Sahra 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”.
Sahra 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.
“I started singing when I was 13,” she says. “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.”
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, a few years ago Halgan returned to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. There she opened a studio that is apparently the only place in the country where musicians and poets can produce their work. 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.’
“I want the whole world to know there is a democratic, peaceful country called Somaliland. The world is forgetting four million people. It’s as if we don’t exist. It’s not just.”