Socially conscious instrumentalist whose innovative songwriting helped to shape modern music in his homeland of Somalia
The musician Ahmed Ismail Hudeidi, who has died aged 91, was the acknowledged king of the oud, a short-necked, lute-type instrument that is widely played across Africa and the Middle East. More than that, he developed a style on that instrument that came to epitomise modern Somali music.
In the 1950s he began to put traditional Somali folksongs to new instrumentation, and he also composed in a new “Qaraami” style, which, like the blues, could tell love stories as well as comment on life and society. Songs such as Ur Hooyo, Riftoon, Rogaal and Raheye became classics that have been reproduced by Somali musicians of every generation since – and remain popular still.
Although he was better known in Africa and the Middle East, later in life Hudeidi came to prominence further afield, when he moved to London in his 70s and began performing to world music fans and the Somali diaspora at concerts around Europe and the US.
Born in Berbera, in the British Somaliland Protectorate, Hudeidi was carried over the Gulf of Aden at 40 days old by his young mother, Qarad Hirsi, to join his father, Ismail Hussein, who was a police sergeant in the Aden Protectorate, which was also under British control.
According to his biographer, Sultan Ali Shire, Hudeidi was a boisterous and restless boy, and was first introduced to music by a schoolteacher in Aden, who gave him a drum. At 17 he started playing the violin, and a few years later he bought an oud. He had a short stint in the Royal Navy as a cadet, which took him to Portsmouth in 1948. But his main intent was to become a musician, and in 1952, having left the navy, he was crowned “King of the Oud” after winning a contest that brought musicians from all over the British empire to Aden. That same year he also established a band called Hawd, which grew into an influential musical and social force in Aden.
Hawd was a group of 12 men that performed plays and musicals; the men also taking on female roles, as women were not allowed on stage at the time. It was during his period as an oud player in Hawd that Hudeidi wrote some of his most famous material, including the love song Riftoon, which was named after a French perfume, Rève d’Or, that was popular with Adeni women in the 1950s.
When the British Somaliland Protectorate became the republic of Somali in 1960, Hudeidi composed a song, Dhalad (literally “to be born”), that was sung as the flag was raised at the new country’s official independence celebrations in the city of Hargeisa. Shortly afterwards he moved from Aden to Hargeisa and began experimenting with his new Qaraami style and embarking on a hugely creative period during which many of his most popular songs were written.
In 1961 Hudeidi moved to the nearby state of French Somaliland, joining the anti-colonial struggle there and helping to establish a local orchestra, becoming a folk-hero in the process. His resistance to French rule led to many arrests and periods in detention, until finally he left the country in 1967, still without independence achieved.
Back in Somalia, Hudeidi worked as a recording artist for the state-owned radio station and wrote an anti-corruption play, Macal Cune Muuqan Doonee, which he performed in Mogadishu. As a founding member of Waaberi, a national music troupe that brought together many well-known performers, he travelled to the Middle East, Sudan and Nigeria, as well as Zaire, where Waaberi performed on stage in the musical build up to the Muhammad Ali v George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in 1974. He also developed close relationships with the Sudanese singer Mohammed Wardi and the Ethiopian songwriter Ali Birra. As Somalia did not have a formal music industry, Hudeidi recorded tracks at home and then cassettes of his music were distributed via cafes and music stalls.
In the early 80s, as human rights violations by the mililtary regime in Somalia worsened, Hudeidi questioned the rule of the president, Siad Barre, and contributed to a long collaborative poem (made up of sections composed by different poets and songwriters) that was critical of Barre’s regime. In response the authorities cut his state-sponsored salary by half and he began to be sidelined. Eventually, in 1984, he was forced to flee the country, and he relocated to the former French Somaliland, which had finally become independent (as the republic of Djibouti) in 1977.
However, Djibouti was going through its own civil strife, and in 1994, aged 76, Hudeidi ended up as a refugee in London, the last stop in a life that had taken him to many places. In Britain he quickly began to reconnect with other Somali musicians who had been sown to the wind by various conflicts. Despite his age he also travelled widely across Europe, promoting Somali music and performing, in 2009, to an audience of 300,000 at the Mela world music festival in Norway. He also played in the US, in particular in Minneapolis, where many Somali refugees had settled, and was given the freedom of that city in 2004.
He taught the oud to young people, often for nothing, and was especially supportive of women playing the instrument, even though this had traditionally been seen as undesirable in his homeland. He was a cosmopolitan and generous-hearted man who used his genius for music as a balm for weary souls and as a weapon against oppression.
He is survived by seven children from various marriages.
• Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi, musician, born 15 April 1928; died 8 April 2020