Dhaanto and the Somali Music Revival



Aar Maanta, 2014


In August last year, the Somali-British singer, composer and producer Aar Maanta travelled to his hometown Jijiga, the capital of Somali Region in South Eastern Ethiopia. Aar Maanta visited Jijiga to experience and document the revival of Somali music – which we have previously highlighted here – and particularly the re-emergence of the classic Somali Dhaanto music that is now thriving among Somalis in Ethiopia. We asked Aar Maanta why Dhaanto is more popular in Somali Region Ethiopia now than in Somalia: “I think its to do with improved security, less religious extremism and the fact that the Somali regional government has understood the advantage of promoting music, in particular Dhaanto, as its cultural identity,” he told us.

Aar also pointed to one of reasons behind the increasing cultural awareness and promotion among Somalis in Ethiopia: “Ethiopia is a museum of cultures and I think the Somalis there have realized that in order to compete they must represent their culture too.”  One example of this trend was the 8th edition of the Nations, Nationalities and People’s Day, an annual cultural event organized by the Ethiopian government, which in 2013 took place in Somali Region for the first time. The festival attracted thousands people of different ethnicities and religions from Ethiopia and abroad and for the first time also Somali leaders from across the Horn of Africa.

Following his visit to Jijiga, Aar Maanta wrote an excellent piece about the history and the current comeback of the Dhaanto that we are proud to feature below. Aar also just released an EP called ‘Somali Songs From The Diaspora’, a follow-up to his 2009 debut record ‘Hiddo & Dhaqan,’ and will hopefully be putting out a full length album later this year as well. ‘Somali Songs From The Diaspora’ is available on iTunesSpotifyAmazon and all other online music stores and you can find more info on this release on Aar Maanta’s incredibly interesting blog where you can also discover and listen to his personal top 10 of the best Dhaanto songs. Enjoy!


The best party in the Horn of Africa? Video of Bashir Carab & Khadra Haybe performing ‘Dirgax’ during one of Aar Maanta’s concerts in Jijiga, 2013. 


Dhaanto: The Origin of Reggae and the Somali Music Revival

By Aar Maanta 

I was lucky enough to visit my hometown, Jijiga earlier this year and witness the rebirth of the Somali culture. At the heart of this revival, is the Dhaanto; one of the most popular Somali folk dance and song styles. Loosely translated, the term Dhaanto refers to “better than others”. Today Dhaanto is probably the most popular performing art in the Somali Region also known as the Ogaden region in Ethiopia. In Jijiga you could hear and see Dhaanto played by children on the streets, at weddings, regular official performances, on television and radio and phone ring tones. There is now a plethora of bands and theatre groups giving rise to an explosion of new releases by well known singers whose popular Dhaanto is widely listened by Somalis in the Horn of Africa and in the Diaspora.

In the past, I performed my new version of Dhaanto in numerous cities around the world. But I’ve always wanted to travel to my hometown to perform. My wish was granted in the summer of this year when I returned. I was lucky enough to perform during Eid day celebrations with some of the best artists and subsequently held my own concerts to hundreds of music lovers, including people from the Diaspora who returned to Jijiga for the first time.

Many from the Diaspora are now visiting the area because there is some political progress especially in Jijiga which is the capital of Somali Regional State in Ethiopia. The capital is certainly a changing city. There is a degree of stability, improved security and visible development. Due to the changing situation in the region, artists are now coming forward with positive contributions. And the local administration seems to have realized that arts could play in the development of the Somali region or the Ogaden. The leaders have invested heavily in the industry and are now seeing the result of that. Somalis across the globe are showing their appreciation by the revival of their much-loved culture because until recently Dhaanto was a dying art.


Street Dhaanto in Jijiga, 2013.


The earliest Dhaanto song I ever heard was “Dhaantadu dhimataye dhulkay Ku dhacdaye, Dhaantada dhulka maad ka qaadaan” meaning “Dhaanto is dead and it’s on the ground, why don’t anyone lift up the Dhaanto.” Initially, I felt this song had a negative and somewhat demoralizing message. However, the situation was made demoralizing by what I witnessed when I first visited Jijiga in 2009. Compared to other parts of Ethiopia I travelled through, it was undeveloped, culturally dead and very hostile. I was unfortunate enough to experience some of that hostility firsthand and I will write about it when the time is right inshaAllah. 

Historically, according to contemporary Jijiga urban tale on rural folklore competitions, the Dhaanto was compared to other Somali styles and it was deemed to be the better. That was how the name Dhaanto came into force. It has been noted that in early 1930′s there was a Dance Troupe called Haji Bal Bal, which shuttled between Erigabo and Jijiga, performing Xeer-Dhaanto. This was the earliest form of performing arts which apparently helped transform rural folklore dance and song into modern urban Somali music and performing arts. That influenced me.

And I titled my debut album Hiddo & Dhaqan. The title and the main song of my album was a modern twist to the aforementioned Dhaanto song, but with a new more uplifting positive message. As result, people now sing “Dhaantadu may dhiman, dhulkana kuma dhicin. Dhaantadu dhaqankeena weeyaanee.” In English, it translates as; “the Dhaanto didn’t die. It never fell on the ground. The Dhaanto is our tradition!”

I even met Jamaican Rastafarians who visited from Shashamane. They acknowledged the fact that there is a similarity between Reggae and Dhaanto. I told them that because Dhaanto pre dated Reggae by at least forty years, well learned musicians in 1980′s Somalia used to say that Dhaanto was the origin of Reggae. Musically, Reggae and Dhaanto have very similar characteristics as their rhythmic patterns accents the second and fourth beats in each bar. That is the beauty of performing arts in bringing people together.



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