top of page

General features of the music

Somalia traditionally has been governed through a clan system rather than a centralized government.[1] This means that music had few patrons so it was mainly developed to accompany Somali pastoral work, daily activities, and celebrations.[2] Although there was not much incentive to cultivate instrumental music before the twentieth century, a few instruments including drums, reed flutes, and lutes were used in traditional Somali music.[3]

Scholars typically divide traditional Somali music into three categories: work songs (hees), classical poetry songs (gabay), and dance songs (cayaar).[4] This project concentrated on hees. Hees were used for functions ranging from herding cattle to comforting children.[5] Mainly percussion instruments, vocal utterances (such as a wide vibrato sung on a nonsensical syllable or sound), and clapping were used to accompany hees.[6]


The general population performed music in Somalia while they worked as shepherds or in other agricultural roles or during celebrations.[7] This shows that music was an integral part of Somalis’ daily lives.

Modality and notation

            Traditional Somali music has been identified as being mainly pentatonic.[8] The pentatonic scale is easily notated in Western art music (see figure 1).






Figure 1. C minor pentatonic scale notated in Western notation



Folktales are a good medium for engaging students in learning about foreign cultures. This project explored the story of Dhagdheer, a popular Somali children’s story.[9] The story is summarized in the following paragraph.


The story of Dhagdheer begins when a Somali man and woman marry and have a son together. [10] Eventually, the husband chooses a second wife and builds her a house next to the house of the first wife.[11] As a result of her jealousy, the first wife decides to leave with her son and return home to her family of origin.[12] Unfortunately, they become lost in the Nugal valley, which is the home of Dagdare, a cannibalistic monster.[13] As the mother and son run from Dagdare, whom they encounter in the valley, their way is blocked by hargega holes (deep holes in the ground), which are characteristic of that region in Somalia.[14] After praying to Allah (Islam is the primary religion in Somalia), she and her son are able to jump across the holes.[15] The story ends when Dagdare, the monster, chooses not to risk jumping and, therefore, lets the mother and son escape.[16] This telling of the story was adapted from The Somali Folktale Project that is run by Sheekooyin Carrureed in Lyndale Community School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is making great progress in exposing public school children to Somali culture.[17]

The following Somali poem is what Dagdare says when she is unable to cross the hargega holes.[18] This translation was utilized for this project and is in Somalia’s native language, Somali:[19]

Hohey bohalaha Xargagan

Nin xiimayay xidhaan

(Translation) Oh, the ditches of Xargagan

They do block the flight of a man[20]

In this translation the “ditches of Xargagan” is used to refer to the hargega holes from the folktale as told by Sheekooyin Carrureed.[21]

There is a bilingual Somali/English children’s storybook featuring the Dhagdheer story published by the Minnesota Humanities Center.[22] In this book the story is presented in an illustrated format that is accessible to elementary school aged students.[23]

Lesson plans and recorded examples

 Smithsonian Folkways published a lesson plan featuring Somali music called “Tooting the Horn of Africa: A Cornucopia of Music from Somalia.” It gives useful resources and suggests activities such as describing the features of Somali music, transcribing a personal song, playing and singing traditional songs, and improvising melodies and rhythms.[24] It emphasizes the importance of the percussive rhythms, dance, and poetry that are present in Somali songs.[25] Overall, it presents Somali songs as consisting of a melody sung to poetry juxtaposed against a pervasive rhythm played by percussion instruments or clapped.[26] This model for developing a Somali music lesson plan served as inspiration during this project.


The Dhaanto Somali Traditional Dance video demonstrates how clapped rhythms and dance are used to accompany traditional Somali music.[27] Additionally, it uses call and response between the female and male vocalists.[28] During this project, this video was featured on the unit website to show how movement, percussive clapping, and call and response are used in Somali music.



[1] Catherine Besteman. 2014. Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.


[2] Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, Culture and Customs of Somalia. 2001. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 169-170.

[3] Ibid., 169.


[4] The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 1. New York, NY: Routledge, 59.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, Culture and Customs of Somalia. 2001. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 169.


[7] Ibid., 170.


[8] Ibid.


[9] Sheekooyin Carrureed, Somali Folktales from Lyndale School S.P.I.R.A.L. Project (Mashruuca S.P.I.R.A.L. ee Lyndale). Minneapolis, MN: Lyndale Community School. Accessed September 21, 2017., 258.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Ibid., 259.

[15] Ibid.


[16] Ibid.


[17] Martha H. Bigelow, 2010. Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, Racialized Identity, and Education in a New Land. Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 38.

[18] Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, Culture and Customs of Somalia. 2001. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 173.


[19] Ibid.


[20] Ibid.


[21] Ibid.


[22] Marian H. Hassan, 2007. Dhegdheer: A Scary Somali Folktale. Saint Paul, MN: Minnesota Humanities Commission.


[23] Ibid.

[24] Ethan Chessin, Toothing the Horn of Africa: A Cornucopia of Music from Somalia (A Smithsonian Folkways Lesson). Smithsonian Folkways.


[25] Ibid.


[26] Ibid.


[27] Somali Music. Dhaanto “Somali Traditional Dance” (video). YouTube.


[28] Ibid.

Resources for "One Language is Never Enough"

Section 1 (mm. 1-20)

Soprano 1 with Somali Text
Soprano 1 -
00:00 / 00:00
bottom of page