I’m inspired and excited by music fanatics with very precisely defined specialties, whether in a specific style or a single region—they constantly seem to uncover sounds utterly new to me. Over the past couple decades, Africa has been the favored territory for a slew of such intrepid sleuths, and we’ve enjoyed a bounty of musical blessings thanks to the likes of Brian Shimkovitz, the Evanston native who runs Awesome Tapes From Africa; Tunisian-German crate digger Samy Ben Redjeb, the mastermind of Analog Africa; and Portland obsessive Christopher Kirkley, who’s focused a crucial lens on contemporary modes of pop-music transmission in Saharan Africa through his Sahel Sounds imprint.
I don’t know the folks behind relatively new New York label Ostinato Records, but over the past year they’ve made my ears stand up and take notice. The label’s output has reached a new apotheosis with a compilation called Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa, which comes out on Friday. It compiles 15 tracks from the years 1969 through 2002.
When most Americans think “Somalia,” they think of pirates or terrorists or Black Hawk Down, if they think of anything at all. But before the breakdown of the country in the early 1990s at the hands of clannish warlords, it thrived despite internal strife—in the late 60s it launched aggressive literacy programs, construction projects, and other infrastructure developments. Alas, those achievements have largely been erased. According to the voluminous liner notes in this new collection, a group of radio broadcasters and journalists saw the writing on the wall, and because they grasped the strategic value of Radio Hargeisa (the old state-run radio outlet, in what is now the capital city of Somaliland), they rescued and stashed some 10,000 cassettes from the station in 1988, correctly fearing that it would soon be demolished to knock out communication. They later established an archive to preserve them. Cassettes had been the dominant format for commercial releases in Africa since the 70s, thanks to their portability and affordability.
Almost all the material on the new compilation comes from that archive, and the murky fidelity leaves little doubt that it was remastered from cassettes. In my years of digging into African music, I’ve encountered very little from Somalia—apart from the occasional track posted by a specialist blog, the only release I own is a great title by the Dur Dur Band that was reissued five years ago by Awesome Tapes From Africa. (The Dur Dur Band also have a song on Sweet as Broken Dates.) The 15 tracks cover plenty of ground, but they’re mostly rooted in a strain of soul and funk inspired by pop music from nearby Sudan; fans of Ethiopian music will also hear similarities. Below you can check out one of collection’s best and most soulful jams, by Danan Hargeysa with Mohamed “Huro” Abdihashi. “Uur Hooyo (Mother’s Womb)” embroiders a shuffling, reggae-inflected groove with a cool, whistling synth line, and it’s today’s 12 O’Clock Track.
Mario Pavone, Vertical (Clean Feed)
Haiku String Trio, Beat Keller-Tom Johnson-Joseph Kudirka: String Trios (Edition Wandelweiser)
Olie Brice & Achim Kaufmann, Of Tides (Babel)
Virgínia Rodrigues, Mama Kalunga (Tratore)
Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto)