ABDI QAYS: Singer/Songwriter/Musician, Poet and Playwright


Occasionally an artist has a moment that makes even skeptics think “O.K. maybe he is the best.” Abdi Qays achieved this in the late 1960’S, when he wrote a critically acclaimed play and performed hundreds of songs at the tender age of twenty something. The essentials fell into place, his songs highlighted only strengths, his voice never wavered, and his “Oud” player “Xodeydeh” flawlessly accentuated his songs.

What does it mean to say a single songwriter is the best? It’s pointless given human being’s idiosyncrasies. High standards can sometimes be a handicap. Abdi Qays never saw himself as the best. Picasso, the great twentieth century painter, once said, “Good taste kills creativity.” Therefore, a little shagginess that combats dull gentility is needed once in a while. Abdi Qays used to mingle with the crowd. He used to hold conversations in stairways, restaurants, teashops, and hallways and in “Qat chewing sessions.” As a result, he became one of the guys on the street.

But, Abdi Qays was anything but an ordinary individual. He was so gifted as a songwriter that his songs were sought years after they were released in cassette tapes. Such skill and talent is burdening. That is why the singer used to disappear for days, visiting the Great Somaliland saint, “Sheikh Omar,” who lived in “Haraf,” a thirty minute drive from Hargeisa, to get away from it all, i.e. fame.

But again, Mr. Abdi Qays demonstrates an invaluable gift as a songwriter: a genuine absence of ego. His most idyllic lyrics do not feel forced, because he tempers their poeticism with a conversational tone. Characters like his lover visiting him in a dream at mid-night or “Love” masquerading as a fellow traveler can express profundities because they have a plain side too. For instance, the following two songs come to mind (1) “Mar aad Xaaleyto ii Timid” or “When you visited me last night” (in my dream) (2.) “Umaleey Jaceyl Weli Jaar Ma Noqoteen?” or “Hey Omal, Did You and Love Ever Become Neighbors?”

When Abdi Qays sings, his voice gains depth through his artfully straightforward baritone, the vocal equivalent of a baarcadeh, or Somaliland folk singer. His melodies are just as beautifully adorned too. The singer’s humility allows for ambition. Like two other co-singer /songwriters, Faisel Omer and Mohamed Moogeh, he dwells on big, often difficult, moments in the lives of ordinary common people. By staying with them even as he flies into a metaphor, such as, (1) “Ubixii Baxaayow soodigan Abaarsaday” or “Hey! Blooming Flower. You Have Been Hit With A Drought” (2.) “Habar iyo Habeenkeed” or “Every Old Lady has her Day”, he maintains equanimity.

As a songwriter who is widely admired for the beauty of his songs and his plays, his perceptive and communicative skills as an interpreter of love and the inventiveness of his ideas, he has the title of “The Father of Love.” He also has the drawing power and natural ability to hold huge admiring audiences for hours while he is on stage. Such was the case during the “Barkhad Cas Performance,” in 1971. The singer offered his performance as a tribute to Mohamed Ismail “Barkhad Cas”, a Somaliland poet, playwright and anti-colonial nationalist, who flourished in the late fifties and early sixties. He saw a kindred spirit in the tribute.

Like “Barkhad Cas” his songs were about love and against oppression. And perhaps in the back of his mind was the hope that future generations of artists and music lovers will call him with equal generosity. The program could have stood on its merit without a unifying patron saint. Abdi Qays was his own singer and not a recreation of a past style. When he began to sing, with “Xodeydeh,” the great “Oud” player, doing his thing, his interpretation of the Somaliland repertory was admirably flexible, and although its overriding characteristic was bluesy or sad, some of the songs had a playful side too. His playful songs did not sit well with women nor did they suit all tastes. Some women thought he was using demeaning, lyrics to describe women. They cite some of the songs described below as examples:

Women are the ones who kill me
They are also the ones who breast-fed me
They are devils sent to distract men.
But I cannot stop seeing them.

I lost my respect
When I consulted
With a mind that
Was only fifteen years old?

You can either be patient with women forever
Or you can leave them alone forever
There is no other way to deal with them.
You are getting more beautiful by the day
And yet you tell me that you almost died!

Women’s mind is not that deep
Whoever consults with an arrogant rich woman!
Whoever goes to war
With a horse that was not
Trained for a war

But to his credit, Abdi Qaays was the one singer/songwriter who devoted an entire song in 1971 to the birth of his first born baby girl.

Hey! My first-born baby
You are from the tip
Of my heart and body

She is so soft tender
She has no muscles in her body
She has no heavy bones

My daughter
Don’t marry someone,
Who is not in love with you.
God shouldn’t allow you to marry
Someone who is angry all the time
Don’t live in misery and
Heartbroken in the rest of your life!

Abdi Qays was also the first person lionized as a guru, king, and expert on “love,” by fellow artists. For instance, Haji Gujis, one of the foremost songwriters, wrote a song in 1971 about Abdi Qays claiming that people should consult with him when it comes to love. This created a larger than life picture about the artist and his songs.

That love is a spear
And that there is no other disease
Greater than love
Ask Abdi Qays
The mystic expert.

Although Abdi Qays was proclaimed as the father of love and romance nationwide, it was his political songs that defined the entire decade of the 1970’s. His first political song was written in 1969, a few months after the infamous coup in Somalia led by the military dictator, Mohamed Siyad Barre.

You are playing with flying birds
You are speeding away in the air.
While the masses are thirsty
You are in the midst of water.

Life has been good to you
If you are winning today
Can you keep the victory for long?

People always lag behind
When the real work comes

Nafsi or (what goes around comes around)
Will come to our aid
Every old lady has her night
(Every dog has its day)

Following this coming of age period came another important period characterized by a question and answer series of songs known as the “Trilogy.” The two great poets, friends, and political soulmates, Abdi Qeys and Mohamed Ibrahim Hadrawi exchanged this series.

The first song that they exchanged was a song called “Aakhiro” or “Heaven” in English. This was an inquiring, self-reflecting song about existence, Heaven and Hell, and the Cosmos, by Abdi Qays. Mohamed Ibrahim Hadrawi answered these questions in a song called “AI Rahman.” He basically used the Koran, the Holy Book of Muslims, to answer them. The Somaliland fans interpreted the song in a political context, arguing that the song was an inquiry into the whereabouts of the hundreds of political prisoners in Somalia.

The many good men and decent women
Missing because of you
Is hard to count.

That you have beautiful large eyed women
And a day of reckoning
That we have heard about it too.

That you are the flaming fire
Pain and suffering,
That you are the one that creates
Helplessness, we have heard it too.

The many good men and decent women
Missing because of you
Is hard to count.

That you have beautiful large eyed women
And a day of reckoning
That we have heard about it too.

That you are the flaming fire
Pain and suffering,
That you are the one that creates
Helplessness, we have heard it too.

So heaven which direction are you located?
Where are you located?

The second song of the trilogy was a rebuttal to a song by his friend, Mohamed Ibrahim Hadrawi. Hadrawi’s song dealt with pan-Somalism. Here are some of the lyrics.

First, I am coming to see you
Second, I am carrying something with me
Be patient always
Oh! “Saharla” don’t be impatient!

The lyrics of Abdi Qeys’ rebuttal is:

Don’t come! Go back
Keep whatever you are carrying with you
I am impatient
“Soobaan” is saying!
The world has passed
The stage when you have
To wait for things to happen.

The food that is in front of you
Or in the palms of your hand
Is always best for the people
“Saharla” is telling you
Don’t come! Go back
Take back with you, whatever you are bringing
I am impatient

Abdi Qeys’s rebuttal opened a Pandora’s box. For immediately following this song, a number of poets and songwriters answered with their own poems, using poetry as the medium of exchange. This period opened, once again, a new period of Somali poetry discourse. The pros and cons of the song was discussed among the intellectuals, workers, and students nationwide. The military government of Somalia interpreted the song as anti-government and anti-Pan Somalism. They felt that the song was against the military government’s effort to court Djibouti (a small nation in the Horn of Africa populated by Somali speaking communities and Afars), which gained its independence from France in 1977. Furthermore, the military government of Somalia accused Abdi Qeys of fomenting trouble in Djibouti through his biased songs. They thought that he supported the pro- independent statehood factions. Because of his songs he became a marked man!

The third song of the trilogy by the poet was called “Baledweyn.” The lyrics of the song are:

Oh! Poor love
Today, you are gone
Today, you exist no more

“Burao” and “Nugaal”
Your “Lover” of yesterday
Did you forget “Boramah”?

False promises are no good
Indecision is your middle name

“Beerlulah,” you already mentioned her
But where is your lover in Berbera?
Where are the others in the good old days?

Every time, you implant
Love feelings to an innocent young girl!

Your needs are many and far between
Can you be divided into a hundred?

This song created yet another controversy because the government accused him of once again fomenting trouble in Somaliland, formerly called Northwest Somalia. They called his song a separatist pan-Somaliland song. ‘They argued that “Baledweyen,” the name of the song, was the name of a town in Southern Somalia and that he was making fun of the town and its people. In conclusion, they accused him of forcing “Hadrawi,” to sing only about Somaliland women! This was an uncalled accusation but the military government put him in prison for a number of years because of these false accusations, anyway.


Abdi Qeys’s genius lies on the use of metaphors for the songs he wrote in the 1960’s and 1970’s. For instance, just prior to the coup-d-etat in Somalia, the government, of then Mohamed Ibrahim Egal (the late President of Somaliland), was in a steep decline. Corruption, nepotism, and malpractice were the order of the day. Abdi Qeys, the ever vigilant, was concerned about the fate of the Somalilanders who were treated by the southern dominated government as second-class citizens or stepchildren. He was also concerned about Egal’s lack of vision and concern, and about his erratic nonchalant behavior. Therefore, he wrote a song that depicted two lovers discussing their upcoming marriage and the status of their love. The song, it turned out was about anything but love.

Man: Hey Girl! You are the only one who longs for a marriage ceremony.
You are fixing your hair in order to get married
But on our side, we do not even have a Horse that can carry war armaments.
It is so weak; it cannot even catch up with The caravan.
If your livestock is taken away by force
We are unable to rescue it.

Woman: Hey! Boy! You are the
only one who
Assumes that I cannot take bad news
You think that I am a retard
You are distancing me from you

I was present to all the events of the day
Therefore, I am aware of all of the bad
Dwellings we went through,
You are telling me to cool down
But do you believe that love just fades away?

Man: Hey Girl! You live in the midst of “Ganaano”
River and near a waterfall
And the drought did not reach you

But on our side, do we have a hero who can wage a war
Poverty is death and it has taken its
Toll and killed them all

There is no one to lean on any more
The heroes are all dead!

This song clearly shows Abdi Qays is as genius as a poet. He combines three different metaphors. On the one hand Abdi Qays articulates fears and alienation of the Somaliland people. He shows this through the vast imagery of the Somaliland landscape, its rivers, and livestock. He superimposes this with the plight of his people and the constant drought, poverty, and the unequal distribution of wealth.

From a political standpoint, the poet foresaw the downfall of Mr. Egal’s government and the coming of the military dictatorship. Through his song he showed how easy it was for the southern dominated military offices to take power and therefore retaliate without any opposition whatsoever. He believed, since the basic governmental structure was destroyed, that no one would fight back. His song became prophetic and it took the people of Somaliland twenty years to overthrow the military regime and create an independent Republic of Somaliland on May 18, 1991.


Abdi Qeys is known as a Sufi mystic and a music traditionalist. He seems to insist on Somaliland musical traditions, which incorporates “Sufi” style music. He believes as the Sufi mystics believe that tradition is nothing more than “the eye of the heart.” Maybe that is why Abdi Qeys used to act as the “Murid” or assistant to Shiekh Omer Haraf. During this time, he would play music that is accentuated only by the Oud and hand drumming. He is so close to his Oud instrument that he inscribes Koranic verses, which has a metaphysical subtext. Only the initiated are aware of his mysticism, however, so for the lucky few that understand his music, the subtexts are quite obvious. He believes, as he has shown in his most famous cassette recording “Awliya Alaay Adeeg,” that he is indeed a composer of sacred texts or works.


  1. If you love someone
    But he/she is in love with someone else
    And the person that he/she loves
    Is smitten and loves yet another person

And you are thrown to hell
You won’t get heaven’s comfort
Neither will you find God’s mercy
Or protection

She is good to me
She has no heart!

Run away from me
I will just have to tract along!

Run away from me
You won’t stay away to long!

If the unpredictable love
Treats you the same way it treats me
Would you be able to sleep?

During the evening or midnight
Would you be able to sleep,
Under cotton blankets? Is that possible?

Hey “Umal” Did you and “Love” ever become neighbors?
Did you ever travel with him?
Did you come to face to face with him in a war?

Did you ever share a meal with him?
Did he ever cut you off from your relatives?
Instead of carrying a dialogue with him,
Did he ever make you silent,
And could not come up with any words?

I don’t show love
I always hide it
I always make myself busy with entertainment.

Sometimes I feel like telling her
But my mouth avoids to articulate the words

I don’t want to know about my everlasting love.
I don’t want her to know about my Intentions.

Like a spear thrown at night, I disappear
Like the “Russian made mig-fighter plane” I dance on the sky.

I don’t sleep at night
I keep turning from one side to the other!

Your love is the reason,
Why all men attack me!

I slept
I went to a deep sleep.

Last night I was in the midst of my nightmare-dream
And slumber.

At one time, people thought I
Was dead and sought help!

The love that I hid from the public
For years, come out from my Mouth,
While I was in a state of unconsciousness.

Those who were supposed to be
My roommates were making notes
During my sleep talk.

When I woke up
The news spread like a wild fire
And was all over the town!

Hey “Jiraba!”
Do you know that my soul
Always jumps from high cliffs?

It always advises me to go over the cliff
It never tells me to stop.

During the early morning hours
When it is cold, I don’t feel the cold.

I don’t go to sleep
And I can hardly walk
You are the love of my eyes
Come in front of me
And don’t turn away.

A never-ending drought
And the un-inhabited “Haawood”
That both humans and animals fled from
I am staying between these two.

Love is fatal
You are Allah’s bliss on Earth
You are his bounty during the rainy seasons
You are glittering/shining diamond

You are love of my eyes
Come to me!
And do not turn from me.

Written By:  Abdirahman  A.  Shunuf, Mohamed A.  Shunuf, & Mohamoud A.  Shunuf

This article first appeared on Somalilandmonitor.net


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