If Aar Maanta’s community in the UK had had their way, the artist who is today considered to be the voice of the new Somali generation should have become a scientist. The fact that instead he is revered as one of the most important musicians of the Horn of Africa country and one of the most creative and inventive sons of the Somali diaspora is down to Aar Maanta’s passion and willpower.
During an interview we had with him before his WOMAD gig we travelled through his life, recalling his approach to music and the decisive moments that determined his career. We started our chat talking about the decision to leave Somalia at a young age and moving to London, where he joined his uncle and the already sizeable Somali community.
“When I left Somalia, the war wasn’t really that bad. However, the situation was worsening. You could tell that the war was going to start in earnest. Then, when I arrived in London it was a totally different culture and scene for me. Luckily, I was quite young and able to adapt”.
Aar Maanta explained to us how he got in touch with music and the decisive boost he received from it once he arrived in London.
“My first impression of Britain and London wasn’t scary at all. I used to live in Brixton, which is the perfect place if you are looking for multiculturalism. There I came in contact with many different cultures and styles and I was surrounded by music. I listened to all the genres Brixton had to offer, but first of all I listened to reggae, hip-hop and soul. All those different influences were guiding me and I was able to absorb them”.
Music was indeed crucial for his new London experience, not so much a lifesaver but pivotal in combining his Somali roots and the cross-cultural British environment.
“I wouldn’t really go as far as saying that music saved me, but I would say that it helped me overcome my problems, to think positively and be more creative. It didn’t help me forget where I came from or the problems of my homeland because the problems were and still are there, but it helped me in a positive and creative way. Writing about the problems was the way I actually got into music”.
Unfortunately, the first hard times weren’t too far off. As soon as music crept into his life Aar Maanta suddenly had to face the first hurdles. The main obstacle, surprisingly, was his own community.
“I wanted to study music at the university and I enrolled in a Popular Music degree. But after the Somali Civil war my community here in the UK became very conservative. It was strange! Back home in Somalia they were supporting me but here they were trying to discourage me from playing music. They also told me that it was forbidden by our religion. So just after my first university year I had to stop, and I ended up studying science instead, just to please my family”.
But the relation between Aar Maanta and music continued, overriding bans and prohibitions. In 2004 he set up his own recording studio and in 2009 he produced his first album ‘Hiddo & Dhaqan’.
“If you are a creative person the creativity stays with you and you always want to go back to that creativity. So when I finished my Science degree I went back to play music and I made my first album. It was deeply influenced by the UK sounds I had listened to up until that point – hip-hop in particular.”
Aar Maanta has been defined as “the voice of his generation”. Usually these kinds of definitions are conferred on music legends or seminal artists, not young, developing musicians. However, in this instance the expressiveness and penetrating quality of the music belie this Somali artist’s age. His voice has become his trademark, thanks to the ability to mix the traditional Somali Qaarami style with all the new sounds he has encountered in London. But, as he confessed to us, it wasn’t meant to be like this.
“At the beginning I wasn’t a singer, I was just writing and making music. What happened was that I used to make music for another artist and promote his events. He was supposed to perform during a gig I’d organized for him, but then he pulled out at the last minute because we couldn’t agree on money. Luckily, while I was making his music I also learnt all the songs he was meant to sing. So I had no choice but to go out on stage and become a singer! I had a good reaction from the audience so I just continued from there to sing my songs”.
Through his works Aar Maanta has been able to show that despite there being no big names or a proper Somali music scene it is possible to create a music that the Somali diaspora can identify with, accurately illustrating through music the Somali way of life and encouraging a stronger interest in Somali culture.
“To be honest, despite tradition being at the heart of my music, I consider myself as a ‘diaspora artist’, partly because my main listeners are people who now live in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. There are a lot of Somali people who left Somalia and the other regions of the Horn of Africa to come to Europe and all over the Western world. All these young people have tried to get to know and relate to other music because there was no new Somali music. So I want to cater for them”.
Aar Maanta also told us that although music in his home country is as lively as ever, there is a problem with the Somali communities abroad.
“The state of music in Somalia is good. For example there’s a particular genre called dhaanto, a bit like reggae and dancehall, which is really popular. On the other hand there is no Somali music scene abroad, and the UK is no exception. This is because when people come from a war zone and move to other countries it takes a while to develop a cultural scene. Unfortunately there are too many other issues they have to deal with before they can get to the music, but things are finally picking up”.
One of the main reasons behind this new beginning is related to new media. As the Somali artist confirmed, “now it’s getting easier to start new music projects because even within a day you can actually record something, mix it and put it online. Then you can also promote it and people can buy it. It’s a lot easier.”
However, his concept is of music moving away from studio recordings. During the first years of his career he relied almost entirely on studio recordings, but he has recently discovered the glory of live versions.
“The EP album I’ve just published (Somali Songs from the Diaspora) also has a few live recordings, and actually I want to do more of that. That’s the new direction I’ve chosen. I’m looking forward to doing more live recording rather than the studio work that I’ve done before. The problem is that Somalis tend to prefer studio recordings, but I also want to cater for other people”.
For the thirteenth year in a row, London becomes the northernmost African city. Twenty-six acts spread over ten days of “glorious music” and ten London vibrant venues will bring to life the 2015 edition of the London African Music Festival. The event, organized by Joyful Noise since 2003, has always…