Sunday, 1 July 2018

Diving Into Somali Arts with Numbi

Because this website is nominally a blog, maybe it’s time for me to write a blog? Or give it a try at least, let’s see how it goes. I thought I’d give a bit of an update on a thread that’s been going through my life lately.

As you may know, I am currently studying an MMus Ethnomusicology. I’m doing it all in one year and I started back in September, so it feels like the home stretch at the moment, but I still have the biggest hurdle to clear first, writing my dissertation. My subject is something I’ve had an interest in for a few years but I’ve never really been able to delve into it like I wanted to, so this seemed like a good opportunity. I’m looking at Somali music, or, more specifically, what music means to Somali people in the UK. I’m learning so much (as you’d hope), and it’s really exciting to engage with so many people with interesting ideas to share.

One particular organisation that has been invaluable to me so far, and is really doing stunning work, is Numbi Arts. When you know that Numbi is the name of both a traditional Somali healing dance and also the last feature film made in Mogadishu before the devastating civil war, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. Numbi Arts is an organisation in Tower Hamlets (based out of the wonderful Rich Mix, actually), where there has historically been a significant Somali population and looks at art as a way for people to engage with their community and their identity, their history and their future.

I’ve been to two events run by Numbi so far. The first one was back in February, actually at Rich Mix. It was rather gloriously chaotic. As far as I can tell, it was the first event of the new ‘season’ for Numbi, and so the projects featured were perhaps works-in-progress leading up to the big festival in July (more about that in a little bit). But despite some rough edges, it was a load of fun. The theme for the day was Coming Here, Being Here, and that was reflected in an emphasis on kids and their connections with their families, with London and with their links to East Africa. The highlight for me was a lovely little film by Salma Bihi, interviewing her mother about her memories of Somalia, the journey to the UK and her life here. It was really well made, and provided insights for us in the audience and Bihi herself. It complemented the rest of the programme well, too, which included poetry from kids with a helping hand from Sai Murray and Mr Gee (yeah, the same Mr Gee from the Russell Brand radio shows), a short podcast and a collective creative writing exercise. After a
hearty meal (it’s always good to have a meal, right?), the event came to a close with some music led by Mohamed Maalow Nuur, who in his time was a member of at least two of the most iconic ‘golden era’ bands, Waaberi and Iftiin. With oud and bongos, and vocals provided by as many people as knew the words, the music served well to accompany a troupe of Somali dancers (you can see them on the left, there). I really don’t know much about dancing at all, and it was the first time I’d ever encountered Somali dance, but it looked good to me!

After having a really nice time at that first event, I got in touch with Kinsi Abdulleh. She runs Numbi and her passion is obvious and really inspiring. She’s an artist, first and foremost, and I think that comes across in her work. She’s not about the standard way of doing things, she likes to mix things up. Do them in a different way to get reactions that would otherwise remain hidden. Make it weird, a bit. Who else would think to work on community engagement in Tower Hamlets by arranging a yoga retreat in Gambia? We had a great conversation about all sorts of things, and I was delighted to be invited to an event co-hosted by Numbi and the British Library, called A Postcard from London, which happened just last weekend.

It was a much smaller event than in Rich Mix, with about 20 participants as opposed to the maybe couple of hundred in February. This was on purpose – it is a library, after all – but it really lent an intimate vibe to everything, and we all got to know each other a little bit, which was nice. The day started with a small tour of the library’s treasures. Unfortunately, the Library gave the task of tour guide to possibly the most boring man who worked there, and he somehow managed to make some really interesting stuff impossibly dull. But hey-ho. After that we got to what we were actually there for.

The first half of the workshop was curated by the Library’s Somali Collections Project Officer, Mahamad Ali, and it allowed us to take a small dive into the history of written Somali literature in English, Arabic and (after 1972) Somali. There was all sorts: poetry, novels, political pieces and academic writing, even some interesting, albeit rather distasteful, colonial works. What piqued my interest the most, though, wasn’t a book at all, but a long wooden board, covered in hand-inked Arabic (pictured right). One of the participants, a wonderful gentleman called Mr Ali Ahmed Hussein, who used to be the director of the National Museum of Somalia and was a font of knowledge throughout the day, explained to us that this was part of a Qur’an. It was a teaching tool: children were taught the Qur’an and how to write Arabic at the same time. They wrote out each Surah over and over until their penmanship was perfect and they had it memorised by heart. Each time they wrote it out, the board was washed, dried and used again.

Another element that was presented was a Somali philatelic collection…or, to you or me, a bunch of stamps. Surprisingly engaging, actually! They covered a big range of history and subjects, from architecture, art and dance, to denouncing apartheid and celebrating the Somali language and the Arab League. There were stamps from various iterations of independent Somalia, and of the colonial territories of Somaliland and Jubaland, and even a stamp representing Somali refugees. The details on these tiny stamps were impressive. This formed the seed of our workshop: we got a big bunch of photocopied stamps to chop up and remix into what we related to Somalia, and maybe even write them as if a postcard. I have never been one gifted in the visual arts, so mine was a rather feeble offering, but there was some wild creations. Most fun for me was getting to mill about, looking at everyone’s artistic efforts and having some really insightful chats.

After both of these events, I’m getting excited for the next one, it’s just around the corner! Numbi Arts host a festival each year, and each year has a different theme and focus city. Usually the city is in Somalia, but this year the focus is London, and the theme is Repair and Rebellion. This means the focus is very much on diaspora, and allowing people to negotiate and contest their experiences and opinions of being part of a diaspora through different artistic formats and cultural practices, including oral and written language, music, dance, film and theatrical performances as individuals and as groups. The festival will feature many different aspects and events including site-specific installations, an open archive, a mobile recording studio, documentation sites and intergenerational conversation.

The first event will be held at Rich Mix on 21 July to launch the festival, where Numbi will share all the interesting items in their own archival collection and encourage people to add to it themselves with workshops in smartphone storytelling and studio portraiture. After will be an evening of poetry (Somalia is well-known for being a country of poets) and music, again from Mohamed Maalow Nuur. Perhaps the most exciting for me is the big finale of this opening event: a conceptual music and spoken word tribute to Poly Styrene. She was best known as the frontwoman of the punk band X-Ray Spex, and also half-Somali. Her daughter, Celeste Bell, is also a musician and a film-maker; she’s currently making a film about her mother and will be helping to organise this tribute. Who knows, maybe we will get some Somali-flavoured punk going on? Perhaps I should bring my saxophone…

So, that’s it I guess. If you’re in London, you know where I will be on 21 July, you should come in and join the festivities! You can get your tickets here. See you then!