The story of Maryam Mursal is both tragic and inspiring, the tale of a strong and determined woman whose music reflects her life, a powerful and dramatic mix of sorrow and joy. To hear her is to recognise the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity for in a feat of breathtaking endurance, before her extraordinary voice could be heard in the west, Maryam was forced to spend seven months walking across the Horn of Africa with her five children as she fled the civil war in her native Somalia.
She and her young family hitched rides on trucks and rode on donkeys but mostly they walked, through the desert and over mountains - out of Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, across Kenya, through Ethiopia, recrossing part of Somalia again and eventually arriving in Djibouti where she was given asylum by the Danish embassy.
It is the kind of story that puts into perspective the antics of certain rock bands who cannot find their way across the airport departure lounge to the free hospitality of the VIP suite without someone to hold their hands. That Maryam, Somalia's biggest singing star, was forced to undertake such a desperate journey only indicates how dangerous her country had become.
Following the overthrow of the Somalian dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, the country had plunged into a tribal power struggle and internecine warfare and Maryam decided it was no longer a safe place for her and her family. Violence lurked on every corner and starvation was everywhere. "I saw with my own eyes dogs eating human beings, animals eating dead bodies in the street," she says. "I knew then it was time to go."
In happier times Maryam had been the voice of Somalia. She began singing professionally as a teenager in Mogadishu in 1966, the first woman star in a deeply male dominated Islamic society. Brought up in the Muslim faith, she was steeped in the traditional music of her country but from her earliest years she also eagerly absorbed every influence she could find.
Her repertoire still includes the traditional Somalian songs she grew up with, a remarkable hybrid sound of African and Arabic influences created by centuries of cross-cultural fertilisation between migrating nomadic tribes. Sung solo or accompanied by simple percussion and the oud, an Arabic lute-like instrument, the songs tell of loneliness, love and betrayal and it is this moving music which can be heard on Maryam's first western release 'New Dawn' (RW66), recorded with the core survivors of the band Waaberi. Yet in Mogadishu in the 1960s it was possible to hear the full panoply of western pop and jazz styles and Maryam was soon being influenced by Elvis Presley and the Beatles as well as by black r'n'b artists such as Ray Charles and Etta James, with whom Maryam shares a similarly big, uncompromising vocal style. Although it had little to do with jazz as the term is understood in the west, the rich, cultural stew which she developed of African and western sounds, dance music and traditional song, all delivered in powerful style and with rich humour, became known as 'Somali jazz' and Maryam became a household name. Western ears on first hearing her voice often dub her music 'the Somali blues'.
Maryam also started performing with Waaberi, then a 300-strong troupe of singers, dancers, musicians and actors attached to the Somalian National Theatre. "It split up when the civil war happened and we were all scattered," she says. "Some died but most went into exile. They are all around the world, wherever they could find asylum. We keep in touch and we try to help each other." Before the civil war Maryam toured Russia, China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe with the troupe. Yet as civil unrest grew and the regime of Siad Barre grew more oppressive, Maryam could not remain silent about the injustices she saw all around her and her work grew more political. One song 'Ulimada' (The Professors), a thinly disguised attack on the dictatorial regime, led to her being banned from performing anywhere in the country. As she was the biggest star in Somalia this did nothing to enhance the ailing government's popularity but it stilled her voice - in public at least - for two years. "But I had mouths to feed and I had to work so I became a taxi driver in Mogadishu," she says. That indomitable spirit would later hold her in good stead when she was forced to flee the country and the song that led to the ban features in a freshly recorded version on New Dawn.
Desperate to escape from the anarchy, death and starvation that was destroying her country, Maryam bravely set out to make a new life in the west. Yet even after her seven month trek across Africa's Horn, Maryam's problems were not over. When she arrived in Djibouti the Danish embassy there would initially grant her only a single visa. " I said I have children and they said sorry, the visa is only for one. So I said I could not go," she recalls. After several days of agonising waiting, they eventually agreed that she could bring her children too. Since her arrival in Denmark, Mursal has made efforts to get her parents to join her, but with no success. "I have now heard that my father has died in Somalia but I think my mother is in Kenya," she says.
Once established in her new home, Maryam began to think about rebuilding her singing career. Throughout her remarkable journey she had kept a journal and it provided powerful material for her songwriting. At the same time by happy coincidence she met up with the Danish arranger Soren Kjaer Jensen. He had come across Maryam's music when working in Somalia as a freelance photographer in 1986 and had even recorded her extraordinary voice from a radio broadcast. Jensen heard Maryam singing at a Somalian immigrant camp to 300 fellow refugees and realised it was the same voice. He recorded her singing some traditional songs and brought Maryam to the attention of Peter Gabriel's Real World. Suitably impressed, the label asked her to make two albums, New Dawn, recorded with members of Waaberi now resident in London which was released in the summer 1997, and a solo album for release in early 1998.
The two albums show Maryam's versatility, equally at home working in purely traditional style and with a funkier contemporary approach. While the first album is acoustic and blessed with a moving simplicity, the second is a high octane modern take on her Somalian roots, produced by Simon Emmerson (of Afro Celts fame) with Soren Kjaer Jensen, featuring guitars, sequencers and back-up vocals from Peter Gabriel, yet never straying far from its African origins. Emmerson for one cannot conceal his excitement. "She's amazing, she's got everything," he says. As an instant African classic thrillingly uniting ancient and modern he puts the album on a par with Baaba Maal's incendiary 'Firin In Fouta', which he also produced. Maryam's voice also inevitably invites comparison with some of Africa's other great divas - in her funkier vein with Angelique Kidjo from Benin and in rootsier traditional mode with the great Oumou Sangare from Mali, another strong woman who uses her art to rail against the arranged marriages and other injustices heaped upon African women.
One day Maryam hopes to be able to return home to Somalia. "The first good thing I hear about my country, the first suggestion it is changing, I will go back - and quickly. It might take five years or even ten years but one day things will change. Everybody needs their country. At home you can be a star but then as a refugee you are looked at like a dog. I am a refugee but I am also a singer. That is my job and that is how I survive."
Maryam played her first dates in the UK in summer 1997, including an appearance at the Womad festival in Reading where the organisers were forced to lay on a hastily arranged second performance to satisfy the demand. Maryam Mursal's life and art have intertwined to produce a sound that is both profoundly moving and totally unique. She may be a refugee living in exile but her extraordinary talent is certain to guarantee her a heartfelt welcome wherever she sings.