New York, USA (AfroPop) May 1st, 2009
Aar Maanta is a Somali musician based in London, England. Aar’s music is an eclectic mix of classical Somali sound featuring the oud (pear shaped, paired-stringed lute), and blending hip hop, pop, and dance music. But it is Aar’s voice that captivates the listener. Almost Middle Eastern in feel, his singing has a range and ease that is impressive. Somalia is known for its great vocalists, such as the remarkable Maryam Mursal. Aar carries on that strong vocal tradition, while fluidly incorporating a range of musical styles in his music. Known as “the voice of our generation” by young Somalis living in Britain, Aar has the courage to speak out about issues impacting his people at a time when his country is experiencing heightened conflict. In a recent telephone conversation, Dorothy Johnson-Laird spoke with Aar about his life, his music, and his debut CD Hiddo & Dhaqan, (released in March 2009 on Maanta music. His CD can be purchased at http://cdbaby.com/cd/aarmaanta).
Dorothy Johnson-Laird: Let’s talk a bit about your background. Did you come from a musical family? How did you get interested in music?
Aar Maanta: I don’t come from a musical family, but I’ve always been interested in music. In Somalia it was a part of everyday life. During the time I was growing up, there were a lot of theater groups with new plays, and out of those plays were produced a lot of popular songs that were heard over the radio. In the 80’s there was civil war in Somalia, but I was able to leave.
D.J.L.: So that’s when you came to England?
A.M.: Yes, my uncle sponsored me. But I was left to fend for myself.
D.J.L.: So when you came to England in the 80s, were you inspired by any music there at that time?
A.M.: Yes, pop was the main thing. Of course there were the big artists like Michael Jackson and George Michael. There was the house music scene, soul, modern r & b music, and post punk.
D.J.L.: So you tried to be open to all music at that time?
A.M.: Yes, then and now. I embrace all music. At that time, I was alone, in a new place, a new culture. So I looked to music as a comfort. Other people turned to sports or drugs. But I turned to music to deal with my pain.
D.J.L.: It was healing for you?
A.M.: Yes, that was the word I was looking for. It had a healing capacity, exactly.
D.J.L.: And had you studied music formally?
A.M.: Yes, in school, later in University for a while. Then I stopped for a time. Outside pressures. But as with anything you like, you have to go back to it.
D.J.L.: When I listen to the new CD, your singing is at the center of the music. It is hypnotic in feel. You make it seem effortless, tell me about that voice!
A.M.: I actually started singing by accident. I was involved in a lot of music production, behind the scenes. In fact, I was producing someone on stage, and just as I was announcing him, he left the stage because he thought that he wasn’t being paid enough. Someone suggested I step in to replace him and sing. I started singing that night and I have been singing ever since.
D.J.L.: When was that?
A.M.: About eight years ago. And since then, I have been doing a lot of work independently: composing, recording and producing my own music. I am fortunate in that I have my own studio. My studio is basically in my living room, it’s right here.
D.L.J.: What are the instruments that you play?
A.M.: Well, first is keyboard, and then oud, which you know is an Arabic and North African instrument, and percussion.
D.J.L.: A Western audience may know very little about Somali music. Can you talk to us a bit about it?
AM: Historically, Somalia is known for its poetry, dance, and folklore. Of course there are a lot of different styles and influences, from the nearby Arabic culture, to Indian culture. It has a lot in common with North African music. Some of my music is inspired by the Classical tradition. Qaraami, for example, is a classic form of Somalian music that is featured on Uur Hooyo on my CD.
Qaraami was a musical movement started in the 1940’s, and that is the origin of many of Somalia’s better known songs. Qaraami means “love songs” in Arabic. It is about the interplay between the oud musician, the percussionist, and the singers. It’s a musical exchange.
D.J.L.: There’s much more of a percussive sound on your song “Uur Hooyo.” There’s a real exchange between you the male singer and the female singers or the chorus. It is slower, more contemplative in feel.?
A.M.: On that track I featured Ahmed Ismail Hussein (Hodeide) who is a legendary composer and musician in the Qaraami form of music.
D.J.L.: How did you meet Hodeide?
A.M.: We met at an event, and ever since he has been teaching me to play the oud. He is a revered musician in Somalia. Then we decided to record a track for the new CD together. “Uur Hooyo” is an old song Hodeide composed for his brother that we remade.
D.J.L.: So were you excited to learn instruments such as oud from the Classical tradition of Somalian music?
A.M.: Yes, the older I become, the more I can appreciate the roots of this music. I am actually more comfortable and more happy playing the traditionally inspired sound.
D.J.L.: But what I like about the CD is it easily embraces the classical Somali sound and then moves into a track that is much more modern in feel, for example hip hop. Could you talk about that?
A.M.: Yes, it is kind of a reflection of everything I have enjoyed listening to in life, from being a child in Somalia, to when I went clubbing in England as a younger man. It’s kind of a fusion of everything I enjoyed listening to—that’s why I recorded it. There was also a time when I could not sleep. For several years I had insomnia, and you hear things during those hours that you would not normally hear, the ambulance, the police sirens, bird song. These sounds are all on the track “Maseexdo” on the CD.
D.J.L.: There’s an openness about the music, a sense that you really do embrace all the sounds that you love. So, part of the reason you recorded this CD was because you wanted to be innovative while still basing part of the music in Somalian tradition?
A.M.: Yes, exactly. There are a lot of divisions in Somali culture, so my music talks about issues facing all Somalians. This CD talks about prostitution, which is hidden in our culture—it is just not talked about. But I also try to stay positive in my music, to uplift people who are in strife. I want to unify and bring people together. Not only Somalians, but I want Africa to unite and Africans throughout the world to unite. I want Africans to live in peace without war or any difficulties.
D.J.L.: In fact, I read that you wrote, “However, when almost every song on every Somali album that came out since 1991 has been a pirated song, something has seriously gone wrong with our art.” You are frustrated by the music coming from some Somalian artists?
A.M.: Yes, some are rerecording the same classic songs. These are all love songs, at a time when Somalia is in conflict. This is not new and relevant. In my music, I try to relate to and address current issues.
D.J.L.: And part of the message of the CD is also about your understanding of Islam.
A.M.: I am putting forth a positive image of Islam. Of course, there are radicals in any religion. But Islam to me is a religion of tolerance, protecting mankind, humankind. There have been demonstrations here in England, extremists who are attacking me because I am Muslim and doing music. They say it is against the Quran. Some people have tried to prevent others from seeing my music. But I use those attacks as a tool to write more music.
D.J.L.: Can you talk a bit about how you write music? I read on a blog you wrote that you went to visit a sister in Canada, whom you had not seen in a long time, and wrote a poem about the experience that you then put to music. So what is your musical process?
A.M.: Sometimes something happens to me or to one of my friends and I write about it. I have written a few poems and I like playing with words in my songs, but I don’t know if that qualifies me as a poet! I will let you decide on that one.
D.J.L.: I think you are really a poet at heart.
A.M.: If you say so, but it might work the other way around. I record a melody and then put lyrics to it. There isn’t one particular way that I stick to. There is no formula.
D.J.L.: Let’s talk more about the CD. “Asalamu Alaykum” is the opening track. You repeat the words “Asalamu Alaykum” throughout the song, and these words become a kind of chant, staying with the listener. “Asalamu Alaykum” has the simple sound of pop, with a steady drum beat, a keyboard and your voice. But you seem to be making a commentary on Somali life. Is it also autobiographical?
A.M.: Yes, that’s right. I am talking about how I am from the horn of Africa, from a nomadic lifestyle. But I am also talking about how there is a lot of judgment in our community from mothers who judge their children while they themselves still go out partying. By saying “Asalamu Alaykum,” I am saying peace be with the people no matter what they do with their lives or how they chose to live.
D.J.L.: So the song is about not judging other people?
A.M.: Yes, exactly.
D.J.L.: On “Hanaanka,” the music flows easily between your singing in Somali and the hip hop part, which is spoken in English. These are two very different sounding voices: almost like two different poetic takes on love. But the music really works.
A.M.: Yes, “Hanaanka” is a word in Somalia with many meanings, talking about how a person looks, talks, even smells. It’s about meeting a girl and hoping to take her back home to my family, to introduce her to them, so she can introduce me to her family. It’s a positive song. I also featured some Somalian rappers based in the US, the group, Nomadic Status.
D.J.L.: And in “Home,” You write, “I left home, but home never left my heart.” This is a song about Somalia?
A.M.: Yes, I would lie awake at night and always felt something was missing inside. I was missing my family, the way the ocean smelled in Somalia, how the rain would fall hard. It is a close, personal song.
D.J.L.: The music is interesting, not only because it works with different genres, but because it moves from the very personal to a more societal statement as in the title track, “Hiddo & Dhaqan.” Talk to us about this track.?
A.M.: “Hiddo & Dhaqan,” these words mean culture and tradition in Somali. Unfortunately, because of war, Somalian people have adopted some negative ways, such as piracy. They have lost touch with their culture and tradition. The song has at its root a classical Somalian music called Dhaanto, which is also a dance, and the song talks about picking that dance up, raising it from the ground, from the ashes. The song is about dwelling in the positive, instead of dwelling in the negative.
D.J.L.: But someone might argue: what’s the point of making all this music with a positive message at a time when there is great conflict in Somalia? Does it really solve anything?
A.M.: I think art has a positive role to play, especially at certain times. People may not listen to the speeches of a politician, but music may be heard by more people, and if you have got through to even one person, you have made a difference with your message. No matter what happens in Somalia, I remain hopeful. I cannot give up; you have to keep moving forward.
Interview by Dorothy Johnson-Laird.
New York USA 2009.