We in the West are used to thinking of music mainly as entertainment. On occasion, it can fulfill a religious function, or be deployed to argue one political point or another. But for Sahra Halgan, the purpose of her music is to bring recognition to Somaliland, a self-declared state unrecognized by the international community.
“When you flee to another country, you feel guilty,” Halgan tells The Japan Times via phone while on tour in France. “And then when I had a chance to help my people I felt I had to show what’s going on in Somaliland.”
Now 46, Halgan escaped civil war in Somalia in 1993, becoming a refugee in France. People in the north part of what was then Somalia had rebelled against the brutal dictatorship of Siad Barre, splitting off to form what is now Somaliland in 1991.
Born into a family of artists, Halgan’s life was upended by the outbreak of hostilities. At a time when she should have been in school, Halgan found herself called to help her compatriots.
“I was with people who had operations … who had amputations,” she explains in halting English about her sudden switch from student to untrained nurse in the backlines of battle.
“I started singing when I was 13,” she continues. “Somalia was still at peace. Then to encourage fighters in the civil war, I became a nurse even though I didn’t have proper training to help fighters who were attacked with airplanes and artillery. Singing isn’t only for fame or money, sometimes you can use music like medicine.”
Halgan sings with a clear, uplifting voice in the traditional Somali style, which bears much in common with the music of Sudan and the Arabian peninsula. It is often accompanied only by handclaps, although for the last several years Halgan has been touring with French musicians Aymeric Krol and Mael Saletes in a style they call “World Music from Somaliland.”
Music had been suppressed by the Barre regime and Halgan’s songs were part of a wave of protest music.
“My songs had the opportunity to play that role,” she says. “I sang for people fighting against the dictator. We had to go to the bush, and I would go to tents that were transformed into surgery rooms and encourage patients.”
With the collapse of Barre rule, Somaliland was able to forge a separate peace. Its rulers created democratic institutions and it currently enjoys a quasi-independent status, but the international community still treats it as part of Somalia.
After decades in France, in which she eked out a living as a cafeteria worker and musician, Halgan returned to the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa, three years ago. There she opened a studio that is apparently the only place in the country where musicians and poets can produce themselves. She notes with a laugh that she does weddings too, but her main focus is on bringing attention to her forgotten land.
“I wanted to show what’s going on in Somaliland, because the world forgets us, I don’t know why. We decided to live alone without Somalia, but they won’t accept that.
“My songs are political and personal,” she continues. “I ask, ‘Why do you forget us? We did everything the international community has asked.’ “
Halgan hopes her first visit to Japan to perform at the Sukiyaki Meets the World Festival and French Institute goes some way in enlightening Japanese as to the status of her land.
“I am glad to visit Japan and I want to educate them. I’ve never seen a Japanese person in Somaliland,” she notes. “I want the whole world to know there is a democratic, peaceful country called Somaliland with no Islamists. The world is forgetting 4 million people. It’s as if we don’t exist. It’s not just.”