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Hudeidi: The Somali ‘king of oud’ who was felled by coronavirus

Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi, a founding father of modern Somali music, died in London after contracting coronavirus at the age of 91. The BBC’s Mary Harper was a friend of his.

Whenever Hudeidi played his oud, it was impossible to keep still.

Bodies swayed, hands clapped and fingers snapped. His music was transporting and somehow possessed your whole being.

But there was even more to Hudeidi, or the “king of oud” as he was popularly known, than his sublime music.

He was a life force; warm, generous, humble and funny.

Bus driver as student

From the moment I met him, I felt I was part of his family.

I was not the only one. He welcomed everybody to his London home, preparing strong Yemeni coffee and offering a bed to anyone who needed it.

It was an informal music school, with people coming from all over the world to learn from the maestro.

One student was a Somali woman in her 60s who had never before been allowed to learn music. Another was a bus driver.

Hudeidi was born in the Somali port city of Berbera in 1928. He grew up across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen and was attracted to music from a young age.

“Whenever I saw the police band playing drums, I would run after them, imagining I was beating those instruments. I would get carried away, losing the sense of time, until a member of the family would find me and take me home,” he once said.

When Hudeidi was 14 years old, his father took him to a party in Aden. An oud was being played and Hudeidi fell in love.

He described his affection for the rounded wooden instrument as an illness; whenever he saw one, he just had to pick it up and play.

It was around this time that Hudeidi met the legendary Somali composer and oud player, Abdullahi Qarshe.

“One day I began to touch and caress his oud. Qarshe noticed this immediately and asked me what kind of things my father bought me to take to school.

“I said: ‘Books and pencils’. Qarshe said that was fine but that he should also buy me a basic oud.”

‘Devil’s work’

Hudeidi learned quickly and shone as a player, winning prizes at carnivals and making a name for himself. He moved back to Somaliland, then on to Djibouti where he was booted out by the French colonisers for singing political songs.

He went back home, where he also got in trouble with the authorities. At one time they tried to ban his music, describing it as the “devil’s work”.

The musician once wrote a letter to the head of the National Security Service asking: “Where is that large vessel brimming with fresh milk and the lush grass they had promised?”

He said this angered the man, who “sent a stern word to me to the effect that if I did not stop such mischief, they would see to it that my high reputation among Somalis would be ruined”.

His popularity made other performers jealous. He described how some envious musicians poured ghee into his oud, which led him to compose the verse:

If I am not precious to you, Oh Ms Nothing

And your succour is no more, I, too, have given up on you

Hudeidi eventually settled in London but travelled all over the world, delighting people with his musical mastery. Age was no issue. He was still playing concerts in his 90s.



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