How did two non-Somalis come to form an indie rock band called Iska Dhaaf? We asked Benjamin Verdoes

Nathan Quiroga and Benjamin Verdoes. Photo by Kelsey Kaufman
Nathan Quiroga and Benjamin Verdoes. Photo by Kelsey Kaufman

Warya Post decided to interview a rising indie rock band from the states called Iska Dhaaf. We were intrigued by two non-Somalis with a Somali band name and wanted to find out what these guys were about. The band consists of Benjamin Verdoes and Nathan Quiroga. We were able to get in touch with Benjamin for this interview.

Hi, Benjamin! Mahadsanid for agreeing to this interview.  Let’s start with the question we’re all curious to know – How did two non-Somalis end up calling their band Iska Dhaaf?

Adaa mudan! Ifrah Ahmed my wife, taught me the phrase. She would use it all the time and so I learned it from her. Then, I would say it often to my band mate Nate whenever we made a mistake during rehearsal. It became sort of our mantra while we were writing the songs. When it came time to name the band Ifrah suggested that we call it Iska Dhaaf.

What is your connection with Somali people/culture?

I met a lot of Somali students while I was working as a teacher in Seattle. I connected with them right away. My students would teach me words and I would get the sounds stuck in my head. After seeing how hard they were trying to learn English (while also already speaking several languages) and feeling inspired by them, I decided that I should learn af Soomaali. It is an amazing and beautiful language. I work on it everyday and I am happy when I get to speak it.

Where are you based?

Seattle, but as I write this I am moving to NYC. Ifrah just started law school there so Iska Dhaaf will be based there for the next few years.

Can you give us a little history on how the band came to exist?

I was learning how to make electronic music/beats from the producer in Nate’s old music group. When I heard what Nate was doing I thought he was a fantastic songwriter. We started working together on a few songs one day and then never really quit. We practice pretty much every day.

How would you describe your music?

Hopefully it causes people to feel something. It is thoughtful and we spend a lot of time on the poetry of the words. The sounds and textures are meant to let those words speak.

Benjamin, we know that you also have a solo project under your own name. You have a record called ‘The Evil Eye’ that came out this year. Can you tell us a little more about your solo music?

My solo record is autobiographical and is a way for me to understand my own experiences and relationships. Most of the songs on the record were gifts for my wife, Ifrah.

We heard the song ‘So Bari’, which is the last song on the record. That song is sung entirely in Somali. Will you tell us a little more about that song? 

It was the last song I wrote for the record. It was a gift for Ifrah. There have been a lot of challenges for us to navigate. The song kind of encapsulates the themes of the record. It is about creating our own world where we can feel safe and free from evil and negativity. Although it is entirely in Somali, the composition, poetic form, and the melody do not reflect anything culturally or traditionally Somali. We say “so bari” to each other before bed and I wanted to have a song that we shared that most people wouldn’t have access to.

The video for ‘So Bari’ was released earlier this week. What was the process of creating the video like? 

It was a complicated video to write and pull off. We wanted it to feel like a play or alternative reality. We had to build a set. Tristan Seniuk, the director and his crew were amazing at locating the right things. Ifrah, Tristan and I worked together to craft a series of evening and morning scenes with delicate lighting and beautiful set designs.

What were your goals with it?

I wanted Ifrah’s gift to be complete. We wanted to make something that was beautiful, nuanced, and that represented the narrative and feel of the song. It was also important to Ifrah and I to introduce some Somali cultural visual elements in the video.

How have Somali people reacted to the video?

It’s been mixed. Some Somalis have loved it! But the song has also confused some Somalis. One older Somali man said “It’s beautiful, but you wrote it all wrong.” The video will likely be the same. I hope most people in the Somali community will appreciate it, but I imagine it is a strange thing to hear your native language put in the context of unfamiliar music and pronunciation. I wasn’t trying to write a Somali song, I was writing a song for Ifrah in Somali. In a lot of ways the song represents our relationship well. It is something new and is mixture of two cultures. Context is important with the song and video. It was really important to us be cautious, delicate, and respectful in creating this video. At the end of the day, it was a gift for Ifrah.

What’s next for both the band and for your solo music?

The band and myself will set up in NYC. We hope to tour the states and some of Europe this year. We will be writing lots of new music. I hope to start on a new solo album, too.

Any plans to visit Somalia? 

Yes, seriously, it is a dream of mine. Insha’Allah, right?

Well, that was Benjamin from the band Iska Dhaaf. If you would like to find out more you can go to iskadhaaf.com or to benjaminverdoes.com!

 

By Abdirisaq Ali Mohamud