For Ladan Hussein, the concept of home is a knotted one. The child of Somali refugees, the folk-soul singer was born and raised in Toronto. In her early 20s, she moved to London, where she released her debut album as Cold Specks in 2012. But the city got too expensive, and so she took herself to Montreal. After a couple of years there, she missed her family, and moved back to her birthplace. Since then, she’s found herself dreaming of a home she has never visited, but knows so well: Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, a coastal city torn apart by civil war.
In the years since she released her big-band sophomore album Neuroplasticity in 2014, Hussein has been digging into Mogadishu’s musical past. She learned from a relative that her dad had helped form an influential funk band named Iftin there in the 1970s. Speaking over the phone from Toronto, where she’d woken up in her studio after working all night, Hussein talked about how she spent her time obsessively watching YouTube rips of the musical VHS tapes that had survived the war. “Women with colorful clothing, gold, afros out, stomping basslines, and ’70s analog synthesizers,” she said. “It was just really cool.”
Those airy keyboard sounds found their way into her new album, Fool’s Paradise, as did narrative themes about home, roots, and identity. “I think it’s truly a result of the times,” she explains. “When I was making the album, there was a lot of discussion about refugees. The Muslim ban came into place in the States, and my country was one of [the ones banned]. For me, stories that deal with diaspora are the stories I know best. It was the most natural thing to write about.”
In the “Wild Card” video, premiering today on The FADER, Hussein pays homage to 1970s Mogadishu music scene in a deliberate way, placing herself among the hazy VHS footage that has long transfixed her. The album’s breezy analog synth stabs and Hussein’s old-soul vocal have an aura of nostalgia, but the songs are totally reflective of the self-assurance and self-knowledge Cold Specks has today. “I was gonna self-title this album, but my brother talked me out of it,” she laughs. “But it’s the most proud I’ve ever been of a collection of songs.” Below, she explains how she brought the language, fabric, and mythology of Somalia into the making of Fool’s Paradise.
What’s the inspiration behind the “Wild Card” video?
There’s a specific song, by a woman named Fadumo Qasim, called “Away Hee”; I watched the video obsessively. She’s in front of this fabric. All the stars in the scene did a similar [setup]. I wanted to live in these tapes, so I did. We found some flowers, and I got some fabric from my mom’s traditional Somali fabric store, and we brought it to life.
After finding out about your dad’s musical past, do you think you and he have anything in common as musicians?
Yeah, for sure. My dad has a very rich, warm, raspy voice. I definitely have that. It’s funny, I look at him sometimes, when he’s singing or playing an instrument, and, it’s not something I can articulate, but I can see him approaching it the same way I would.
I found solace in her life. She was a semi-mythical queen who was known to castrate men who did her wrong, and hang them by their testicles. I thought that was pretty cool. It’s hard to find strong female heroes. We don’t even know if she existed or not; there were never any history books, a lot of it was orally passed down by men — so of course, if men are telling the story, there’s no chance for it to have ever been told properly. It’s only now, in the last couple of years or so, that educated women have found out more details about her.
I thought it was a really beautiful, interesting story, and I became obsessed with it. There’s a lot of diaspora dreaming that took place with writing this album; finding solace in Araweelo was an example of that, the music video is an example of that. All of it deals with being a daughter of the diaspora.
“[This album] allowed me to fall more madly in love with myself — the person I am, where I come from, and my roots.”
Why did you make the decision to sing in Somali on that song for the first time?
I feel as though negative narratives have dominated discussions on Somalia for over two decades. So I tried to bring some light. [The lyric] is something my grandma used to say to me: “understand the difference between your bones and your soul.” In Somali, “bones” and “soul” are spelled similarly, so it doesn’t really quite translate properly in English. When she died, all of her nine kids were spread out all over the world. They all flew to a hospital in Toronto, the hospital I was born in, and we all stood there and prayed over her in her last moments, until her last breath. I started to write the record shortly after, and I kept hearing that line, kala garo naftaada iyo laftaada, in my head in my grandmother’s voice. I sang it without questioning it.
A lot of this album deals with taking care of yourself. How do you implement that in life?
I detach and disconnect, and I deal with myself. I remove myself from toxic social situations, or I dive into my work. I’m currently writing a new record. And recently I’ve become a gym rat. It’s really gross. I never thought I’d be this person. But [exercise] just hugs my mind in ways I need to.
This record seems like it required you to dig deep and look inward. What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I used to be quite a secretive person. I felt unsafe with a name like Ladan Hussein. And so I created pseudonyms, and I hid behind a stage name. [Working on this album] allowed me to fall more madly in love with myself — the person I am, where I come from, and my roots. I used to feel like I was always stuck between two worlds. But through this process, I learned to dance divinely between them.