Ian Brennan's Blog

Obituary: Yanna Momina (1947-2023)

Photo © Marilena Umuhoza Delli

By Ian Brennan
June 20th, 2023

Afar singer Yanna Momina has passed away, just one month before she was set to perform outside of Djibouti for the first time ever

We are saddened to announce the death of Yanna Momina Abass at age 76. Momina had been scheduled to perform at this year’s WOMAD Festival, but fell ill in the spring.

Yanna sang in the language of the Afars, a nomadic, minority population in Djibouti, whose people are also split between two other nations (Ethiopia and Eritrea). Momina lived rurally in the desert without electricity or running water. In the absence of television, she prided herself on playing music “for entertainment at night, not for money.”

Local musician, Hassan Hassan, wrote: “Yanna’s debut album [Afar Ways] being released internationally last year was so historic for us and our country.”

Sadly, this is not the first such obituary I’ve had to write. In 2017, Cambodia’s Soun San (Khmer Rouge survivors) and, last year, northern Ghana’s ‘Small’ Mbabila (fra fra) faced eerily similar fates, both passing just as a trip out of their country for the first time ever was imminent.

Featuring defiant and brash titles like ‘My Family Won’t Let Me Marry the Man I Love (I Am Forced to Wed My Uncle)’, Momina was revered within the Afar culture for being one of the rare women who wrote her own songs. With her one-of-a-kind voice, Yanna specialised in a style of daredevil vibrato singing, skirting the edge of chaos, but somehow always retaining control. Her voice was so strong that her songs — though frequently epic in length — thrived on the most minimal of accompaniment, often performed entirely a cappella.

What I’ll miss most about her, though, was her searing stare and vivacious laugh — knowing, but joyful no matter what obstacles she faced in her life.

Ian Brennan produced Yanna Momina’s debut album, Afar Ways, for Glitterbeat Records

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