Midnimo, the Somali word for “unity,” is a program that features Somali artists from Minnesota and around the world in multi-week residencies and events that engage Somali immigrants with the arts and increase understanding of Somali culture through music. Midnimo is reviving and preserving Somalia’s rich musical traditions while fostering social connections between generations and cultures in the heart of the largest Somali diaspora in North America.
Somalia’s rich musical history stretches back hundreds of years, mixing ancient Somali folklore and poetry with instrumentation and musical elements shared with other Islamic, Arab, and African traditions. As an oral, nomadic culture, the emphasis of music was, and continues to be, on the lyrics; poetic verses that carry meanings often much deeper than the words themselves. Often called the Nation of Poets, the poetic verse was the heart of daily life. Poets and singers were leaders and highly sought after mentors who put great emphasis on sharing their skills and knowledge of the art form with the next generation.
Throughout the centuries, poets and musicians played a role in revolution, protesting corrupt local and colonial powers. Many faced jail and exile. In the wake of independence from British and Italian rule in 1960, the newly-established government recognized the power of artists’ voices and formed several government-supported music and dance troupes to forge its national vision. Among them was Waaberi Group. Waaberi, meaning “dawn,” featured the most talented singers, musicians, and dancers in the country. Singers performed with live instrumentation, especially rhythm instruments and the Somali stringed oud. To be accepted into Waaberi was a high honor. With more than 300 members over its 30 year existence, the group was a source of national pride and toured the world multiple times.
The 70s and 80s were an especially fertile and innovative period in the history of Somali music. The global rise of funk and disco brought in horns, guitars, and keyboards for a funky, pop sound, giving rise to a booming scene with groups like Dur-Dur Band becoming underground stars in night clubs in Mogadishu and Hargeisa. Despite these influences, Somali music remained uniquely its own, with a continued emphasis on poetic lyrics and deep roots in traditional musical forms. Dhaanto, an ancient song-dance adopted and practiced on horseback by Somali Dervish soldiers in the 20th century, has since emerged and remained popular in contemporary music. The beats, which many believe to have influenced reggae, bring crowds to their feet. Qaraami, a style that developed in the 40s, is still going strong. Known for telling stories, often about love, these ballad-like tunes are based in the familiar pentatonic scale, and are often referred to as “Somali jazz.” A number of traditional instruments, namely the reeme (roaring drum), shagal (metal hoe-blades), shunuuf (ankle rattles), shambal (wooden clappers), malkad (flute), and sumaari (double clarinet), while often reproduced on keyboard, are sounds that continue to shape Somali music today.
As political instability increased in Somalia, artists’ lives were among the first to be impacted. As vocal leaders who often spoke out against corruption and oppression, their lives were in danger and their work was censored. Civil war broke out in 1991. Groups disbanded and artists fled. Instruments and recordings were looted, and much of the country’s live music traditions were nearly destroyed. Many of the world’s most prominent Somali artists are now based in other areas of Africa, the United States, Canada, the UK, and across Scandinavia, where some have worked to rebuild their careers from scratch. In the international diaspora, most Somali singers work with Somali producers to create electronic backing tracks that they take on tour or to perform weddings and cultural events. There are very few live Somali bands anywhere in the world. But that hasn’t detracted from the star power that these artists hold.
While a couple of Somali artists, namely London-based artists Aar Maanta and Maryan Mursal, are recognized by the larger global music industry, most are finding a way to thrive outside of it. The emergence of YouTube in the early 2000s has created a platform for these artists to share their music publicly, freely, and throughout the world, without the need for a market-based industry to record and distribute their work. Somali artists frequently collaborate across seas. Many artists forgo albums to release singles through videos on YouTube and independently promote their work through social media channels. The most popular artists’ videos receive hundreds of thousands of views practically overnight. Many artists sustain their professional lives through touring and performances, most often in suburban hotels where Somali cultural and entertainment events take place throughout the world.
Midnimo, the Somali word for “unity,” is a program that brings these international stars to Minnesota for residencies and events that increase understanding of Somali culture through music. Launched in Minneapolis in 2014 by The Cedar and Augsburg College, the program has now grown throughout the state in partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato Department of Music Performance Series, St. Cloud State University, and The Paramount Center for the Arts in St. Cloud.
Through Midnimo, The Cedar works with Somali artists to build full live bands for residencies by working with local musicians and flying in Somali musicians from different parts of the world. Support artists for the residencies have included Bob’s Band, a group of students and alumni from Augsburg College led by Augsburg Music Chair Emeritus, Bob Stacke; Somali artists Abdulwahab Nagi, Hassan Cujeri, and Minnesota-based Somali percussionists Harbi and Samatar Said Salah; along with a host of local musicians led by deVon Gray. Augsburg alumni Steve Herzog has transcribed dozens of Somali tunes into lead sheets for the supporting musicians.
Midnimo residencies are several weeks long, and include discussions, workshops, education programs, campus collaborations, community-based activities that engage K-12 schools, college classrooms, community centers, health centers, and other local venues, building intercultural unity and understanding throughout Minnesota. Each residency culminates in a finale performance in Minneapolis, Mankato, and St. Cloud.
Midnimo is supported by: