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Monday, March 25, 2013

Immigrant’s 1980s Somali pop group enjoying unexpected revival


By  Kevin Joy
The Columbus Dispatch

Comeback thanks to African music campaign

Eric Albrecht | DISPATCH
Dur-Dur Band members Sahra Dawo and her husband, Abdinur Daljir, at their Global Mall shop in Columbus

In recent weeks, Columbus-based, Somali-born musician Abdinur Daljir has drawn press accolades more commonly bestowed on American rock stars.

Pitchfork, a picky and powerful music website, called his global pop “a superb glimpse of what was” and touted “synth lines and accent percussion that would sound at home on Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required.”

The Chicago Reader alternative weekly deemed his jubilant melodies “too good to ignore.”

And a Daljir song was named a “track of the week” in the culture pages of The Guardian in London.

Never mind that the 25-year-old material is mildly distorted from a lifetime on a warped cassette and sung in a foreign tongue.

Thanks to an unlikely listener, the vintage fare has found a new platform.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Daljir said between sips of lentil soup over lunch at African Paradise, a North Side restaurant serving the cuisine of his native Somalia.

“I used to be popular.”

His group, Dur-Dur Band, thrived in late-1980s Mogadishu — a time when, despite communist rule, the ocean-side capital bustled with art, music and literature.

Dur-Dur Band, Daljir said, means stream — “a stream of music, a stream of wisdom, a stream of lyrics; melodious voice.” It also reflects the title of a lengthy Somali poem.

Although most other musicians of the period spread politicized content as government employees, his crew maintained its independence — as “a bunch of young people who said, ‘Let’s form our own band.’  ”

They sang of “love and affection,” he said.

At its peak, the ensemble boasted 12 members — including Daljir’s wife, singer-pianist Sahra Dawo — and traveled to festivals in Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

As their country fell into chaos in 1991 amid a civil war — in 1993, it was the site of a deadly U.S. military intervention, depicted in the film Black Hawk Down — Dur-Dur players fled to Ethiopia before scattering. Two have since died.

Daljir and his wife had intended to return to a peaceful Somalia, but “We spent 12 years waiting for that,” he said.

Both immigrated in 2004 to join relatives in Columbus, where they operate a music store in the North Side international marketplace known as Global Mall.

Somalis in central Ohio are aware of Dur-Dur Band’s one-time celebrity.“Back in the day, they were as big as Michael Jackson,” said a barber who has a shop in the same complex.

The couple still performs occasionally but not in the grand hotels and soccer stadiums of the past. Music fuels a hobby, not a paycheck.

A big boost came recently from Brian Shimkovitz, a Chicago native who, during Fulbright studies a decade ago in Ghana, took a shine to foreign sounds. Many of them — Daljir’s work included — had been relegated to castoff cassettes.

That led to Awesome Tapes From Africa, a label and blog that Shimkovitz, 32, runs from Berlin.

On Tuesday, the label rereleased the 1987 Dur-Dur Band effort, Vol. 5, on iTunes and Amazon. com. True to the album’s humble origins, a limited-edition cassette is also available.

“This just seemed really funky and really interesting,” said Shimkovitz, who once worked for a New York publicity company that includes Bjork and the Black Keys among its clients.“I want to see these artists have a chance to tour and build their audiences.”

But finding Daljir wasn’t easy.

Shimkovitz scoured the Web to find journalists and Somalis connected to the musician, who seemed to have dropped off the radar. The search ended with Jibril Mohamed in central Ohio.

Mohamed, an Ohio State University lecturer and the leader of the Somali Community Access Network in Columbus, didn’t know Daljir but was familiar with him and the group.

“Their music has stayed alive,” said Mohamed, who helped the parties connect.
Shimkovitz and Daljir will split 50-50 any Dur-Dur Band sales.

From Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning Graceland and the indie jangle of Vampire Weekend to Somali-born hip-hop songwriter K’N aan, African sounds have experienced successful crossovers. And, with the Internet broadening tastes, Shimkovitz sees potential.

“People are going farther and farther from the typical pop music,” he said.

Daljir, who declined to give his age, is planning more original material and a Dur-Dur Band reunion concert, to take place in May in London.

Also bolstering his spirits is the situation in his homeland: “the most promising time,” he called it.

In January, the United States formally recognized the Somali government — for the first time in more than two decades — because of the newly elected president and parliament.

Combined with potential new gigs, Daljir thinks the moment is prime for an encore.

“The goal of us being in music was to take Somali music to the global level,” he said. “The fact that it’s being recognized and it’s moving up the chain, that’s a very encouraging sign that we have done something good.”

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