I never thought there would be an African music theme on LH, but for the second day in a row I’ve run across something in that line that I felt I had to share. John Beadle of Milwaukee used to host the “African Beat” program on WYMS; now he maintains a superb audioblog, Likembe (the name “refers to the Congolese version of the thumb-piano, an instrument that can be found across Africa, that in various versions is called the mbira, sanza, kalimba, ubo, etc.”). He’s been featuring Somali music (with the help of a well-informed Somali commenter named Sanaag), and today’s post presents songs from Famous Songs: Hits of the New Era (Radio Mogadishu SBSLP-102, 1973), Volume Three, “issued under the aegis of the Somali Ministry of Information and National Guidance to rally support for the military government of Mohammad Siad Barre… For all their propagandistic aspects, it would be a mistake to dismiss their musical qualities. Waaberi, the Somali super-group featured on Somalia Sings and Famous Songs, pre-dated the 1969 military coup and was a training ground for many great singers…” The music is striking, but what drove me to post was reaching the song called “Magac U Yaal” (mp3), which was translated as “Pronoun.” There must be some mistake, thought I, but no:
The composer is Abwan Maxamud Cabdullahi Ciise (“Sangub”…) …. The track is dealing with the widespread joy that came with the official standardization of the Somali language in 1972. Somali is an agglutinative language with a rather complex grammar. This song introduces a number of ingenious and dexterous tricks to the trade of remembering and applying the new grammatical rules correctly.
Prior to the formalization, a score of scripts existed for the language – some for centuries. The discussions, overheated debates and tug-of-wars around this issue started in the late 19th century but couldn’t materialize because of differences in interest and allegiance. For practical convenience, an ‘independent’ advisory committee set up right after the independence finally chose one of the Latin-based alphabets. That decree didn’t go down well with some of the supporters of the original Somali scripts or Arabic-based alphabets. The ensuing conflict had eventually led to the imprisonment of some cacophonous antagonists, who were supposedly offered to set an example for any prospective dissonance.
There must be other songs about grammar and/or language reform, but I can’t think of any offhand. (You can read more about the history of Somali writing at Wikipedia and Omniglot. Oh, and you can ignore the letter “c” when pronouncing those names in your mind—it’s the equivalent of Semitic ayn and represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative, so Cabdullahi is the equivalent of Arabic ‘Abdullah.)