Asian Music and Dance

Abdulkarim Raas & Kuljit Bhamra present Somali Party Southall

From its opening flourish, Hobey Hobey Heleyoy (‘Come Sing and Dance’) with its blend of Punjabi and Somali ingredients, the pretty much unerring plus ça change philosophical logic of Somali Party Southall is bracing. Southall to the west of London was one of the first districts settled by post-war South Asian immigrants. Close to the then-London Airport, now Heathrow, like nearby Cranford and Hounslow’s ‘under the flight path’ overspills, Southall’s proximity to the airport promised work, much of it requiring only basic English. In the grand moniker tradition of immigration, Southall became voilà! Little Punjab.

The corny-as-kitsch, self-mythologising Glassy Junction – ‘World Famous Punjabi Pub’ – at the corner of South Road and Park Avenue even had the desi gimmick of reputedly accepting rupees as well as sterling for a glassy (‘small glass’). Nobody believed the pub had opened in the 1990s; clearly it had been there since the Middle Ages BOAC. Southall’s retail opportunities and ethnic make-up are different now. Nowadays the Glassy Junction is a vegetarian restaurant, yet the music it once blasted out in the saloon bar still haunts Southall (and Somali Party Southall) because the town remains one of the spiritual shrines to that British-Asian invention, pop-bhangra. That mutant commercial form of amplified Punjabi folk music no longer vies solely with Bollywood, Michael Jackson or Beyoncé in Southall. Later waves of incomers saw to that.

During the 2012 Olympics the success of the Mogadishu-born, Hounslow-raised athlete Mo Farah broadcast the existence of a West London-based Somali diaspora. Over the last dozen or so years Southall’s Little Punjab has seen a Little Mogadishu spring up, centred on Somali-run businesses by The Green. Sadly, Somali music has very little presence outside its own immediate diaspora or expat community. A London-based Horn of Africa analogy may provide historical context. When the Ethiopian diva Aster Aweke made her sold-out debut at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho in 1989, like some hitherto invisible republic, thousands of hopefuls without a snowball-in-Addis Ababa’s chance of admittance turned up to party outside the venue and shut down Frith Street.

Somali Party Southall is an alert that Somali culture has successfully put down roots and is prospering. Horticulturally speaking, Abdulkarim Raas & Kuljit Bhamra’s double-hander is less a transplant than a graft. The project bears witness to a typically Southall solution: the melting-pot. In the annals of pop-bhangra, Southall is not only linked with Alaap – one of whom had an office above the Glassy Junction – but also Mohinder Kaur Bhamra, one of the music’s pioneers. (To add other names would derail the tale.) She sings on Somali Party Southall. Her son, Kuljit Bhamra (a fixture in various capacities from, among others, work ‘with, in or on’ Hans Raj Hans, Heera, Andy Sheppard, Bend it Like Beckham, Bombay Dreams and Zoe Rahman) came into the orbit of Abdulkarim Raas. In 2006 Raas booked into Bhamra’s Southall recording studio. The upshot was that the Nairobi-born owner Punjabified a song called Dahab – the historic launch pad for this collaboration.

Back home in Somalia, the release of Dahab made a conquest of another kind. A young woman called Nimco Degan came under the Southall spell. Kismet raised her cute little head. Not too long afterwards, she came to England, tracked Raas down and in time became his wife. Her fresh-voiced, melismatic singing on Ya Salam, Ya Salam (colloquially ‘Oh Wow’ times two) is one of Somali Party Southall’s highlights. At the project’s heart are Punjabi, Somali and Swahili elements, brilliantly reflecting the complexities of the town’s ethnic complexion. Jambo (‘Hallo’) and Malaika (‘Angel’) carry echoes of yet another diaspora, the Indian East African one, for example.

What sets Somali Party Southall apart from those far-too-many mishmash world fusion albums sent to plague us is that, musically, it has grown together organically. Aside from the album’s indisputable musical slash cultural worth, it is also important sociologically. It’s not often that a music critic chap can say that in a record review.



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