While hair metal was king on the U.S. music scene, Nimco Yasin was performing around the world with some of Somalia’s most talented singers and dancers.
Thirty years and a civil war later, Yasin’s legacy lives on in the Somali diaspora, a displaced population living around the world as refugees and immigrants.
Yasin is performing at the Paramount Center for the Arts on Saturday as part of a residency through the Cedar Cultural Center. In the spirit of Midnimo, the name of her residency which means united in Somali, tickets to the show are free for students with an ID.
In the 1980s, she was part of the Waaberi group, translated as “dawn players.” Sponsored by the Somali government, the group traveled the world and claimed more than 300 members over its 30-year history. As the political situation in Somalia grew more unstable, Yasin and many other artists fled Somalia. Yasin landed in the United Kingdom in 1989. Other musicians weren’t so lucky. Some were arrested or killed as the Somali government collapsed, plunging the country into civil war.
At that time, it would still be a decade before the 2017 graduating class at Apollo High School was born. But as demonstrated by a long line of students waiting to take a photo with her, she’s still well known, said language arts teacher Vanessa VanLaanen.
“If they didn’t recognize her by her name alone, they recognized her music right away — almost all of them. Or they were like, ‘I think my mom listens to that,’ ” VanLaanen said, if they were Somali. “If they weren’t, they had no idea who she was but they were really excited that she was coming.”
She said she hopes her students take advantage of the free tickets and bring their families to the show Saturday.
Yasin met with students performing in Apollo’s culture show on May 5. Some performed for her, including a dance group that’s using some of Yasin’s music. Through local Somali musician Dalmar Yare as interpreter, Yasin said she really enjoyed the performances and many were very talented.
“So far, it’s been my favorite day,” she said, of the residency.
That’s saying something. Yasin has been in Mankato and all around St. Cloud as part of the residency for more than three weeks. In St. Cloud, she’s met with St. Cloud State University students and with students at two Boys & Girls Clubs locations.
On Friday, she visits Hands Across the World, a program that helps refugees and other immigrants learn English and other skills.
Yasin’s visit was a unique opportunity for Somali teens.
“Our school has so many Somali students and we’ve brought in so many different performers … but what’s on stage never really shows us who is in our school. So this program kind of acted like a mirror for us, that it was finally able to put some representation on the stage, to show students, hey, people like you can be on stage. So it gives them some more home and inspiration for sure,” VanLaanen said.
The live public performance serves dual purposes. It introduces St. Cloud’s arts and entertainment community to the Somali community, including Paramount Arts. Some parents didn’t know what the Paramount was, VanLaanen said.
It also introduces the St. Cloud community to Somali arts and entertainment.
“It’s the reason we have this program called Midnimo,” said Abdul Ibrahim, community liaison and tour assistant with the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. “It means unity … to reach out … not only to Somalis but to other cultures,”
Many Americans dismiss music because it’s in another language or it’s unfamiliar, said Deevo , a musician playing as part of Yasin’s band during the residency.
VanLaanen said her students were ready to take on that challenging, navigating intercultural communication issues that arise and learn from each other. They were, however, worried they wouldn’t understand the music.
“(I said), That’s OK. Listen. You’re going to enjoy listening. You’re going to enjoy watching,” she said. “While the meaning doesn’t always translate … the music still seems to translate or speaks for itself.”
She gave them a quick example.
“None of my students know Korean but they’re all into K-pop,” VanLaanen said.
Yasin and the mostly Minnesotan musicians playing with her have had to navigate their own communication issues. Yasin doesn’t speak much English, and the musicians don’t speak Somali. But Yasin was able to convey her displeasure with the wave of a hand, they said.
It required some music translation as well. While American music is usually based on an eight-beat pattern, Somali music can vary. But after a day or so figuring out how they’d fit together, the band was able to make it work.
Yasin and the band joined a SCSU class where a student asked a really good question, said DeCarlo Jackson, who plays bass with the group.
“How do you think playing Somali music here in St. Cloud will affect the culture of our community?” he said. “I was like, whoa! That’s a lot in a question. It’s the most effective way this can affect people is that if people who are not Somali come to the show and try their hardest to understand the music of another culture, or just to see the fun, dance around the way everybody else will be dancing around.”
“The energy is contagious,” VanLaanen said.