Ahmed Ismail Hussein was known as the “King of Oud” because he was the master of the 11- or 13-stringed instrument.
Born in the late 1920s in Somalia, Hussein began playing the oud professionally in the ’40s after falling in love with it in his teens. He was instrumental in making qaraami — singing or speaking while playing the oud or drums — one of the most popular genres of music in Somalia.
In February this year, after a career spanning more than seven decades, Hussein retired. He was considered a founder of modern Somali music. A concert was held in his honor in London — Hussein moved to the UK in 1974 — with artists whom he handpicked.
Despite his retirement, Hussein, who also went by the name “Hudeydi,” had no intention of slowing down entirely; he had plans to travel to Turkey and Djibouti.
But then he fell ill. Earlier this month, he was taken to Charing Cross Hospital in London. His condition deteriorated, and on April 8 he died from the coronavirus, a week before what would have been his 92nd birthday.
Nadifa Mohamed, a British author, said she spoke to Hussein a few days before his death, when he didn’t even seem to have symptoms. “I think the decline was quite quick from him developing symptoms to him being quite ill in hospital. It was quite shocking,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Despite his age, Hussein was otherwise a fit and healthy person, Mohamed said. “Everyone was like, ‘He was 92 he had a good life’ — but nothing. There was no warning,” she said. “It wasn’t as if he was sick.”
Mohamed said she had been friends with Hussein since 2012, when they met at the annual Hargeisa International Book Fair in Somaliland, a disputed territory that neighbors Somalia. More so than his musical genius, his sense of humor is what really stood out for Mohamed. “He was funny,” she said. “I think that’s the first thing I noticed.” (His nickname was Hudeydi, but he told the BBC in 2003 that he was also known as "'the King' because of my hot rhythms. I was always into rock 'n' roll and Elvis Presley.”)
“Having a friend who is 50 years older than you is unusual, but I think his sense of humor was so young and easy to engage with,” Mohamed said. “And he was very warm. You could turn up to his door. You could bring whoever you wanted. He would feed you. He would make tea or coffee for you, tell you stories. He was very accepting of people, which was very unusual.”
Hussein, she said, had a charm that would make everyone love him from the moment they met him. “It’s the way that I could turn up with a friend to play an instrument or something else, and he’d give me a big hug as he opened the door and he would go to my friend — whoever it may be — and do the same.
Usually when grieving, Somalis tend to visit the home of the deceased’s next of kin for days to offer their condolences and pray. But this is currently impossible during the lockdowns in place across the world.
After Hussein’s death, tributes poured in from Somalis around the world. On the day of his burial, people held absentee funeral prayers.
In a statement, the Kayd Somali Arts and Culture organization said Hussein’s “iconic legacy lives on through his music and in the memories of all of those of us who adored him and continue to do so.”