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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home

New Americans

Refugees from other areas of the world


Cultural Profile of their country of origin- Somalia

The People, their culture and traditions-
Art and Music

Traditional art expressions

Somali art is most often characterized by its aniconism, partly as a result of the vestigial influence of the pre-Islamic mythology of the Somalis coupled with their ubiquitous Muslim beliefs. However, there are artistic depictions representing living creatures such as golden birds on the Mogadishan canopies, the ancient rock paintings in northern Somalia, and the plant decorations on religious tombs in southern Somalia, but they are considered rare. Usually, intricate patterns and geometric designs with bold colors, and monumental architecture were the norm.

The oldest evidence of art in the Somali peninsula are pre-historic rock paintings. The rock art of Laas Geel are thought to be some of the best preserved in Africa, representing cows in ceremonial robes accompanied by humans. The necks of the cows are embellished with a kind of plastron, some of the cows are depicted as wearing decorative robes. The paintings not only show cows, but also domesticated dogs, several paintings of Canidae and a giraffe.

Aspects of ancient Somali styles of architecture and art can be seen in the various Somali civilizations that flourished under Islam, particularly during the Mogadishan Golden Age and the Empire of Ajuran period (especially in the domain of architecture). In the early modern and contemporary era, poetry and theatrical ventures shaped much of today's Somali artistic culture.

Carving, known in Somali as qoris, is a much respected profession in Somalia both in historic and modern times. Wealthy city dwellers in the medieval period employed the finest wood and marble carvers in Somalia to work on their interiors and houses. The carvings on the mihrabs and pillars of ancient Somali mosques are some of the oldest on the continent.

Artistic carving was considered a male activity, similar to how the Somali textile industry was mainly a women's business. Amongst the nomads, carving, especially woodwork, was widespread and could be found on the most basic objects such as spoons, combs and bowls, but it also included more complex structures such as the portable nomadic house, the aqal.

The textile culture of Somalia is very ancient. The Somali textile center in Mogadishu was, from at least the 13th century to the late 19th century, considered to be one of the main textile hubs in the Indian Ocean.

This is an example of one type of embroidery:

They also worked with metal. The goldsmiths and blacksmiths of the cities, though often shunned by the dominant nomadic culture for their occupation, fashioned the city-dwellers' traditional display of wealth and power through ornaments such as jewelry (in the case of women), or the intricately designed Somali dagger (toraay) in the case of men.

More information on the traditional carvings and jewelry of Somalia can be found in this article, written by Mary Jo Arnoldi and published by UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center in 2016.

There's also many examples of pre-historic and medieval construction, mainly burial compounds and houses similar to the ones built in Egypt. More information on their traditional architecture can be found here. Aspects of ancient Somali styles of architecture and art can be seen in the various civilizations that flourished in the are, particularly during the Mogadishan Golden Age and the Empire of Ajuuraan period (especially in the domain of architecture).

In modern times, the Somali that immigrated to the US have continued keeping their artistic expressions alive. This article shows an exhibition by six Somali artists.


The Somali have always regarded poetry as the pinnacle of their literary heritage, but that elegance in their poetic expression came through singing in folklore dances. Before the arrival of the Arabian oud, the Somali people were trained in the sounds of African rhythms. Known as 'the Nation of Bards', the people found expression through rhythm and rhyme in dance and singing. This rich musical heritage centered on traditional folklore.

Somali songs are pentatonic. That is, they only use five pitches per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale. At first listen, Somali music might be mistaken for the sounds of nearby regions such as Ethiopia, Sudan or the Arabian peninsula, but it is ultimately recognizable by its own unique tunes and styles. Somali songs are usually the product of collaboration between lyricists (lahamiste), songwriters (abwaan), and vocalists (odka or "voice"). The Somali word for dance is ciyaar.

Traditional instruments featured in their music include the oud lute (kaban). It is often accompanied by small drums and a reed flute in the background. However, heavy percussion and metallic sounds are uncommon. The riverine and coastal areas of Somalia use a wide variety of traditional instruments including: Membranophones: nasaro, mokhoddon and masoondhe (high and heavy drums), reeme, jabbu and yoome (small drums); Aerophones: malkad and siinbaar (flutes), sumaari (double clarinet), fuugwo (trumpet) buun, muufe and gees-goodir (horns); Idiophones: shagal (metal clappers), shanbaal (wooden clappers), shunuuf (vegetable ankle rattles), tenegyo (xylophone); and Chordophones: shareero (lyre), kinaandha (lute), madhuube (thumb piano), seese (one-chord violin).

Somali popular music began with the balwo style, pioneered by Abdi Sinimo, who rose to fame in the early 1940s.[6][7] This new genre then in turn created the Heelo style of Somali music. Abdi's innovation and passion for music revolutionized Somali music at the time.

The introduction of melody in modern Somali song is credited to Abdullahi Qarshe, who is known for introducing the kaban (oud) as an accompaniment to Somali music. Qarshe is revered by Somalis as the "father of Somali music".

Many qaraami songs from this era are still extremely popular today. This musical style is mostly played on the kaban (oud). Prominent Somali kaban players of the 1950s include Ali Feiruz and Mohamed Nahari.

During fascist Somalia, music was suppressed except for a small amount of officially sanctioned music. There were many protest songs produced during this period, pioneered by the people of Somaliland who were trying to separate and gain independence from the totalitarian government of Somalia to create their own stable, peaceful government.

Bands such as Waaberi and Horseed have gained a small following outside of the country. Others, like Ahmed Ali Egal, Maryam Mursal and Waayaha Cusub have fused traditional Somali music with pop, rock and roll, bossa nova, jazz, and other modern influences.

Music recorded in the 1970s was preserved in Hargeisa, buried underground, and is now available at the Red Sea Foundation at the Hargeisa Cultural Center, and in Radio Hargeisa. The Barre dictatorial regime effectively nationalized the music scene, with bands and production under state control. Bands were operated by the police, the army and the national penitentiary. Most musicians had left the country before 1991.

Female singers were encouraged more than was the case in most of East Africa. Singing is not only an integral part of daily life for Somali women but also a medium through which they can express their grievances and criticize paternalistic social norms that have solidified men’s hegemony over women and limited their social participation to certain stereotyped roles.

From a mother’s lullabies to work songs, folkloric dance lyrics and the famous buraanbur genre, Somali women’s sung poetry conveys messages and stories about their status in society. Somali women refused to be bystanders in the debate for social change. They led an awareness campaign through their sung poetry to engender the kind of social reform they aspired to achieve. Polygamy is another topic that Somali women frequently criticize in their sung poetry. They do not miss the opportunity to criticize the social norms that pigeonhole them into certain roles, or to express their opinion about how they want things to be. With children’s lullabies, Somali mothers entertained and soothed their babies while working. The mother did not only sing to her children for the sake of entertainment or to lull them to sleep; in a patriarchal society, they also teach their children about the merits of their ancestry and shares with them her future dreams for their life.

When the Somali government collapsed in 1991, female artists fled the country in droves, while those who remained in the homeland stopped singing after radical groups such as Al-Shabab took control in 2009. The daring few who remained behind and attempted to practice some form of music were heavily punished. Concerts were banned and even male musicians turned away from performances and towards religious conservatism.

Somali women’s role in the preservation of music and singing has also been safeguarded by wedding ceremonies both in Somalia and abroad. Weddings, traditionally, were cultural spaces where women and men performed dances and sang together, but as Somali society turned more conservative through the years, men and women became segregated during wedding ceremonies. As a response, women made their parties as boisterous as they could, with lots of music and dance.

A podcast about the history of modern Somali music can be found here.

Cinema of Somalia

The cinema of Somalia refers to the film industry in Somalia. The earliest forms of public film display in the country were Italian newsreels of key events during the colonial period. In 1937 the film Sentinels of Bronze (awarded in the Venice Film Festival) was produced in Ogaden Somalia, with nearly all Somali actors.

Growing out of the Somali people's rich storytelling tradition, the first few feature-length Somali films and cinematic festivals emerged in the early 1960s, immediately after independence. Following the creation of the Somali Film Agency (SFA) regulatory body in 1975, the local film scene began to expand rapidly.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, popular musicals known as riwaayado were the main driving force behind the Somali movie industry. Epic and period films as well as international co-productions followed suit, facilitated by the proliferation of video technology and national television networks.

In the 1990s and 2000s, a new wave of more entertainment-oriented movies emerged. Referred to as Somaliwood, this upstart, youth-based cinematic movement has energized the Somali film industry and in the process introduced innovative storylines, marketing strategies and production techniques. More information on this group located in Ohio, can be found in their wikipedia page.

For more information on the Somali Culture, visit the Somali Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Stay tuned for more information on New Americans, and more places and their people in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.

Next week: The Afghani people.


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