Seynab Haji Ali Siigaale, widely known as Baxsan, passed away on 19 October 2020 and was buried a day later in Sheikh Sufi Cemetery behind the Somali National Theatre building in the capital Mogadishu. Along with the likes of Halima Khalif Omar ‘Magool’, Baxsan was one of the most popular female Somali singers of all time. Almost 60 years after she embarked on her singing career, it remains impossible to find anyone in Somalia who doesn’t recognise her name.
Revered even by her adversaries, Baxsan was not buried in a way that many Somalis would see fitting. Her family, speaking at a press conference in Mogadishu a few days after her passing, denounced the government for failing to accord the famous singer a state funeral. Instead, government security blockades obstructed her body from reaching the cemetery on time. It was nonetheless accompanied by a great many people, who reflected on her long and wonderful career.
Baxsan grew up in a time of rapid socioeconomic and political change, between and after the World Wars. It was an era when Somalis were forcefully yearning for freedom from various colonial regimes. Her tumultuous journey as a singer is irrevocably tied to Somalia’s national identity and cultural history.
She became an icon of the late colonial escapades of modern Somali nationalism that led to the formation of an independent Western-style nation-state, later using her prominence on stage to defend and promote the existence of that state.
The early years
Baxsan was born in 1935 in the town of Baabili on the main route between the historical Muslim city-state of Harar and the then strategic settlement of Jigjiga in the Somali region in Ethiopia. Hers was a family of respected traders and itinerant sheikhs in the Hawd Plateau, a traditional grazing borderland zone whose ownership is disputed by Ethiopia.
The daughter of a wealthy, respected trader Haji Ali Siigaale and a serene housewife Hawo Said Daroore, Baxsan’s unusual background was reflected in her life, in her observation of Muslim rites and in her once running a tea-making business in the area around her home.
After her childhood years, Baxsan moved to Dirirdhabe, the Marseille-like town built by the French colonists around a station on the railroad between Djibouti and Addis Ababa. For a while, she made a living in the coffee industry there.
Baxsan means ‘escape’ and an adolescent Baxsan proceeded on her regional journeys and life adventures, settling in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Here she began her professional singing career, among the first female Somali singers in the early years of the Somali music industry in the Horn of Africa.
She received her ‘escape’ nickname when she fled Ethiopia to Somalia after an aborted 1960 coup in Addis Ababa attempted to oust the ailing Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie. In the middle of that year, amid much elation and exultation, Somalia gained independence from two colonial regimes. British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland merged to become the Somali Republic.