The Dur-Dur Group in Context – The Bowdoin Orient
Sliding through the blue midday heat of the Florida freeway, my brother behind the wheel asks me to play a song. I’ve never heard of her request before, but trusting her judgment, I look it up on my phone and add her to the queue. The next five and a half minutes are kind of a bit of a revelation to me. The track in question is “Gorof (Elixir)”, a summer-swept anthem by Dur-Dur Band, a Somali supergroup that rose to fame in the mid-1980s. As the music blares, I gaze out the window at the luminous sea and syncopated, the palm fronds scratching the sky, and I feel the urge to dance.
It’s not an uncommon feeling for those who listen to Dur-Dur Band; their music moves people. As Mogadishu’s first disco band, Dur-Dur Band filled every nightclub in the city, from the Juba Hotel to the Jazeera Palace, where Somalis in their 20s could rock their hips until dawn. Sun. With its seminal 1989 album “Volume 5” re-released in 2013, Dur-Dur Band’s music has only recently gained traction beyond its origins in the Horn of Africa. Mastered from a collection of old cassette tapes, the audio quality is hazy with age, but the youthful heart of their music remains. The aptly titled “Ilawad Cashaqa” – Somali for “move love with me” – is a fast ballad brimming with electricity, guitar stabs caressing the ear like a lover’s hand. Then there’s “Fagfagley,” a snarky, seductively up-tempo song that evokes the feeling of catching a stranger’s gaze from across the dance floor, then falling back into the crowd. The Dur-Dur Band’s most beloved song, “Dooyo”, is such a captivating call-and-response number that by public demand, the band would play it up to five times in a row. In an interview with NPR, lead singer Sahra Dawo testified to the frenzied fans. “People were singing and playing and dancing in a very crazy way to the point that some of them were falling to the ground,” she recalls.
The stunning groupies of the group Dur-Dur seemed to presage the fate of the Somali Democratic Republic (SDR) itself, which would collapse during the Somali civil war in 1991. Indeed, “Volume 5” is not just a record remarkable musical but a complex historical disc. as well as. Surviving tapes from the band’s first discography provide a snapshot of Mogadishu’s bustling nightlife, a static-shrouded archive of Somali culture. Performing during the last years of the SDR, the group emerged from an artistically fertile but increasingly totalitarian political regime. Hoping to cement a sense of pan-Somali pride, the SDR stressed the importance of restoring cultural roots. As a result, traditional Somali music re-emerged and began to mingle with other popular genres of the time. The result was a surprising meeting of different regional sensibilities: Rock and Roll meets Reer Marka; Jazz meets Jubaland; Bossa Nova meets Barawa. Many stylistic currents began to flow through the country, and Dur-Dur Band stood at the delta.
Despite this era of cultural effervescence, political tensions are rising. Amid the conflict with Ethiopia and internal dissent, the SDR had become highly militaristic, culminating in the Hargeisa Holocaust, a state-sponsored effort to eliminate the Isaaq people of northern Somalia, many of whom were fighting for independence. It was during this turbulent decade that Dur-Dur Band hit the stage. Because the SDR controlled Somalia’s national radio stations, the clubs were the main sites of the country’s musical development, offering bands a chance to improvise and audiences a place of respite from state jurisdiction. The hectic and frenetic days under military rule gave way to the ecstatic nocturnal performances of the Dur-Dur Band, where Mogadishu’s youth could shape the shapeless intensity of the country’s political climate. The group provided a crucial space for people to express their restlessness, to dig into their political frustrations, where they found joy among the grain.
Even though the band disbanded in 1991 with the SDR, there are still flickers of that joy in the existing Dur-Dur Band recordings. When the Somali Civil War began, members of the Dur-Dur Band scattered across East Africa, and later, the United States, but not before they could log on for a few hours in the studio. The surviving records are worth listening to not just for their place in Somalia’s rich sonic ecology or their irresistible rhythmic appeal, but also for their passion.
When I think back to my first hearing of the band, I’m struck by how little I knew about the dramatic political significance of the music. The coastline of Mogadishu thirty years ago is a far cry from the Gulf Coast of Florida today, but even so, I could feel something in the movement of the music – that deep, rumbling core of joy. Whether you come to them for the story or the sound, you’ll get a taste of that fervor – a feeling so powerful it could knock you down.