Something beyond the typical Halloween festivities will occur Friday night at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
There will be costumes of a sort — flowing robes on the women, uniform shirts and ties on the men. But when the Taleex Band raises its voices for some Somali music that blends tradition and modernity, the result will be the opposite of scary.
“The message and the melody are both very important in our music,” said Farhan Hussein, one of many singers in the lineup. “It is about love and caring and how you treat others. Our most popular songs are about the equality of love.”
One of only a few Somali music ensembles in the United States, the Taleex Band usually comprises nine or 10 vocalists, divided almost equally along gender lines, backed by a three-piece band. But Friday’s gig — which is free and open to the public — is an especially ambitious affair. While it typically plays just a handful of songs for a wedding or to welcome a visiting dignitary, the band will perform two 45-minute sets, augmented by three or four jazz musicians from nearby Augsburg College.
The Cedar concert will culminate a weeklong slate of activities that is part of an arts residency for the band at Augsburg. All of it is under the aegis of a project called Midnimo, the Somali word for unity. Sponsored by a $200,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Midnimo will enable the Cedar and Augsburg to host five Somali musical acts from around the world — Taleex is the first, and the only local, ensemble — over the next two years to foster cross-cultural understanding.
“Six organizations around the globe, partnering with colleges and universities, were given grants to connect millennials to Islamic cultures,” said Fadumo Ibrahim, the Cedar’s Somali cultural liaison. “All the other ones are theater organizations — we are the only one doing musical performance. Many Augsburg students, as well as those in the surrounding community, aren’t familiar with how Somali Muslim culture is different from Muslim culture among the Palestinians or Iraqis or Malaysians.”
Taleex Band is actually a confederation of various singers who once performed individually. Ahmed Gaashaanle, who came to this country as a teenager around the turn of the century, ostensibly founded the group by persuading others to unite around him and his resourceful cohorts, including oud player Ahmed Omar and songwriter Maxamed Guun.
“Ahmed would see these people at weddings and parties where they played, and said everyone can make more money if they work together, with a songwriter who could create new songs with them,” explained Ibrahim, who also helped translate a recent interview with Taleex members.
YouTube videos show the group rousing crowds to clap and dance, led by spare, lilting rhythms and vocal harmonies providing counterpoint to a succession of singers, each taking a chorus. “Rehearsals help us decide on the singing,” Hussein said. “It might be two males, and then we decide it would be better with a man and a woman.”
The extended length of the Halloween concert will enable more individual singing performances, which has kept Guun busy writing material, with vocalist Farah Ali serving as his primary co-composer.
Near the end of a group interview following a recent rehearsal, the band members were asked if there was anything they wanted to add. Gaashaanle, the founder, said it was important to know that Taleex is named after the Dervish military fortifications that were a crucial defense during Somalia’s battles with the British and Italian colonialists in the early 20th century.
Then Omar, slightly older than the other members, unfolded his laptop and brought up a YouTube clip of a solo recording he had made: the Somalia national anthem on oud.
“Most of the countries who play oud use seven strings. In Somalia, we use a five-string oud,” he said, his voice full of pride. He’ll be playing those strings Friday.