Iftin: The band that soundtracked Somalia's golden age
For a long time during the 20th century, Mogadishu was known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, renowned for its pristine beaches and openness to the world,
That reputation was a product of its geography and history: located at a crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe, the city had been a major trading centre for centuries.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the city was a popular destination for visitors who flocked to enjoy its crystal-clear waters, as well as architecture that exquisitely blended Italian, Persian, and Islamic touches.
“Mogadishu has completely changed,” said Abdirahman Issa, a Somali researcher, and friend of the renowned writer Hassan Abukar, author of the book Mogadishu Memoir.
“There was once a beautiful Mogadishu in the sixties and the seventies,” Issa told Middle East Eye, adding that things changed after the civil war.
Vibrant music and arts scene
At the centre of Mogadishu’s golden years was music, along with a vibrant nightlife and the city's art scene.
Some of the bands that flourished there included Waaberi, Bakaka, and Dur-Dur.
But it was probably the rhythms and melodies of Iftin Band that most enchanted Mogadishu, and the band has left a deep imprint on the musical memory of the time.
“When I hear Iftin Band there’s a lot of diversity in the repertoire, there are many different styles of music,” said Vik Sohonie, music producer and founder of Ostinato Records.
“But also, Iftin has a very special place in the imagination of Somalia. All of the other bands are very special. But Iftin is the king; the biggest of the big,” he told MEE.
In an effort to recover and delve into their legacy, the independent New York label Ostinato Records recently released the first official compilation of the Iftin Band.
The 14-track album, Mogadishu’s Finest, features some of their most iconic and catchy songs.
The compilation expands on a previous album, Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa, which was released by the label Sweet As Broken Dates in 2017 and was nominated for a Grammy award.
Music in postcolonial times
The origins of the Iftin Band date back to the mid-1970s, when the Ministry of Education in Somalia, which had achieved independence 15 years earlier, formed a group that would come to be known as Iftin A, according to a booklet included with the new album.
Like other bands sponsored by African states as they were starting to throw off the colonial yoke, Iftin A played a prominent educational, cultural, and political role.
“They trained young musicians almost as a public communication band, to go and spread messages around the country, to go and perform around the country,” Sohonie said.
'Iftin’s story is so connected to that kind of post-colonial history and development that was going on in Somalia and Mogadishu'
- Vik Sohonie, founder of Ostinato Records
Somalia was occupied by European powers in the late 19th century, and both Britain and Italy established colonies in two Somali territories, which were then referred to as Somaliland.
Those lands later formed what became known as the Republic of Somalia following independence in 1960, with President Aden Abdullah Osman Daar at the helm.
President Daar ruled the young country for seven years until he was succeeded by his former prime minister, Abdirashid Shermarke, who led the country until his assassination in 1969.
On the day of Shermarke’s funeral, Somalia’s army chief, Mohamed Siad Barre, seized power with a bloodless coup and an agenda that took the country into the orbit of the Soviet Union.
His regime, however, would soon be marred by a dismal human rights record.
But it was under the command of Barre - who was well aware of the power of music as a tool for propaganda - that bands such as Iftin A emerged, with a mission to address through their music issues such as public health and literacy campaigns.
“Iftin’s story is so connected to that kind of post-colonial history and development that was going on in Somalia and Mogadishu,” Sohonie says.
Path to stardom
In the early 1980s that the Iftin Band, which came to be known as Iftin B, decided to break away from the Ministry of Education and embark on its own private path to stardom.
“They were formed by the best young musicians who broke away from the government and formed this band,” Sohonie noted.
“They became the band that musicians wanted to play for. If you were a talented musician, you wanted to play for Iftin.”
Without state support however, the band ran into problems, and would not have survived without the support of Ahmed Sharif, the new album’s co-producer, who helped finance the band.
The band also soon became associated with one of Mogadishu’s most iconic hotels, Al-Uruba, which was built in the mid-1970s.
'If you want to understand what was happening in Mogadishu politically, economically, socially; you can understand it through the Iftin Band'
- Vik Sohonie
“They played in the most prestigious venues. This compilation is called the Al-Uruba sessions because it’s an ode to the Al-Uruba Hotel,” Sohonie explained.
Iftin B was also a regular guest at the equally iconic National Theater, which was opened in 1967.
“They were the embodiment of what was happening in Mogadishu at the time,” Sohonie said.
“If you want to understand what was happening in Mogadishu politically, economically, socially, you can understand it through the Iftin Band. They were everything,” he added.
“Their modernising drive, without losing the tradition, touched many sectors of the country,” says Kaha Aden, the daughter of Mohamed Aden Sheikh, a progressive Somali politician who served several terms as minister in the 1970s before falling from grace and being imprisoned by the Barre regime.
“Politicians like my father and these groups were similar: young, reformist,” she added.
Just as Iftin B’s rise was intimately linked to that hopeful time, their decline inevitably came with Somalia’s economic drift in the late 1980s.
For the band members, the economic and political turmoil meant they had to find other jobs in order to support themselves.
Then, one-by-one, they began to emigrate abroad.
Meanwhile, President Barre, who was by then already a brutal dictator, was determined to hold onto power. This fuelled political tension in Somalia and the country became increasingly violent.
He was overthrown and went into exile in 1991, and the country was consumed by the civil war that is still tearing it apart to this day, while Somaliland, in the northwest, has now broken away.
For a while Al-Uruba Hotel remained as a physical witness to that increasingly distant golden era, but over time it was ravaged by the war and demolished in 2016.
The flight of millions of Somalis after the outbreak of the conflict also meant that many of the cassettes on which Iftin’s recordings were stored were scattered around the globe.
Reviving the band
For the team of Ostinato Records, this turned the project into a seven-year journey to locate and digitise the best cassette recordings they could find in places as diverse as Djibouti, Dubai, London, Mogadishu, and Nairobi, in order to put them together on the album.
“Somalia has the biggest African diaspora and [its people are] spread all over the world, except for South America,” Sohonie explained.
“This journey started when we were working on our [previous] project. That album was mainly compiled from an archive in Somaliland. But from that we built a huge network of people around the world,” he noted.
“Then we had people in Toronto, London, Nairobi, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Djibouti. These were the main places where there were a lot of recordings, sitting in the Somali neighbourhoods,” he added.
“It’s fascinating. When people think ‘where is Somali music history living today?’, [they] may think it is in London or wherever. But it’s actually in Dubai, in the Emirates.”
Much of their work has also involved contacting all the artists who performed each of the songs to get their approval.
Ostinato Records did not remove the original recordings either, but opted to make duplicates or digitise them in order to leave the originals where they found them.
“The process was a global one. And it’s really fitting,” Sohonie concluded.