Reflections on the role of arts in fostering intergenerational dialogue and social cohesion
Scholars in arts have convincingly argued for the community-making potential of various creative expressions from artistic activities that bring people together in ways that shape their social networks to the use of performances, objects and texts as mediums for temporarily experiencing and imagining communal aspirations.
As much as poetry, music, dance, and visual arts provide deeply meaningful sites for building collective identities, they too can become sources of debates and social negotiation.
These manifold functions of arts and culture in relation to international Somali Diaspora came forth at the Nordic Somali Week Festival 2016 which was held in Finland during December 8‒10, 2016. The festival, which was organized by Kayd Somali Arts & Culture in partnership with the University of Helsinki, Redsea Cultural Foundation (Hargeisa), Somaliland Seura and Pasila Library, brought together artists, scholars, activists and other interested parties from Somali and non-Somali backgrounds to engage in discussion and thinking about lived experiences through language and arts.
While recognizing the value of this occasion for building partnerships and enforcing a sense of shared cultural heritage among Somali diaspora in Nordic countries and the United Kingdom, I would like to use a report of my experiences as a participant in some of the festival events and observations on the festival program as a way to shed light on the potential of the arts to foster intergenerational dialogue and social cohesion.
The opening day of the festival was dedicated to linguistic and pedagogical themes surrounding the recent establishment of Somali-language course track at the University of Helsinki and the far-reaching impacts that institutionalization of the study of Somali language and literature can have on future generations of Somali diaspora in Finland.
The topics of discussion addressed differing levels of curricular integration of Somali language from elementary school to university level courses. To that end, leading international scholars shared their views on topics pertinent to literature and language studies across the board.
Furthermore, one target area of the program was the relationship between language teaching and the needs of elementary schools. A perhaps internationally less known feature of the highly regarded Finnish educational system is that schools offer two hours of supplementary teaching to children from immigrant backgrounds in their native languages, including Somali language.
What seems like simply a practical need in primary schools actually highlights the key role of community members with Somali background who are being trained as class assistants. To this end, the stated focus of the conference was to train them to “become effective cultural mediators for families and Finnish education authorities.”
The second day of the festival was dedicated to Somali oral cultures which one could view in dual terms as celebrated sites of cultural heritage as well as malleable instruments for self-expression in diaspora. It is worth mentioning that this part of the program was held at the Library of Pasila, which houses one of the largest collections of Somali literature and recordings available for the general public through the Finnish library system.
In fostering the sense of library as a “place of inclusion” as per the festival program, the days’ activities were held in the “Multilingual Library” section adjacent to the library entrance where they were not only at the purview of anybody visiting the library, but where the attendees and performers were surrounded by literature for all ages in over 80 languages, books teaching Finnish as a second language and other materials about culture and language for non-native Finnish speakers.
The program was mainly in Somali language, but even non-Somali speakers could appreciate the tuneful intonation, dynamic cadences, and rhythmic repetition of the spoken word.
Whereas an effort to translate Somali poetry into English or to other languages poses specific complexities (as a blog post from the event by Outi K. effectively illustrates), it should be noted that generations of Somali-speaking audiences as well may perceive poetic language in differing ways.
A participant at the afternoon session told me that for him the recited poems were a refreshing reminder of his Somali cultural heritage and as such they evoked memories of the homeland. He suggested that the same might be true for other older members in the audience who grew up in Somalia. Yet at the same time he was concerned whether the younger generation could understand the old poetic language. In his view, without an understanding of the older language style the younger generation might not be able to access, or have the desire to know the cultural heritage carried by these poems.
In addition, he observed that the session was attended almost entirely by men and he expressed a hope that women too could be reached for an event like this where cultural heritage is presented and discussed. His observations effectively spoke to the evolving nature of language, its contextual adaptability, and the need to promote the understanding of the past and present encoded in language. For this end women can play critical roles as often the first teachers of culture and language to their children.
It bears mentioning that the festival hosted also a literature exhibition at the Pasila Library. The exhibition showcased several books, newspapers and other printed materials documenting the Somali presence in Finland since the 1980s. For instance, on display one could find Somalia Tiedotuslehti (1987‒1994) and KOOR (1995‒2015), both published by Finland-Somalia association (Suomi-Somalia Seura). (Issues since 2006 can be found online).
These materials, albeit held in a private collection, constitute an important repository of locally produced knowledge. Complementary to the cultural memory preserved in the strong oral traditions of Somali diaspora, printed materials can serve as valuable primary sources for historians and other members of Somali diaspora interested in contributing to the written record of localized histories.
Taking into account the ongoing institutionalization of Somali language, it might be an opportune time for considering the establishing of a central cultural archive of Somali diaspora in Finland as a resource for present and future generations.
Musical celebration as a common ground
One could say that the final day of the festival catered not only for the “young” but the many “youthful” participants of the festival. The program sponsored by Kanava, an NGO and advocacy group for immigrant youth, included readings of poetry and short stories, and a concert. The events of the day were held at two youth centers in Helsinki.
One of the featured poets on Saturday afternoon was a UK based poet Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf (lead photo) whose video-taped performance included a powerful poem ‒ a woman’s prayer to God asking for a virtuous man to marry ‒ which was also translated into English.
The culminating event of the festival was the concert of Ali Dhaanto, a singer who has emerged from the Somali Ethiopian region to great popularity among diasporic audiences. Singing on top of prerecorded tracks, Dhaanto deployed his warm-toned voice with agility through multihued microtonal inflections and engaged the audience with his sympathetic stage presence. Dhaanto was accompanied on the stage by three male dancers wearing Somali traditional dress.
Dhaanto’s performance was supported by Aweys Shaambi who operated as a DJ on a laptop computer. A rising star in the Finnish music scene, Shaambi also sung for the audience when Dhaanto went on a break off-stage. Shaambi who changed from a traditional dress to a casual outfit for his own performance entertained the audience with skilled showmanship. His charismatic performance was complete with choreographed moves including Michael Jackson style hat-tipping.
To be sure, the concert brought together a truly inclusive community of three generations of Somali diaspora from children to elders. In addition, as I was told afterwards, some “virtual participants” viewed the concert through live video calls made by their family and friends. It is possible that some “virtual participants” were as far as in Somalia.
All in all, what could be considered the high point of Ali Dhaanto’s concert, several women and men, and boys and girls from the audience came together for a dhaanto dance in front of the stage.
The Nordic Somali Festival 2016 effectively showed how various forms of arts can serve as potent forces to advance intergenerational dialogue and social cohesion. Furthermore, the festival program highlighted the important role of language together with its relationship to creative expressions in negotiating a place of belonging in the diaspora.
In an interview, Habiba Ali, a community leader and advocate who attended the concert told me that events like this festival are especially beneficial for the youth, many of whom “live in-between two cultures.” She continued that especially for individuals who left Somalia as children or who were born in Finland, poetry and music like other artistic expressions from the homeland or produced in the diaspora can help reinforce their Somali identities.
Ali’s views parallel those expressed in the book Suomen somalit by young Somalis in Finland who do not feel “entirely Finnish” as they struggle with a sense of “Otherness” in the society at the same time as they, having lived mostly in the West, seek means to relate to the culture of Somalia.
Ali also brought up the annual Somali Book Fair held at the capital region as an example of successful community engagement through arts and in so doing she posited that cultural events that attract international diaspora constituents are a welcome way to raise the cultural awareness of Somali youth in Finland.
With Ali’s insights in mind and other perspectives gathered from the Nordic Somali Festival, I believe that it constituted a landmark event that presented multifarious ways in which language and arts within the broader field of culture can play instrumental roles in shaping localized cultural consciousness that in turn helps foster intergenerational dialogue and build social cohesion.
Nina C. Öhman
Nina C. Öhman is a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation examines historical shifts in female gospel music traditions and their influence in American popular music. She also holds a master’s degree in business administration.
The lead photo captured from video by Antti-Ville Kärjä and Jouni Eerola
I would like to thank:
Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music, University of Pennsylvania for sharing his insights on transmission of generational knowledge in gospel music performances of Karen Clark Sheard and her daughter Kierra Sheard, which greatly helped my conceptualizations for this article.
Habiba Ali for her perspectives and support for my study of Somali music within diaspora communities.
Antti-Ville Kärjä and Jouni Eerola of the Music Archive JAPA (Musiikkiarkisto JAPA) for the video material, which was very useful for this article.
Final Program. Nordic Somali Week Festival ‒ Finland 2016.
Frith, Simon (1996). Music and Identity, in Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (eds.): Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage Publications, 108‒127.
Jones, Kellie (2012). Eye-Minded, Living and Writing Contemporary Art. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
K., Outi (2016). Encounters of Language and Poetry at Nordic Somali Festival (blog post)
Kapteijns, Lidwien (2009). Discourse on Moral Womanhood in Somali popular Songs, 1960-1990. Journal of African History 50: 101‒122.
Mubarak, Yusuf M. & Eva Nilsson & Niklas Saxén (2015). Suomen somalit. Helsinki: Into Kustannus.
Nieuwkerk, Karin van & Mark LeVine & Martin Stokes, eds. (2016). Islam and Popular Culture. Austin: University of Texas.
Turino, Thomas (2008) Music as Social Life. The Politics of Participation. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.
Video recordings used for this article have been produced as part of a research project “Music, Multiculturality, and Finland” funded by the Academy of Finland. The original video recordings filmed by Antti-Ville Kärjä and Jouni Eerola are archived in the Music Archive JAPA.