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Dur-Dur Band - Volume 5

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Artist: Dur-Dur Band

Album: Volume 5

Label: Awesome Tapes from Africa

Review date: Apr. 19, 2013

Somalia has long been one of those countries whose reputation in the West precedes it. Unfortunately, it’s almost never for the better: From the stiff Dervish resistance against British and Italian imperialists in the late 19th century continental scramble to Black Hawk Down and modern day Blackbeards in the Gulf of Aden that make Pirate Bay’s torrent junkies look like the petulant tweens they are, Somalia is rarely known for its positives if it’s known at all. Part of this can be attributed to generations of uninterrupted warfare spread across the last century and change that has long since erased the memory of a stable trading region, conflicts set off by the Berlin Conference and continuing through numerous regime changes, fascist and communist threats, decolonization and dictatorship. Part of it is laziness in knowing the convoluted history. What positives you usually hear or read about are framed politically with its strategic location near the Arabian Peninsula and on the cusp of the Indian Ocean; worse, you know it for uranium, natural gas, and a strong potential for oil; worst, you know it as being marginally less tumultuous than Sudan.

This neglect extends beyond politics. Take a good look at the outernational compilations and assorted African rarities you’ve bought or downloaded (from Pirate Bay, probably) in the decade since Soundway’s definitive Ghana Soundz. Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso – almost every one of them is from the other end of the continent. Even Brian Shimkovitz, he of the essential Awesome Tapes From Africa blog behind Dur-Dur Band’s Volume 5, has had comparatively less success bringing Somali sounds back from his numerous ethnomusicological excursions to the continent. Singles are still possible to find thanks to a significant Somali diaspora in London, Minneapolis and elsewhere, but finding a complete album that isn’t Jamiila’s Songs From a Somali City or a beat-up dub from another beat-up dub ad infinitum is well-nigh impossible.

Volume 5 is no exception since it, too, has been remastered from cassette. Still, this is a step in the right direction out of the blogging wilderness to give some institutional attention to a corner of the continent where extracting quality recordings has been notoriously difficult.

As its title implies, 1987’s Volume 5 captures Dur-Dur after they had already established themselves as one of the country’s most successful acts. Originally (and briefly) named Bakaaka, the group was formed in Mogadishu in the late 1970s after its members had spent time in the company of a similar but more experienced group, Iftin. As Dur-Dur Band, they honed a modern kind of Afro-pop that drew from Fela’s Afrobeat and early ’70s funk and soul, as well as traditional Arabic and Asian intonation in the singing – I’m reminded of a lot of past Sublime Frequencies comps on Iraq and Cambodia, for instance.

An extra element of intrigue is added by the vaguely psychedelic qualities of the guitar on a song like “Fagfagley” or the barely noticeable phasing in and out of channels on all of these tracks thanks to the quality of the source material. I hear at least two horns, guitar and bass, drums, and shared singing duties on Volume 5, but I’m sure there is more I’m still not picking up on even after a month of listening.

For those who can understand the lyrics, it’s worth noting that Dur-Dur eschewed the template of those artists typically funded by the government in avoiding political topics during their heyday (though that would change with a lineup revamp and official relocation to Ethiopia in the early 1990’s). Instead of getting pro-Siad Barre sloganeering, then, these songs mine personal grievances.

The balance between the male vocalists and Zahra Dawo (a popular artist in her own right who also worked with Iftin and others) makes for fascinating listening. There is significant echo on each track that makes this sound older than it is and which sometimes obscures the vocals (as on “Aada Fududey Iga Ahow”). My personal favorites are the ones Dawo leads — her high pitch is attention-grabbing and the echo only serves to boost her powerful voice. To that end, my favorite track here is finisher “Doyoo,” which rides what sounds like a drum machine beat before tripping you up in preparation for verses that Dawo dominates. Along with “Tajir Waa Ilaah,” it’s also the most obviously catchy.

In this day and age, nothing is too much of a mystery — you can find a lot of information on Somali music by just searching around, and even Shimkovitz admits Dur-Dur Band is no deep dig. Having a chat with band member Abdinur Dalji and Dawo herself isn’t impossible now that they live in Columbus. But from a place where the official government radio station has had to broadcast from an armed compound protected from its own and where Al-Shabaab’s media vendetta seems unending, Volume 5 resonates as a reminder of the ultimate positives life has to offer.

By Patrick Masterson

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