Maryam Mursal

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The life story of Somalia-born and Denmark-based vocalist Maryam Mursal would be unbelievable were it not true. One of the first professional female vocalists of Muslim faith, Mursal was a star in her…
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The life story of Somalia-born and Denmark-based vocalist Maryam Mursal would be unbelievable were it not true. One of the first professional female vocalists of Muslim faith, Mursal was a star in her homeland while still in her teens. Having developed the unique blend of Islamic and African influences that she calls "Somali Jazz" in the nightclubs, Mursal was a top recording artist by the mid-'80s. With the release of her single, "Ulimada (The Professor)," in 1986, however, her whole world changed. As she explained during a 1998 interview, "the lyrics were a subtle criticism of our president, Mohammed Siad Barre, for killing his own people" and led to her music being banned by the Somalian government. Mursal was forced to temporarily give up her musical career and work as Somalia's first female taxi and lorry driver. Although the independence of Somalia allowed her to return to music, intertribal fighting led her to flee the country, along with five of her ten children. After spending a brief period in a refugee camp in Kenya, she fled the camp after her daughters were threatened with rape. Bribing their way out, they embarked on a seven-month trip across the Horn of Africa, eventually making their way to Denmark where they were granted refugee status. Mursal's fortunes changed for the better, in 1992, when she was overheard singing to a group of 300 fellow refugees by Soren Kjoer Jensen, a freelance photographer who became her producer and manager. Two years later, she was signed to the Real World record label by Peter Gabriel, who called her "an artist of enormous grace and extraordinary vocal power." Her debut album, The Journey, produced by Simon Emmerson and Martin Russell of the Afro Celt Sound System, was a masterful blend of Somali jazz and western instrumentation.

Born into a Muslim family of all daughters, Mursal grew up in the Midgen tribe or clan, an ethnic group that was viewed as gypsies in Somalia. Her early musical experiences came as a member of the group, Waaberi, a national troupe of dancers, musicians, singers, writers, and composers. Several members of the group accompanied her on her second album, New Dawn, released in July 1997.