Garissa, Kenya: It’s 9am and Luli Bashir, 38, is on time for our early morning appointment. On casual look, there is nothing distinct about her. She could easily pass for just another Somali woman going about her business in this side of town.
Physically, she is well on the heavier side and her black bui bui belies her artistic characteristic. With her are three women — Amina Bashir, Anab-Gure Ibrahim and Asha Ibrahim Yusuf — in the same age bracket.
Their relaxed disposition fails to betray their serious life mission. These are Gargar (Somali for togetherness), the rising Kenyan Somali music group taking the world music scene by storm and spurring modern liberal thinking on role of women in a once ultra-conservative community.
Over the past four years, they have been like an open university, teaching their women folk to venture out. The men are also seeing the sense in it.
News this week is that they are the winners of this year’s France Music World Music Prize, beating hundreds of contenders from around the world.
Conservative society The quartet left for Marseille France on Thursday to perform at this year’s Babel Med, a prestigious festival of world music. “They are among 32 groups selected from a list of 2,000 and this is a major achievement,” says Percy Yiptong of Cyper Productions of Mauritius.
His company and Ketebul Productions are part of the Equation Musique programme initiated by International Francophone Organisation and the French Institute, who are financing the trip to France.
Gargar are also nominated for the French Orange Foundation award alongside three others from Israel, Mali and Reunion Islands.
Lulu Bashir lead singer with Gargar does her thing. PHOTOS BY MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Luli is thrilled that from their humble hometown of Garrisa, they have achieved so much, playing in prestigious festivals and seeing places that most artistes in the world can only dream of. It has transformed their lives for the better and changed perceptions of life in a very significant way, and the thrift is rubbing off on others in their community.
“I now see even much older women getting on stage to sing and dance and I’m really gratified to know that we are the inspiration,” says Luli. The success and exposure has also come with challenges and adjustments have had to be made where necessary but nothing will interfere with their chosen path. First was the decision to change their name from Bismillahi Gargar to simply Gargar over fear of offending Islamic sensitivities.
“We went to Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar and there was disquiet over the name “bismillahi”, which objectionists claimed has Islamic connotation and therefore potentially offensive. We agreed to drop it,” says Tabu Osusa of Ketebul Productions, the group’s mentor and promoter.
Other issues had started at home with some members of their conservative community objecting over their choice of vocation, arguing that a music career was not in line with Islamic traditions. But they decided to stay put and overcome this line of thinking by showing that there was nothing immoral about being a Muslim and a musician or a stage performer
She notes that their success has now inspired women in their community to think liberally and objectively about their role in society and discard misplaced beliefs that have encumbered them socially and economically.
“They are no longer afraid of venturing into new fields and their men folk are no longer resistant to such moves,” said Luli.
Their maiden CD, Garrisa Express, recorded in 2008 as a promotional album, has achieved its objective as a marketing tool, opening doors to major festivals and setting the ground for their career.
The CD was not issued in the market and Ketebul Studios mailed it to festival organisers around the world. Many were impressed. Although the songs are all in their native language, the music arrangement by a group of session musician is a mix of ‘70s US funk and a bit of reggae that is delectably contrasted by the traditional melodies and vocal style of the women.
It is a fusion that gels musically while at the same time creating a good contrast with the character and personality of the women, which has had multiple benefits for the group and re-engineered social dynamics in their community.
Their career started in 2003 as part of a women’s community self-help group in Garissa combining traditional songs and dance, cookery and weaving to make a living. But in time, their music talents started taking preference and became a key factor in the group engagements.
“We are from a community that practices ebullient weddings and cultural displays and is a perfect ground for our sort of act,” said Luli. Initial focus was around Garissa, where they became a household delight and had constantly been playing at numerous functions.
In 2008, they were approached to participate in the Spotlight on Kenyan Music project sponsored by Alliance Francaise as a project to highlight Kenya traditional music from marginalised communities. Their overwhelming success at the event led to the CD recording that was funded by the French institution. The good news reached home and had an instant effect on the negative attitudes that had prevailed over their career.
Remarkably, they have been good learners, gaining experience from every occasion. Luli is clearly the leader, composer, spokesperson and driving force in the group, and is enjoying every moment of it.
She is emphatic that the tours have been a great learning experience but being the only Somali women’s group from Kenya has had its ups and downs.
On the upside, there is an advantage of being Somali and can be expected to draw support from the huge Somali community abroad that is starved of music and cultural activity. There might be other Somali artistes living abroad notably K’Naan, Maryam Mursal and Queen Malika, but there is also now a growing perception that African artistes who are based abroad are cut off from their roots and theirs may not be good expression of music of their origin.
The advantage to Gargar is that they live in Africa and appeal to aficionados of African music, who insist on strict authenticity.
Luckily, they are from a small town where cultural roots are strong and therefore remain pure in that sense. This comes through in their singing, with nuances that have no external infringements.
However, while this may all appeal to purists, it may not attract fans from the mainstream music audience who prefer a high level of familiarity in song structure and the lyrical content.
“The song Aids Wadida has been a major asset on this note in that even though the body of it is in Somali, people are able relate to the title and the reggae arrangement and it has formed our concept for future compositions,” said Luli.
Generally, their high spirit on stage has helped to compensate for any shortcomings caused by the language barrier, captivating their audiences through sheer exuberant performances.
But Luli would wish for the full advantage of their music and is looking to singing in languages and using concepts that are widely understood. Currently, she wants to sing in English, owing to its broad reach and also use arrangements that enjoy universal familiarity.
“I’m thinking of using more mainstream influences, especially reggae, because it appears to touch audiences wherever we have performed,” says Luli.
But ultimately, their concept is music without borders. The group hopes to build on their experience in Europe and other countries to further enhance their creativity.
For now, there is really no turning back and Garissa Express is on a roll. “We have thrown our hats in the ring and want to make good our efforts and opportunities to grow our careers and families,” said Luli.
As she rises to join her colleagues for the rehearsal, she reflects, with pride, not just at their good fortune but also the positive changes that they have been able to bring to their community. “I know they now appreciate what we have done,” she says.