Real World 62370
Few have a more dramatic tale to tell than Maryam Mursal, Somalia's powerful and dynamic female vocalist.
Before her stunning voice could be heard in the west, Maryam was forced to spend seven months walking across the Horn of Africa with her five children as she fled the civil war in her native Somalia, desperate to escape the anarchy, death and starvation that was destroying her country. She and her young family hitched rides on trucks, rode on donkeys and walked - out of Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, across Kenya, through Ethiopia, recrossing Somalia again and eventually arriving in Djibouti where she was finally given asylum by the Danish embassy.
In Denmark she met up with the Danish arranger Soren Kjor Jensen. Jensen had come across Maryam's music when working in Somalia as a freelance photographer in 1986 and had recorded her extraordinary voice from a radio broadcast. Visiting a Somalian immigrant camp in Denmark he heard her singing to 300 fellow refugees and realized it was the same voice. Jensen brought Maryam to the attention of Peter Gabriel's Real World record label and, consequently, the label asked her to make two albums - one of traditional material and a second in a more contemporary vein.
THE JOURNEY, Maryam's solo album, is a highly charged modern take on her Somalian roots. Produced by Simon Emmerson and Martin Russell (both of
Afro Celt Sound System fame) with Jensen, it features guitars, sequencers and back-up vocals from Peter Gabriel, yet never strays far from its African origins. "She's amazing, she's got everything," Emmerson says.
As an instant African classic thrillingly uniting the ancient and modern he puts the album on a par with Baaba Maal's incendiary "Firin In Fouta," which he also produced.
Maryam is perfectly at ease working with a more contemporary approach. She began singing professionally as a teenager in Mogadishu in 1966, the first woman in a deeply male-dominated Islamic society. Brought up in the Muslim faith, she was steeped in the traditional music of her country - a remarkable hybrid sound of African and Arabic influences created by centuries of cross-cultural fertilization between migrating nomadic tribes. But from her earliest years she also eagerly absorbed every influence she could find.
"I began singing in night clubs thirty years ago in Somalia," says Mursal. "Traditional music is very important to me but I was also listening to people like Ray Charles, The Beatles, everything."
Another western artist she admires is Etta James and it is easy to see a link between the two women - both have a big, uncompromising vocal style.
Although little to do with jazz as we know it in the west, the rich, cultural stew which she developed of African and western sounds, dance music and traditional song, became known as "Somali jazz" and Maryam became a household name.
In July 1997 Real World released "New Dawn," Maryam's recording with the core survivors of the band
Waaberi, once a 300-strong troupe of singers, dancers, musicians and actors from the Somalian National Theatre before the destruction of the civil war. An acoustic album, the songs tell of loneliness, love and betrayal - sung solo or accompanied by simple percussion and the oud (an Arabic lute-like instrument). It includes a freshly recorded version of Maryam's song "Ulimada" (The Professors) - a thinly disguised attack on the dictatorial regime in Somalia, which had led to her being banned from performing anywhere in the country for two years.
Maryam Mursal's life and art have intertwined to produce a sound that is profoundly moving and totally unique. She may be a refugee living in exile but her extraordinary talent is certain to guarantee her a heartfelt welcome wherever she sings.
One day Maryam hopes to return home to Somalia. "The first good thing I hear about my country, the first suggestion that it is changing, and I will go back - and quickly. It might take five years or even ten years but one day things will change. Everybody needs their country. At home you can be a star but then as a refugee you are looked at like a dog. I am a refugee but I am also a singer. That is my job and that is how I survive."
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