Somali-language anti-piracy song from last year

Obviously you read Jeffrey Gettleman’s story in the NY Times Magazine last week, “Taken by Pirates.” Perhaps you were curious about the music video he mentioned, put together by the Somali community in the UK to ask for the release of Rachel and Paul Chandler.

Abdiwali and some others at Universal TV then turned to Abdi Shire Jama, who was a freelance interpreter in London and a talented songwriter. Jama thought a music video would help spread the word, so he produced a song called “Release the Couple,” soon broadcast on Universal and YouTube. It begins with a Somali kid with a British accent saying, “I hope this message gets to the people who are responsible for holding Rachel and Paul Chandler.” Then, after a burst of synthetic drums and some squeaky Somali music, five Somali singers break into song.

“Our people fled their homes. . . . The host countries did not look at the color of our skins. . . . We need to show our debt to them, for it is the donkey who does not acknowledge the debt.”

Well, here’s the song. Interesting stuff.

Hat-tip AK.

Inspiration for K’naan’s “Fire in Freetown”

Someone just passed me this YouTube clip of what, according to the video notes and the unmistakable melody, is the inspiration for K’naan’s “Fire in Freetown,” one of my favorite songs on the Troubadour album. The original is very beautiful (is that an oud, walla shu?). According to an extremely cursory Google search, Fatima Abdillahi Mandeeq (various spellings) is a Somali folk singer. I am working my Somali contacts for a translation.

Update: Hat-tip SG in Nairobi

How badly has U.S. policy failed Somalia?

“The only people who care at all about Somalis are the people who are working out of mosques. But I’m told that if they’re working out of mosques, they’re bad guys.”

That’s the conundrum that Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet says a CIA desk officer related to him at a conference in Washington a decade ago. Despite that clear revelation in the rank and file of the intelligence community, the United States has spent the 2000s doing everything possible to disable the Islamists in Somalia–even if it meant propping up brutal warlords with no real vision for a Somali state.

Bulliet recalled the incident last night during the event “The Obama Administration and the Middle East”, co-sponsored by the Arab Student Association, Columbia University Amnesty International and several other groups. Panelists–even as they expressed their happiness at Obama’s election–gave a sobering analysis of the limited prospects for fast, fundamental change in American policies in the Middle East. (Other panelists included Columbia profs Gil Anidjar and Peter Awn, CUNY professor Amir al-Islam and ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi.) Continue reading

Music Break: “They Love K’naan in the Slums and in the Native Reservations”

I can’t wait until January. That’s when Somali-Canadian artist K’naan’s new album, Troubadour, drops. I haven’t been so excited by an album since Outkast came out with Aquemini in 1998. And this one is better.

I first saw K’naan in early September at Le Poisson Rouge in the village, and I’ve been hooked since. At that show, Mos Def appeared in the crowd at one point, and got on stage to perform this number with K’naan.

When Mos Def endorses something in the music world, you should probably pay attention. That night, K’naan had all of us not only paying attention but also singing along with the anthems he unleashed.

The other day, I finally had the chance to get a sneak preview of Troubador at the house of a friend who had a hook-up.  I was blown away. It’s a soulful, rousing, thought-provoking, witty and moving hour of classic joints. Dare I say it? OK, I will: Grammy 2010. If K’naan gets the kind of publicity he deserves, this will be a game-changing album, in a time when everyone is going back to the one-off single model on iTunes.

To understand the significance of K’naan’s music, you need to know a bit about his life story. Born in 1978, he grew up in Somalia and left on the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu in 1991, before the civil war descended into total chaos. In much of his music, he talks about the deaths of friends, violence and deprivation that characterized his youth. During that time, he listened to American rap music, memorizing lyrics before he knew what they meant. He’s been pursuing that passion ever since arriving in North America.

The pain and beauty of K’naan’s homeland resonate in all his music. In some songs, he samples old Ethiopian melodies, drops hip hop beats on them, weaves anti-violence rhymes through them, and links them with addictive, heart-tugging choruses. In the song “Somalia” — from which the title of this blog post comes — he sings:

What you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?
To never know a single day without a big commotion
It can’t be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion
And when I try to sleep, I see coffins closin’

(You can download that song for free on K’naan’s MySpace page)

K’naan obviously listens to a lot of music. His flow most closely resembles Eminem’s. But elsewhere, like when he says I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations/Creatin’ medication from my own tribulations on “Take a Minute”, he sounds just like 2Pac. And when he speaks at the end of the same song, he sounds like Mos Def: “Nothin’ is perfect man, that’s what the world is, all I know is, I’m enjoying today. Cuz it ain’t every day that you get to give.” Elsewhere, he sounds like John Lennon: I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

His subject matter is a long, refreshing drink of water in the desert of still-bling-obsessed, violence-celebrating mainstream rap. K’naan talks about family, the virtues of generosity, the immigrant experience, the scars of war and — in one of the best songs, “Fifteen Minutes Away” — the simple pleasure of a wire transfer back home. He can afford to laugh at gangster-posturing American rappers because, he sings, he has lived a ghetto harder than anything they can talk about. The song “Strugglin'” from his excellent first album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, showcases classic K’naan content, and his fusion of folk melodies with Hip Hop:

In the most moving song of all (and there are many on Troubador), a tune called “People Like Me,” K’naan sings a verse that I wish would come to define a new era in Hip Hop. In the first verse, a first-person poem reminiscent of Eminem’s “Stan”, but with more of an advocacy angle, K’naan takes on the voice of a soldier in Iraq. I made my friend let me write down the whole verse, and I’ll leave you with that:

Is it fair to say that I am stressing out?
I’m stationed in Iraq and they won’t let me out
My homie said I was stupid for even joining
My counselor said my decision was “disappointing”
Oh she had good slates (?) at state colleges
And with my good grades it wouldn’t have been a problem
But they don’t understand just the power of significance
More than brilliance and certainly more than dividends
And if you ask me now, Would I repeat it?
Would I fight in a war I don’t believe in?
Well the answer is, it’s not me where the cancer is
They’ve been doin’ this before Jesus of Nazareth
And after all this time it is still deadly hazardous
And Bush isn’t really bein’ all that inaccurate
When he says we winnin’ the war, ‘cuz it’s staggerin’
But that’s ‘cuz we’re killin’ everybody that we see
And most of us soldiers we can barely fall asleep
And time and time again, I’m feelin’ incompetent
‘Cuz my woman back home, we constantly arguin’
And I must be crazy, ‘cuz all I’m obsessin’ with
Is her MySpace and Facebook, and who’s commentin’
Swear to God if she’s cheatin’ I’m doin her ass in!

I could tell with one look
And it came to me, soundin’ somethin’ like a song hook:

Heaven, is there a chance that you could come down
And open doors to hurting people like me…

This Is How You Get Got

So apparently pirates now have spokespeople, and it turns out they’re pretty damn articulate.

This Times article made me think of the Mos Def song “Got”. I.e., this is what happens when you sail an “estimated $30 million worth of heavy weaponry” down the coast of one of the most beleaguered, ungoverned countries in the world. It gets gaffled.

Was the arms deal really part of a secret shipment to southern Sudan? Hopefully, we’ll find out.