Superstar, refugee, legend: Singer Maryan Mursal's voice endures

Before Somalia descended into chaos, before she was a refugee, it was easy to hear Maryan Mursal, whose melodious voice could pierce your soul.

As a teenager, she started singing in Mogadishu's nightclubs, a challenging undertaking in a conservative Muslim society. Her fame exploded at age 14 when she passed her first audition held at the government-run Radio Mogadishu.

Afterward, she started collaborating with Somalia's popular musical group Waaberi, or "Dawn," known for its nationalistic songs and plays performed at the Somali National Theatre.

Musician friends prominent in Mogadishu's entertainment industry recognized her potential. By the 1970s, she was a young superstar in Somalia and saw a long singing career ahead of her.


But then politics intruded. In the 1980s, the Somali government banned Mursal from performing anywhere in the country for two years after she sang a political song critical of President Mohamed Siad Barre's regime. Mursal started driving a taxi to support her family, becoming one of the first Somali women to do that work in Mogadishu.

She began singing in Somalia again after the ban was lifted in 1988. But by late 1989, armed factions in the country began clashing. Two years later, the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. In 1991, Mursal found herself scrambling for safety. The sound of her music was replaced by the buzzing sound of bullets flying from every direction in Mogadishu.

A refugee, Mursal and her five children spent six months crisscrossing countries in the Horn of Africa, from Kenya to Ethiopia and then to Djibouti before finally ending up in Denmark, which gave her asylum. "I'm black Danish," she told The Current's Mark Wheat in an interview, which will be broadcast on The Current at 7 p.m. Friday.

Now 65 years old, Mursal remains a legend and one of the few Somali professional female vocalists. She travels around the world to perform. She's been in Minnesota this week for a fellowship sponsored by the Cedar Cultural Center and Augsburg College. She has been meeting with community members and doing workshops. She'll finish her visit with a performance Saturday at The Cedar.

If you go

Maryan Mursal
Where: The Cedar, 416 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 day of show

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