” closes the album out with a dreamy lover’s lament.
Lyrically, Halgan relies heavily on the texts of Somali-language poets, a common practice in Somalia and Somaliland. In fact, she’s the granddaughter of poet Hilaac Dheere, though she doesn’t perform any of his works on this album. The texts she selected for this album speak of joy and faith and rebuilding her nation; of gratitude to the nation that took her in and, most of all of love.
Somali-language poetry is rich in metaphors for love, in all its manifold permutations, and so, presumably, are these songs — unfortunately for English and French language fans, there are only summaries of each song provided to accompany the full Somali lyrics. It’s understandable given the additional costs involved, and the only flaw in an otherwise excellent little record. - Tom Pryor
Ethiopiques—Revolt of the Soul