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Dhaanto The Origin of Reggae and Somali Music Revival

By Aar Maanta
Tigrai Onlne December 11, 2013

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”.

Dhaanto The Origin of Reggae and Somali Music Revival
Aar Maanta is a singer and song writer from Jigjiga, Ethiopia

Today Dhaanto is probably the most popular performing art in the Somali region also known as the Ogaden region in Ethiopia. In jijiga, the region’s capital city, 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. 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.

The earliest Dhaanto song I ever heard was: “Dhaantadu dhimataye dhulkay Ku dhacdaye, Dhaantada dhulka maad ka qaadaan.” It means: “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 (God willing).

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.

In Ethiopia, there is an annual cultural event called Nationalities and Peoples’ Day (Beher Behere Sewoch). This year’s edition is already underway in Jijiga. Today as I post this blog, tens of thousands of people of different ethnicities and religion will be showcasing their customs in Jijiga, the capital of Somali Regional State, Ethiopia.  This year’s event, the largest ever, has attracted hundreds of national, regional and international delegations including for the first time, Somali leaders from across the Horn of Africa. To mark this historic progress you can download my Dhaanto track Hiddo & Dhaqan free throughout December here https://soundcloud.com/aar-maanta/hiddo-dhaqan.

I understand that the Somali region/Ogaden is still a sensitive topic of discussion due to a painful history of injustices and present day allegations of human rights abuses. But I believe art is one thing that unites us all and that is why I love my profession.

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