Written By: Abdirahman Ahmed Shunuuf, Mohamed Ahmed Shunuuf and Mohamoud Ahmed Shunuuf
Faisel Omer, is surrounded by musicians and singers in a smoky house in Saudi Arabia. In one of the rooms of the house is turned into a studio of sorts. It is in 1984, less than four
years before he leaves Saudi Arabia for good, and finds himself in the middle of the Civil war in Somalia, and the program is to record what many Somaliland music critics call the best Somaliland tape ever to be recorded.
In the daunting company of Somaliland music icon and king of “Oud”, Xudaydi”, Faisel has the presence of symphony conductor. Listening to that long ago cassette tape, one gets
the impression that he had not been a Somaliland singer of incalculable influence and a legend of his own time; Faisel would have found some other way of changing the world. The 56-year-old singer/song writer/composer/teacher and poet, is by Somaliland standards the indisputable male vocalist alive!
Much has been said about Faisel’s love to “Shamis”, the woman who inspired his songs and poetry, which incidentally transformed him into a folk hero, a legend and mythic figure of enormous popularity both among the young and the old, women and men of Somaliland. This true, but rather exaggerated account has perhaps distracted people from his art. But in the four decades since Faisel’s first song, he has come to represent the essence of the music: its beauty, its richness and yes, it’s danger. His hauntingly sensual voice could transform even the most ephemeral Somaliland song, for instance, a song called “intii aan ku baryaayey”, sung by Abdillahi “sooraan”, was later sung by Faisel, and no one believes it is the same song, the voice made it into a work of overwhelming emotion.
Unlike most Somaliland singers, Faisel is considered better than those in the Bandstand. The only musician of equal stature is “Xudaydi”, who when they play together literally
transforms the “Oud”, sound into Faisel’s voice. Faisel is praised by many as the definitive modern Somali singer, after whom most Somali singing styles, since “Qaraami” in the fifties have been fashioned. He is without a doubt the best singer alive, after Mohamed Mogeh. True, he has his rivals, Mohamed Ahmed, Mohamed suleymaan, Ahmed Ali “Drum”; but Faisel has a way of touching listeners and of interacting with musicians, as if, he is simply another instrument. His hands, mouth, fingers, palms and feet make sounds that are close imitations of rhythmic percussions.
In a Faisel performance, lyrics and music are interwoven and intertwined in his voice. When he sings “Subcis”, for instance, it is all but impossible to imagine a more affecting rendering. In creating his distinctive style, he built upon,
(1) The works of Abdillahi Qarsheh, one of the foremost Somaliland Nationalist singers, which many people regard as the father of Somaliland song and music,
(2) His close Sudanese, “Nubian” national singers and musicians i.e., Mohamed Wardi, and Mohamed Al-Amin.
Like Wardi, Faisel could re-invent and improve upon the melody of a song. Not only did he evoke his raspy delivery, but he also shared his habit of lagging behind the rhythm, only to
rush ahead without warning. From Wardi and Al-Amin, Faisel borrowed an instinct for the Sudanese/”Nubian” style, and performs Sudanese/Nubian tunes to this day. His recordings must have one or two “Nubian” songs or it would not be complete. Finally, Faisels fluid singing exudes longing and melancholy.
Faisel was born in 1945, to Omer Mushteeg and Amina Mohamed Bulxan. Both his parents were respectable community members in the city of Hargeisa, Somaliland. Amina’s father was the great Berbera poet and chief of Somaliland, during the late 19c and the beginning of the 20c, Mohamed “Bulxan”, who coined the famous Somaliland poem “Abtirsiimada Guud baa loo Golaaf tamayaa” or “people are fighting for their family tree”. He also composed great number of poems, such as the one we have in here called ” Dal-dhameeye”, meaning around the world.You can read that poem in Somali in this page Dal-dhameeye.
He finished his grade school at Sheekh Bashiir Elementary School in Hargeisa, Somaliland, where he had the opportunity to be taught by such great teachers and world famous people. Late Sheekh Ali Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar who has written many books and Arabic and Omer Arteh Qaalib, who became a foreign minister of what, were once known as “Somalia”. He later went to a boarding school in Amoud, which is located thirty-five miles northwest of Hargeisa, Somaliland.
He finished both his intermediate and teacher training at Amoud. Again, he had the good fortune obeying taught by such teachers as Sheekh Yuusuf Sh Ali Gurey, the 1982-83 President of Somali National movement and Mohamed Ali “Sheef”, who became an Ambassador.
As a teenager, his peers knew Faisel as a talented singer. But it was not until he finished school that he was discovered by the then- Minister of Education, Yuusuf Ismail Samater “Ghandhi”. “Gandhi” took him to the then capital city of Somalia, Mogadishu. One night, “Ghandi” threw a party in order to show off to his friends this wonder kid, who could sing like no one else. The Sudanese Ambassador who was present at the party heard him sing “Sudanese/Nubian” songs and could not believe his ears. He offered Faisel an opportunity to go to Sudan and study there. But upon hearing he would have to wait another six months in Mogadishu before he can go, Faisel declined the offer and headed back to Hargeisa.
Faisel didn’t want to leave yet because he fell in love with Shamis while he was in school at Amuud. What he did not know at the time was Shamis would become his lifelong love and
the only woman he loves to this day. With a collection of Mohamed Wardi and Al-Amine songs that were given to him as a gift from the Sudanese Ambassador, Faisel got a job as a
teacher in Arabsiyo ten miles from Hargeisa.
Most Productive Years: 1960 – 1974
From early 60’s to early 70’s, Faisel recorded quite a number of excellent tapes; for instance, he recorded his most famous song “subcis”, three times. Those years were also the most productive years of his life. The songs he recorded at the time always displayed a cool hallucinatory appreciation of Somaliland music and song. On stage, he had a visually
spellbinding presence equivalent to a James Brown or Miles Davis concert. This period is also characterized by many Somaliland music critics, as the “Golden Age of Somaliland
music and song”.
The group that was in the forefront or the Vanguard was called “Barkhad Cas”. This group in which Faisel was a member, included almost all of Somaliland’s best and brightest singers and musicians. The group was combined of a nine man and a one-woman dynamo that played for huge, adoring crowds, in national theaters and clubs across the country. The group included singers, such as; Mohamed Mogeh, Ahmed Mogeh, Abdullah Zag Zag, Xodeydeh, Abdi-Qays, Cabdirahmaan Hassan, Ahmed Ali “Drum”, Ahmed Mohamed Good “Shimber”, Faisel Qamar Mushteeg and last, but not least, Sahara Siyaad. Sahara Siyaad is considered by many Somaliland singers and musicians as one of the top female singers of all time.
During one of their tours across the country in 1971, which was the last tour of the group. Faisel and his co-stars enticed the crowds with a mixture of songs, poetry and romantic
ballads. When the group pulled into a small town, it was big news. Teenagers and music lovers of all ages would race through the dusty streets, spreading the word, though the group was named after the late nationalist poet and playwright, Moxamed Ismail Barked Cas, the government of Siyaad Bare, the brutal dictator from 1969-1991, considered the group subversive, but the group never paid attention. Faisel’s sense of humor, winning smile and buttery smooth voice was always visible. His demeanor, which was both humble and dignified on stage, won the group friends and disarmed their toes.
During the next couple of years “Barkhad Cas” performed many times together by recording tapes that had become collector items by Somaliland music lovers.
However, government interference and intrusion was becoming more viscous every day.
To Faisel it was time to move on. By 1973, both Abdi Qays and Mohamed Ibrahim Hadraawi were in prison for composing what Siyaad Bare, called anti-governmental songs. Faisel knew it was a matter of time before they came to him as they did for Mohamed Mogeh. He decided to migrate to Saudi Arabia in 1974.
Artist in Transition: 1974 – 1988
Faisel left Somaliland in 1974. He came to Saudi Arabia where he stayed for 14 years. Faisel never intended to stay in Saudi Arabia that long and showed his distaste and dislike to their rigid interpretation of Quranic texts. But Faisel did not stop making music, because Somaliland culture was always in his mind. When we use the word ‘culture’ he says, “we are not referring to something wedded to the past, but to the living, breathing everyday culture of Somaliland music and song that welcomed even actively pursues the creation of new musical styles that is based on our heritage and history”.
Having said this, Faisel’s songs and creative energies can be traced to a distinctive style and gen. He is never willing to stake out styles allegiances and is not likely to go anywhere the musician is going to take him, unless the musician “Xudaydi”, or to a lesser extent Abdi Nasser Macalin Aideed, another “Oud” player. He has a strong commitment to rigid issues of Somaliland style and genre. But when it comes to “Nubian” music, Faisel has an innate ability to hear connections, and to make these connections apparent through his music and song. You can hear this style through some of his songs.
But if you want to hear Faisel and “Xudaydi” in action, you must find the tape they recorded during Faisel’s long stay in Saudi Arabia, which we have mentioned in the introduction. This was quite a historic tape. It was well recorded and noteworthy for “Xudaydi’s loose-limped, spacey oud, and Faysal’s clapping, humming, drumming, chanting, exhilarating, moving and down home blues, Louis Armstrong like voice. In the tape, Faisel plays with his old friend and co-singer, musician, Ahmed Ali Drum. He performed older work that he has played only rarely or not at all since the 1960’s.
Included in the hour long set were his favorites, “Subcis”, Lacageey” and Riftoon”, all pieces from the 1960’s. They are also his most inward, enigmatic work, driven by tunes
punctuated by “Xudaydi” plucking, in a call and response fashion. In this recording, Faisel pulled off a glimpse of his genius and also, of what has become his most too familiar
signature, a rare show of strength and enthusiasm, working out brooding emotionally ridden improvisations.
On the other side of the tape, Ahmed Ali Drum”, ripped into pieces like “Weli Waa Caruuroo” and “Hurdo gamm’a ma Lado oo”. This tape shows a perfect balance between the singing and the oud on the one hand, a clear and un-oblivious vision both the singers and the oud player to let each other relax into their modes of provocation and discovery. This was a phenomenal performance by any standard.
By 1988, Faisel had enough of Saudi Arabia and its puritanical culture. Once more, it was time to leave, but this time, he decided to head home for good, come what might be!
War and Peace: 1988 – 2000
When Faisel arrived in Hargeisa, he was immediately embraced by the local artists. On the night of May 27, 1988, he was featured as the main attraction in a concert labeled as the
“concert of the century”, held at the National Theater. It was the happiest night of his life, for he was performing in front of his fans, after an absence of almost two decades. The
happiness did not last though, because it was the same night that the Somali National Movement (S.N.M.) stormed their way to the city center. The rest is history!
Faisel remembers that night clearly. What follows is a brief description of the events of that night and the following weeks. “Around two in the morning”, he says, “I was still awake
and dressed when the Somali National Movement stormed the military garrisons around the city and came in from the cold”.
He continues, “It was unbelievable”! I still cannot believe to this day, how a small guerrilla group, most of the urban youngsters could defeat the strongest Army in Africa, south of
the Sahara. Ethiopia with its one million standing army could not defeat them and was scared like hell of the Somali National Army. Faisel describing the strength of the Somali army said, “Hargeisa was the center of twenty thousand strong army, three
hundred or more tanks, mig fighter planes, South African mercenary pilots, not less than a thousand militia artillery guns, victory pioneer units, military police units, red berets
(Siyad Barre’s special body guard units), prison army units, Dhaber Jabinta Army Units, Hangash Army Units, Filly Foos Army Units, Western Liberation Army Units, Somali Salvation Army Units called, “Dhafoorqiiq”, Ogadeen Liberation Army Units, Oromo Liberation army Units, N.S.S. Army Units and other military Units, I cannot recall now”. He continues, “You know, Hargeisa was not a city, when you come to think about it, it was rather a military Base”.
“I could not go to sleep that night”, Faisel adds, “So I left my room with all my belongings early in the morning to check out the city. It was not clear who was in control of the
city. The S.N.M. gave the Somali government a knockout. It became apparent to me when I met some of my friends and my ex-students in the streets of Hargeisa. They were S.N.M.
GUIRRELLA warriors and I was happy to see so many of them alive. It was as if everyone I knew was an S.N.M. fighter”.
After a few days, he illustrates the defeated military government, who was not stationed in the airport unleashed artillery bombardment to the city and its inhabitants. They
also hired South Africa mercenary pilots, who were too keen to kill black people. Within a few days the rocker propelled grenades and the aerial bombardments leveled the city, forcing the lucky ones to flee to the border. Thousands of innocent children, women and elders who could not flee were killed. It was too much for me to watch so much death and destruction inflicted on innocent women and children. I decided to run for my life, leaving everything I owned behind. Faisel concludes, “It took me twenty-eight days of dodging bullets from both planes and people rugged mountains, thirst, thorns and thick bushes, empty plains with snakes and mosquitoes and man eating hyenas.
I must have weighted about two hundred pounds when I was performing on that eventful night, but by the time I reached the Ethiopian border, I weighed about one hundred
thirty pounds, a loss of seventy pounds in four weeks of hell on earth! I was just thankful to Allah that I was still alive! After a few months in the refugee camp in Ramaso Ethiopia, I
knew I could not wait for things to happen, so I joined the Somali National Movement. My weapon (music and song) was the only thing I knew how to do, in order to stir and awaken the masses, so that they could fight back against the genocidal military dictatorship of Somalia.
On May 18, 1991, the Somali National Movement liberated the northern part of Somali and declared it as an independent country with its own flag, national anthem, national assembly, internationally recognized borders. Since they north was colonized by Britain and had its own borders, standing army, police and independent judicial system. Faisel was one of the first S.N.M. fighters to come back to victorious to his homeland. As usual, Faisel began to make his music in a civilian life far removed from the ravages of civil war, death
Faisel recorded several new tapes with Abdi Nasser Macalan Aideed, who is incidentally a good Oud player. Faisel feels lucky, since two of his best friends and co-singer, Mohamed Mogeh and Ahmed Muhamed Good Shimber died during the liberation war and were not lucky to see a free Somaliland!
End of part one
Part II: Faisel’s Poetry and Song
Faisel is one of the most talented and gifted Somaliland singers alive. Besides being a teacher, a world class soccer player, an intellect of enormous capacity to recite both classical Somaliland poetry and classical Arabic poetry by heart, a singer of a huge following, a living legend who became part of the oral folklore of Somaliland traditions.
A mystic man who was taught at a young age by one of the foremost Somaliland “Sufi” scholars, Sheikl Ali Ibrahim”, and an accomplished poet who can be compared to classical
Somaliland poets, or, for that matter, classical Arab poets such as “Emir Al Qays”. His poetry goes back to when he was just a teenager.
Unlike other Somaliland poets, Faisel incorporates his poetry into his songs. Most of his poetry is about love, which many Somalilanders consider as Real love. It is no secret that Faisel fell in love with Shamis, his true and only love. When you ask him about marriage, he always points out, according to Abdi Nasser, a close friend and excellent oud player, of Faisel, that his one and only true love is Shamis, and if he could not marry her, he would remain a bachelor for life.
Abdi Nasser and Mohamed Ahmed “Busy”, another “Oud player and a colleague of Faisel’s, argue that most of the lyrics of the “Qarraami” songs, or the “oldies” were primarily Faisel’s. But they add, since he never takes credit for the lyrics, other people assign credit to some obscure artists. The writer of this article concurs with the two above mentioned artists’ assertions, since I reviewed an unpublished manuscript written by Faisel. He explained in his manuscripts some of his lyrics and shows without a doubt that it was his creations. Reading this manuscript led me to believe that most of the lyrics in the “Qaraami” or oldies were his own, since he describes when and where he was when he wrote some of those lyrics.
In the following pages we will attempt to translate some of Faisels lyrics and poetry.
“Timaha halaqeed haldhaa moodiyo
haybadaa wajigee hida u dhaladka
hubqaadkeedu hibasho igu reeb”
A rough translation of the above will be something like this;
Hair so soft like a bird’s feather,
face not spoiled by make-up since birth,
her dressing style left me longing!
Daganeey sida dooxa daad marayo
Daristii kaga taal labadaa dacaloo
dunyadii wali daaqin baad tahay
Hey cool girl! Like the water that flows through a river,
the grass singing from both sides of the shore and the
livestock did not eat,
yet to me, you are just like that.
Sidii cir ku hooray meel cosobloo
Cadcedi u soo baxdaad tahay
like the rain that pours into a green pasture,
and the sun coming out, to me, you are just like that.
Qod baad tahay meel qabow ka baxoo
Qajeel ubaxii dhammaan qariyo
Qacdii aan ku arkaan is qoonsadayo
Bal qabsoo waaban kuu qandhaysnahay
You are like a tree that grows in a temperate climate,
flowers covering from top to bottom.
I felt something special the moment I laid my eyes on you.
Honey, do you know that I love you!
Habeenyow dheeri waad idhibtoo
Dharaartaaduna iima kaa dhaantoo
Waa ii kala dhigantiin dhamaantiin
Oh long night! You give me so much pain,
the day does not treat me well either,
I feel miserable all the time.
Waan kula hadlaayaa waqtigan i hayow
Hadmaad anna ii hogaansami?
Hey time! The one that is on me now. I am talking to you.
When are you going to obey me?
Cadceedan i haysa eey hadaloo
Hadmaan anna kaa hadh galayaa?
Hey sun! That is hovering over me,
speak up and tell me when am I going to find a shelter?
Lacageey ragga kala labaayaay
Liitaha gargaaray laqanna hoos u celiyaay
Hubka laysku laayaay
Lisaanka iyo dooday
Hadana lagama maarmaay
Taan anigu ku loofaray
Een hore u lumiyaay
hablow ladiba waaye lacageey
You divide people into two,
you help the poor and you bring down the rich,
you are woman’s desire.
You are the weapon that people fight with.
You are the tongue for those who want oratory.
But people still need you, you are the ever present victory!
Oh! The money I spent friviously and lost at the end.
Oh women! How many nights do I have to lose my sleep over it
Laysumaa daayo laba is doonaysoo
Dadkeenu waxyeeladuu doorbidaye
Ku doorataye may i dayaayaan
Hayaay Shamis sheekadiidii
They don’t leave two lovers alone,
our people love to create problems,
since you are the only one I desire.
Why can they not leave you alone?
Oh how I long for Shamis’ conversation!
Nasiibkaygiyay is nici mayanee
Intaad nabad joogto soo noqo
My lucky star, we will never fall out of love,
so come back to me in a healthy, good spirit.
I pray to Allah the merciful, the benevolent to bring you back
“Siiydeh” in good and healthy spirit.
Dawee qalbigaa i daxalaystoo
Hadalka i damqaaye iga daa
I am heart broken.
I can talk no more since it hurts to talk. Say nothing to me!
Sidii baxarasaaf ku yaala bustaan
ayuun baad hadba ii bidhaanta
Like a tall tree growing in a beautiful garden,
you just keep on shining to me!
Sidii geed ku yaal bankii giriyaad
Goonidu waa mid laygu talagaly
Like a love tree that grows in a vast empty space.
Is loneliness a thing that has been assigned to me?
Ciilkayga kola caashaq dayn mayo
Ciyaarta cid kale la garan mayo
Carsaanyo sigaarka hayla cabtee
Ciidiyo badda cagaha ii dhigga
Oh! Pity me! I will never fall out of love.
I know of no other dance partner like you.
Take me to the sandy beach,
so that crabs can smoke cigarettes with me.
Cusbiyo kama maarmo geelu carro
Cirkiyo uu ogyahay halkii cosob lee
ceeb maaha hadaan ku caashaqayay
Cidliyo haygu tuurin ciirsi la
Camels cannot live without grass and salt,
camels know the places with abundant water and vegetation.
It is not such a bad idea; I fell in love with you.
Don’t throw me into the empty wilderness.
Faisel has been touching the soul of music lovers for nearly four decades, thanks to his warm songs that celebrate romance and love. With no vain desire or dreams of earthly glory and money or status, he keeps onward to explore through poetry and song, far extending realms of music, with the hope of aiding others to fall-in-love. In an interview for this article, Faisel says, “I just tell it like it is in my lyrics of my songs; even when love is not happy and most often it is sad anyway.
Instead of trying to contemplate what people might say about my song, I just sing from my heart. Most often, my best lyrics come to me when I am singing. And you know, I believe that is what touches people; people know it is the truth, because it comes from deep inside me”.