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COLLECTION Identifier: AWM Spec Coll 103

Somali Songs, 1955-1991: The Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali Collection

Scope and Contents

The Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali Collection of Somali Songs contains cassette recordings of some of Somalia’s most famous singers and poets, including Faduumo Qaasim, Magool, Maxamad Suleebaan, Fadumo Cabdillaahi Maandeeq, Sahra Axmed Jaamac, and Cumar Dhuule. Based on various themes of love, nature, war, class and gender relation, politics, and patriotism, the contents of the poetry is the aesthetic focal point of the music. The primary genre in this collection is known as hees or heello, a modern form of sung poetry accompanied by, depending on the era, hand clapping, frame drums, and other musical instruments, such as the electric piano/synthesizer, organ, guitar, end-blown flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and Arab lute (kaman in Somali or ‘ud in Arabic). Other notable genres include qaraami and praise songs for the Prophet. Many of the genre names used to refer to Somali songs overlap in their usage depending on a number of factors, including time period. Most of these recordings are songs of the nationalist period (1955-1974), a period after which the military regime (1969-1991) became increasingly oppressive. During this time, the emergence and success of the popular song had much to do with the roles the radio stations in cities like Mogadishu and Hargeisa assumed in the period leading up to and following independence, in addition to the Somali governments’ investment, albeit meager, in the cultural production of poets, playwrights, singers, and musicians.


  • Creation: 1955 - 1991

Condition Description

Mostly normal bias audio cassettes which appear to be from the 1960s and 1970s. Quality of recordings will be determined by Media Preservation.


504 audiocassettes (Sound recordings (504 sound cassettes))

Biographical / Historical

Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali was born in Djibouti before its independence in 1977 and moved to Somali with her mother at a young age. She attended school in Hargeisa and briefly attended the Mennonite school in Jowhar. In Mogadishu, she was one of the first women to work at Somali Airlines, holding various positions including stewardess, cashier, and office manager. She briefly returned to her place of birth to work for Air Djibouti. In Djibouti, in 1989, she met historian, Lidwien Kapteijns, who was introduced to Maryan by Somali history and cultural expert, Maxamed Cabdillaahi Riraash, and political scientist, Cali Muuse Ciye. Maryan and Lidwien’s friendship and collaboration on Somali songs lasted until Maryan’s death. The two spent many months together listening to and transcribing songs. Once Maryan moved to Canada, first to Ottawa and then to Toronto, they continued to work on the collection together. This work included initial digitization. At Maryan’s death, she entrusted the music collection to Lidwien Kapteijns (Wellesley College) and Ahmed Samatar (Macalester College), who agreed to deposit it at Harvard University’s Music Library where the audiocassettes are being reformatted according to updated digitization standards. Eventually, the collection will be made freely available to a number of educational institutions in different parts of Somalia.

As a child, many of her neighbors and family friends were abwaans (poets) and fannaaniin (musical artists), including the famous playwright and poet, Hassan Sheikh Muumin. She regularly delivered refreshments to these artists during rehearsals and became part of the artists’ world. Maryan particularly admired the women singers, who, on the one hand, were loved by all Somali for their songs and, on the other hand, were looked down upon by many because, as female entertainers in a Muslim society, they exposed themselves to the public gaze and worked in close proximity to men of (sometimes) unconventional lifestyles and behavior. Collecting a wide range of Somali popular music throughout the course of her life, Maryan likened songs to historical documents, believing in their power and veracity as Somali voices about the Somali past and as a ledger of social change in crucial and largely hopeful period of Somali history. Maryan Omar Ali passed away on December 7, 2011 in the McCall Medical Center of Etobicoke, Canada. During her years battling breast cancer, she continued to focus her efforts on organizing, cataloguing, and documenting her vast collection of Somali music. She believed that this accomplishment was one of the most important of her life.

Physical Location

Harvard Repository

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was deposited by Lidwien Kapteijns and Ahmed Samatar to the Harvard Music Library, Archive of World Music in April 2017.

Related Materials

Cristina Ubax Ali Farah. 2015. Il Teatro Popolare Somalo: 1940-1990. PhD Thesis. Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale.

Kapteijns, Lidwien. 1999. Women's Voices in a Man’s World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899-1980. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press.

Kapteijns, Lidwien. 2009. “Discourse on Moral Womanhood in Somali Popular Songs, 1960 1990.” Journal of African History 50: pp. 101-22.

Kapteijns, Lidwien. 2012. “Tacsi for Maryan (Aryette) Omar Ali.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 12: pp. 7-10.

Kapteijns, Lidwien. 2014. “Love Songs at the Dawn of Somalia.” Afropop Worldwide,

Legum, Colin. 1963. “Somali Liberation Songs.” Journal of Modern African Studies 1 (4): pp. 503-519.

Johnson, John W. 1974. Heellooy, Heelleellooy: The Development of the Genre Heello in Modern Somali Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Maryan Omar Ali and Lidwien Kapteijns. 2001. “‘Come Back Safely’: Laments about Labor in Somali Love Songs.” Northeast African Studies 8 (3): pp. 33-45.

Maxamed Daahir Afrax. 1987. Fan-masraxeedka Soomaalida: Raadraac Taariikheed iyo Faaqidaad Riwaayado caan-baxay, Djibouti: Centre National de la Promotions Culturelle et Artistique.

Maxamed Daahir Afrax. 2013. Between continuity and innovation: transitional nature of post‐independence Somali poetry and drama, 1960s–the present. PhD Thesis. SOAS, University of London.

Mohammed Sh. Hassan, ed. 1997-2004. A Collection of Somali Songs, vol. 1-4. Järfälla, Sweden: Scansom Publishers.

Samatar, Ahmed. 2009. “Battling on Two Fronts: Introducing Maryan Omar Ali.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 9: 18-38.

Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa (2017) [compact disc]. New York: Ostinato Records. The Freedom Songs of the Somali Republic (1962) [compact disc]. Ethnomusicologie Afrique, Somalie. Folkways Records.

Materials Specific Details

Note on dates: Dates labeled "publication" refer to the composition of the text/poetry.

Content Description

This collection contains recordings of popular songs recorded in Somalia between 1955 and 1991, collected from radio broadcasts and privately circulated cassettes by the life-long collector of Somali popular songs and leading expert on the subject, Maryan Omar Ali.

Processing Information

Processed by: Joe Kinzer and Peter Laurence in consultation with Lidwien Kapteijns



Somali Songs, 1955-1991: The Maryan “Aryette” Omar Ali Collection
Archive of World Music, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Harvard College Library
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library Repository

The Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library is the primary repository of musical materials at Harvard. The Music Library’s collecting mission is to serve music teaching and research programs in the Music Department and throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In addition, it supports the musical needs of the broader Harvard community as well as an international scholarly constituency. We collect books, musical scores, serial titles, sound recordings and video formats, microforms, and rare and archival materials that support research in a wide variety of musical disciplines including historical musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, composition, and historically informed performance practice, as well as interdisciplinary areas related to music. The special collections include archival collections from the 19th, 20th and 21st century.

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