Many of Minnesota's most popular Somali singers showed up for an August concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell. From left to right: Dalmar Yare, Jamiil Weheliye, DJ Flavio, Sahra Cumar Dhuule, Hodan Abdirahman (center), Ilkacase Qays Credit: Photo courtesy of Xidig Productions for Ambassadors of Culture

On one of the last scorching weeknights in August, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees, Minneapolis hosted an outdoor Somali concert at Lake Harriet. Somali music events usually take place at night and tend to occur in conjunction with political events. This event, “Som-Fest: Somali Cultural and Music night,” attracted some of the community’s political leaders. But the event focused on a different kind of unity—a gathering of Somali Minnesotans of different ages and regional backgrounds. And it helped introduce a new nonprofit called Ambassadors of Culture, started by a popular Somali singer, Dalmar Yare. 

People in the Twin Cities will have another great opportunity this fall to enjoy and engage with Somali culture and music. The Somali Museum of Minnesota is hosting a 10th anniversary celebration October 21–22. And the event will continue to highlight the depth and diversity of Somali cultural production, among local artists and international performers.  

The August event took place on a Tuesday night at the Lake Harriet Bandshell stage, with the lake glistening in the background. DJ Flavio, a young prominent Somali American musician, performed a mic check while boats zipped behind the stage and airplanes flew overhead–objects of fascination for the young kids in the audience. 

Their mothers and fathers stuck around through dusk, giving their ears over to the music playing over the loudspeaker while keeping an eye on the kids. One young girl told her mom she was there to dhaanto (a popular dance that hails from the Somali region of Ethiopia). After that, the girl said, they could leave;  her mother enthusiastically signed on to this plan. 

Nearby, a young couple wore matching colors, while cuddling their 8-month-old baby. One thing was clear: Despite the heat, parents were enthusiastic to go out with their kids and enjoy the music they grew up on, without having to worry about a babysitter. 

What seemed ordinary about the night was actually, in some way, extraordinary. Minnesota is a hub for Somalis in America. Many Somali Minnesotans are thriving when it comes to economic progress and political power.  But third- and fourth-generation Somalis face challenges in navigating how to participate in youth entertainment while staying engaged with family and cultural traditions. 

That was the goal of Dalmar Yare, the St. Cloud–based singer who organized this event through his new nonprofit, Ambassadors of Culture “We want to be the bridge between cultures: the Western culture and Somali culture,” Dalmar said. “We also want to bring back live Somali music and create activities for the youth to give them things to do—but also a way to connect to their culture.”

“We want to be the bridge between cultures: the Western culture and Somali culture.”

Dalmar Yare, musician and founder of Ambassadors of Culture

Dalmar also touched on the notion of unity. Through its events, Ambassadors of Culture aims to bring the Somali community together in all aspects. At the August event, for example, no one mentioned the various Somali political territories—a rare occurrence in this day and age. And an array of Minnesota elected officials turned up as well: State Senator Omar Fateh; Jamal Osman, who is running for re-election as a Minneapolis council member in Ward 6; and Isaak Rooble, who is running for the District 4 city council seat in Bloomington.

“It was a beautiful, amazing event that was well put together. I was happy to see a lot of young people enjoying Somali culture and Somali music,” Isaak said.

The most impressive turnout appeared on the musical lineup: It seemed like a majority of Minnesota’s most popular singers came to perform. Hodan Abdirahman, the daughter of two singers, practically owns the Somali wedding circuit. When she performed at Lake Harriet, all the ladies in the audience ran to the stage to sing along with the queen. For her part, Hodan shook the hands of the young kids in the front row.

Hodan also performed a new hit song with Ilkacase Qays, one of the most popular and long-standing Somali rappers. Other Minnesota-based performers included Sahra Omar Dhuule, whose father was also a Somali musical star; and  Dalmar Yare, who made the whole event happen. 

This event also featured recent newcomers to Minnesota—Abdi Dhaanto and Jamiil Weheliye— performing their hit songs. This blending of longtime Minnesotans and recent arrivals reinforced both the sense of unity and Soomaalinimo, or Somaliness. 

Music brings Somalis together

In pre–civil war Somalia, artists were not only musicians but social activists as well. They spoke to the masses, making them aware of social issues and persuading them to listen. In this song, “Katashada Cadaawahoo Isku Tiirsanaada (Beware of the Enemy and Unite)” the late Magool and Hibo Nuura, urged Somalis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to come together as one. During this time, the newly independent Somalia was still dealing with the merging of the two colonial states: British Somaliland and Italian Somalia.

In “Cilmi iyo Caado,” one of the only Somali movies in the 1980s, prominent singers taught the masses to take advantage of the state’s new social services and cultural norms. Some of these new norms included a push toward modernization and urbanization, more liberal policies around women’s roles in the family and society; and a Somali-centric consciousness (as opposed to tribal consciousness).

Through the 1970–80s, the Somali state relied heavily on arts and culture to bring people together, and to feel proud of being Somali. The Somali National Theatre in Mogadishu stood out as a prime location for Somali cultural production; through plays, poets and singers merged their talents to speak to the masses. The government also supported cultural production at The Somali National Museum. 

Singers Maryam Mursal, Abdulqadir Jubba, Feynuus Sh. Dahir, and Hibo Nura (now a Minnesota resident) performed legendary songs that Somalis continue to sing and perform to this day. Older generations of Somalis recall Curuba and Jubba Hotel, gathering places right by the Indian Ocean, where fans would come to hear singers like these and enjoy a night out. 

The fall of the Somali nation state meant the demise of a shared arts and cultural section—and the evolution of a divided and fragmented Somali community.

In creating Ambassadors of Culture, Dalmar Yare seems to be taking cues from that Somali history. Ambassadors of Culture represents two things, he explained. It’s the name of his musical act: In 2017, Dalmar produced an Ambassadors of Culture album, “Toughs and Happy,” and performed at First Avenue. Now, Ambassadors is also a nonprofit that he hopes can take up the work of cultural diplomacy and cultural heritage development. 

Younger Somalis may never have experienced that fruitful culture. But having worked as a schoolteacher in St. Cloud for the past 10 years—and as an artist in residence at the Cedar Cultural Center in the 2010s—Dalmar has seen the gaps that Somali youth face, trying to blend their American interests with their Somali identity. 

Dalmar Yare, seen here at an August concert in Minneapolis, has turned his band, Ambassadors of Culture, into a nonprofit that supports live community events. “We plan to continue to put a lot of projects together around youth, sports, and culture,” he says. Credit: photo courtesy of Xdig Productions for Ambassadors of Culture

Dhaanto is a dance with a difference

The dance of the night was Dhaanto–performed by a musician who goes by the stage name Abdi Dhaanto.

The singer’s actual name is Abdinor Nihaya Ahmed and he arrived recently from Mogadishu. In that cosmopolitan capital, he spent the past decade promoting cultural development, through the government and beyond. Now relocated to Minnesota, Abdinor explained that dhaanto is a form of cultural expression that can remind Somalis everywhere of their cultural heritage and spread the principles of tolerance, respect, and peace.

What’s the secret? “The dance is rooted in Somali culture and Islam,” he said. “There is one row for women to dance and another row for men to dance. Although they dance together, there is not a time where they would overlap or dance on each other.” 

This example shows the way each party has a place: Men and women dance alongside each other, responding and reacting without overstepping their bounds. Throughout his career in Somalia, Abdinor said, this rooting in culture has allowed people to remember who they are as Somalis and promote a positive and inclusive society. 

Has it paid off? “Absolutely,” Abdinor replied. “There is a huge difference in society based on when I first started this work to present day”. 

In the few months he has been in America—he arrived in April—Abdinor has already performed and engaged with the Somali community in Minnesota and Ohio. As a singer and activist, he understands the value of culture and arts to engage the Somali community. He also sees the opportunity to share Somali culture with a broader audience. Dhaanto is a dance form that is highly engaging and fun; people of all backgrounds can enjoy it together. 

More opportunities to appreciate dhaanto 

If you have not danced along to dhaanto, don’t worry: You will have a chance soon. The Lake Harriet event kicked off a series of shows, led by Ambassador of Culture and the Somali Museum Dance Troupe. 

In a show at the end of August, in St. Cloud, Dalmar Yare sang alongside his live band and Somali Museum dance troupe. It’s the kind of musical performance that hasn’t been seen often since before the Somali civil war.  

“We plan to continue to put a lot of projects together around youth, sports, and culture,” Dalmar said. “A lot of this work has been going on in silos. But this was an opportunity to bring all the various stakeholders—community leaders, musicians, business people—together to show their support.” 

Dalmar will continue his collaboration with the Somali Museum of Minnesota at the 10th anniversary show, hosted by the Ames Center, in Burnsville. Some of the Minnesota-based artists who played the Lake Harriet festival—including Sahra Omar Dhuule and Hodan Abdirahman—will also perform during this monumental two-night celebration. 

Other headliners include popular artist Suldaan Seerar, UK-based multi talented Fadumiina Hilowle, and 3One, a recent sensation. It’s another chance to enjoy Minnesota-based artists and Somali cultural producers at a showcase rooted in Somalinimo and style. 

To learn more about Dhaanto and the Somali Museum of Minnesota Dance Troupe, Minneapolis based director Yasmin Yassin’s “Dhaanto” exhibition, will have a showing at Soomaal House of Art at 6 p.m. on Friday, October 27 

Click here to purchase tickets for the Somali Museum of Minnesota’s 10th anniversary events, October 21–22. 

Amina Isir Musa is a writer, researcher and community builder. She produces ISIRKA, a blog and podcast dedicated to what identity, culture, and belonging means in a Somali context.