MUSIC IN SUDAN
See also: "Does Allah like Music?" by the editor of Sudan Update in Index on Censorship "Smashed Hits" December 1998. This draft for the Rough Guide to World Music (1999 edition) was the basis for a talk at the 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, in Copenhagen, Denmark, 20-22 November 1998 - PV.
Can't dance / won't dance?
In the 1980s I was running a mobile disco in the shanty areas of Khartoum, playing rai, reggae and rhumba - some kids so keen they'd be up and jiving to the soundcheck - until '89, when the security police of the National Islamic Front came and took it away. Around the same time police burst into a women's traditional Zar ceremony, armed with Kalashnikovs, and carted everyone away to the lock-up, confiscating the drums that powered the ritual and calling them "pagan".
Musicians such as Abu-Araki al-Bakheit,
Mohammed el Amin, Saif al-Jami'a,
Yousif al-Mousli and the band Igd el Djilad were prevented from performing in
public and banned from the airwaves.
A new dictatorship was under way: one that can't dance and won't let anyone else.
In Sudan there's an added dimension to the ages-old argument over the legitimacy of music and dance under Islam: one third of the people affected by it are not even Muslim. And whatever their religion, Sudan's people - 300 ethnic groups - embody such a collision of Arab and African cultures that it's often impossible to tell where one culture ends and the other begins.
Arab tribes arrived in the 14th and 15th centuries from across the Red Sea and the northern fringe of Africa; in the 16th century West Africans began journeying through northern Sudan on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Both settled and intermarried with the indigenous people. Southern Sudan, largely cut off until the mid-19th century by the vast swamps of the White Nile, was treated as a source of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers and gold. No wonder the continent's largest country has an identity problem alongside a deep-rooted civil war.
Scenes from modern history
Scene 1: Gedaref, Eastern Sudan, 1977
Using home-built electric guitars, the three Abbas brothers (Eastern Breeze), play their sister's wedding - a real street party. It's the first party in this agricultural merchant town to have MIXED DANCING among the Muslim guests, and things are bubbling. It's the year of punk. Self-taught, Afro-haired, DIY guitarist Mohamed is blazing primitive Arab-soul riffs after Hendrix and Santana, with his 13-year-old brother extracting every ounce of funk from a goat-skinned drumkit.
Scene 2: Itang refugee camp,
near Asosa, Southwest Ethiopia, 1990
Nubian superstar Mohammed Wardi gets even the lame dancing, at a concert for Southern Sudanese displaced by a horrific civil war. Land-mine victims on crutches and able-bodied alike respond enthusiastically to a singer who transcends the murderous hostilities between north and south Sudan. Unity and harmony momentarily seem to be more than just cliches. The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army videos this extraordinarily moving occasion, but fails to exploit it.
Scene 3: Khartoum, mid-1994
The government-controlled media gives extensive air-time to hardline Islamist mosque leaders campaigning to outlaw secular music altogether.
Scene 4: Abri, Wadi Halfa province,
Nubia, Northern Sudan, September 1994
75 wedding-guests are arrested when police with tear-gas, batons and live ammunition break up defiant party-goers protesting at a ruling that wedding parties - formerly an all-night affair - must end before sunset prayers and be supervised by sheikhs and police. Conflict is sparked when guests, including children, arrive after dusk. Demonstrations continue for several days until the army moves in.
Scene 5: Omdurman, Sudan, October
Travelling home at night, a professional violinist is stopped, taken to the edge of Omdurman and severely beaten by security police who smash his instrument. Told he should stop playing music and follow Islam, he turns round and quotes eloquently from the Quran in his defence. His tormentors are left speechless.
Omdurman, by the Nile, November 1994
Khogali Osman, a well-loved singer in his early forties, is killed by a "fanatic" - a religious primary school teacher - who talks his way into the Musicians' Club and stabs several people in the belief that secular music is an abomination. "Merdoum King" and international recording artist Abdel Gadir Salim and a violinist are wounded.
The government denies any role in the assault, but buries the singer in great haste to avoid public protest. Security police threaten other musicians not to talk about the killing.
Meanwhile the regime increases its efforts to appear tolerant on the international stage, supporting "cultural festivals" in London and Paris.
Khartoum, Sudan, 1998
The National Islamic Front (NIF) government enacts a new law banning women from dancing with men or in their presence during folklore celebrations or wedding parties.
It also segregates the sexes on public transport.
So long as the NIF is in power, you'll have to go to the rebel-held territory of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (most of Southern Sudan) to join in "legal" mixed dancing - no such hang-ups there. Drinking marissa (sorghum beer) and dancing to the drum go on wherever there's enough grain to ferment.
In 1992 the controllers of Radio Juba wiped its unique tapes of the celebrated Southern Sudanese singer Yousif Fataki. It's an apt demonstration of the government's attitude to the south, to erase a cultural artefact to make way for its own propaganda. And although South Sudan, like the Nuba Mountains, creates plenty of music, there are fewer opportunities to hear it now than in recent decades.
Back in the 1960s, a Southern Sudanese musician and folklorist - Dr William Remzy - was working at the University of Khartoum. In the 1970s and 80s, while there was peace, the southern capital Juba had nightlife: groups like the Skylarks and Rejaf Jazz, and venues like DeeDee's Disco, taking their inspiration from Kampala and Nairobi. All are long gone, dispersed by war, although a couple of Skylarks were sighted gigging in Uganda in 1998.
Nowadays the best chance to hear Southern Sudanese music may be in church, possibly in the refugee camps in northern Uganda, or among the rebel soldiers. Sometimes the participants are the same: I met a priest, a dead ringer for Spike Lee, training a chapel choir consisting of both SPLA fighters and seminarians in Eastern Equatoria.
The Dinka tribe used to hymn their
fabulous long-horned cattle, and pogo like the born basketball
players they are. Zande folk music is as playful as their folk
tales, which feature a trickster like the Jamaicans' Anansie or
Brer Rabbit of the US Deep South.
Nowadays the peoples of south Sudan have an ever-growing repertoire of new songs about war and liberation, some of which were captured on a 1997 recording that sounds worlds away from the sleek orchestras of Khartoum.
The Nuba are caught on the dividing line between the warring cultures of north and south Sudan, but are fighting back against a government programme of "ethnocide" with their own reawakening identity. Under the squeeze of the government's crude "Islamisation" campaign, the diverse, multi-religious Nuba communities are uniting in resistance, defending their own culture as much as their land. The Kambala, or harvest festival, is still celebrated, and there is a proliferation of new songs and artists. The vibrant Black Stars are part of a special "cultural advocacy and performance" unit of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the Nuba Mountains. Their most famous vocalist is Ismael Koinyi, an accomplished guitar player who sings in Arabic and in several Nuba languages. Other vocalists include Tahir Jezar, Jelle and Jamus.
When journalists were flown in to the Nuba Mountains for an anniversary celebration in 1998 by the charismatic Nuba SPLA leader Yousif Kuwa, they were treated to an amplified concert in the remote mountain retreat courtesy of solar power. Electricity is a rare luxury, however, so with stringed rababas, a clay-pot bass drum, tin bongos and shakers, Nuba bands usually play their form of "Je-luo" - a catch-all term for Kenyan or Congolese guitar styles - unplugged.
The lyrics of Nuba bands like the Black Stars dwell on the battles - military and psychological - through which the Nuba continue to struggle, and the dancing often goes on till daybreak.
Don't confuse the Nuba of south-west Sudan with the Nubians, like Wardi and Hamza al-Din, who are from Nubia in the far north of the country - between Dongola and the Egyptian border at Wadi Halfa (and beyond). Both groups are indigenous Sudanese, rather than of "Arab" origin, but any link is ancient history.
Northern Sudan - a crisis of identity
The rest of the country is more divided - to the point of split personality, sometimes. Few Northern Sudanese wholeheartedly support the government's obsessive division of the sexes, lots are repressed dancers, and many older ones look back nostalgically to the era before 1983 and Sharia law. That was when President Nimeiri, with NIF support, closed the bars in Khartoum and chucked the alcohol in the Nile. Two years later, the Sudanese people chucked Nimeiri out. (I remember a soldier of the Presidential Guard breakdancing on our veranda, overjoyed at being out of a job.) But in 1989, the NIF came back, seizing total power in a military coup. The drinking, and the dancing, still go on behind closed doors. But in a totalitarian, informer society, who dares admit to such sins?
Attitudes towards music within
Islamic societies are certainly problematic.
Of course, the Quran does not itself clearly prohibit music, and music has always been
very important in Arab culture. It's just that some Quranic verses have been interpreted as approving, others as condemning it. Choosing only the latter, the "fundamentalist" stance is that music is linked with illicit sex and drinking, dangerous diversions from religious duty. Dancing is likewise equated with immorality. Not much difference from "fundamentalist" Christianity, in other words. (And a small proportion of today's missionaries in South Sudan enforce equally daunting views.)
The Sufi teachers who brought Islam to Sudan were by no means "fundamentalists", however, and happily made use of music and dance. Quranic recitation, which is sung, is not regarded by Muslims as music, but the influence of this technique on the secular art is unmistakable - and the devotional chanting of the Sufi Zikr must be somewhere between the two.
Modern urban music in Northern Sudan began taking shape between the 1920s and 1940s. Regarded by some as the father of contemporary Sudanese music, singer Khalil Farah was also prominent in the independence movement. Ibrahim al-Abadi (1894-1980) found new ways of wedding poetry to music, regarded as unorthodox at the time. Other early singer-songwriters included Mohammed Ahmed Surur, Al-Amin Burhan, and Abdallah Abdel Karim, better known as Karoma, who was the most prolific, writing over 400 songs.
The Sudanese Graduates' Congress used a song entitled "Sahi ya Kanaru" ("Wake Up, Canary") to spread resistance to British rule. Since then, many others have used the image of a beautiful creature, woman, or lover to refer obliquely to their country, and have stirred feelings sufficiently powerful to get the author jailed, sometimes. Translations, of course, rarely capture these allusions.
All that jazz
Urban musicians introduced violins, accordions and horns - and the odd flute and mandolin - after World War II, electric guitars in the 1960s and electronic keyboards in the 1980s.
These were used by Sudanese to beef up their traditional styles. Those from the traditions of northern, western and central Sudan took styles such as haqiiba - a chant with chorus and minimal percussion - infused them with Egyptian-Arab or European elements, and developed al-aghani' al-hadith (modern songs). As early as the 1920s Egyptian producers brought Sudanese singers to record in Cairo, and instruments of the orchestra began to replace the call-and-response of the chorus.
Southerners, Nuba and other non-Arab communities were well represented in the forces across the country. For impoverished young conscripts in post-independence Sudan, the police and army "jazz-bands" offered the best access to equipment, and what started out as British military brass band styles often metamorphosed in the 1960s and 70s to become "jazz" in the East African sense. This imitates the intersecting guitars of Kenya's Shirati Jazz and the myriad Luo language bands around Lake Victoria - although any soukous, rhumba or benga gets called "Je-luo" in Sudan. (By the time their music reached as far north as Khartoum, even African stars like Franco and Tabu Ley were anonymized in this way. Few knew their names, they just recognised the style).
During the 1960s, Ray Charles ("Hit the Road, Jack") and Harry Belafonte made a big impression on urban Sudanese musicians such as Osman Alamu and Ibrahim Awad, who became the first Sudanese singer to dance on stage. (Fast forward to 1985: Sherhabeel Ahmed, a quietly progressive musician and illustrator whose wife used to play bass guitar, sings "Kingston Town" at a famine concert echoing Live Aid. Harry Belafonte is in the audience, representing the charity USA for Africa, and is openly moved to tears.)
In the 1970s it was the turn of James Brown and Jimmy Cliff (who is still a frequent, low-profile visitor to Sudan, although not to perform). The ebullient Kamal Kayla modelled his funk-shout style on the hugely popular JB, although he was in retirement last I heard, raising exotic pigeons.
The 1980s made Bob Marley and Michael Jackson household names in the most unexpected places. Marley was recognised by some as the spiritual kinsman of Sudan's own Sufi dervishes, and an inspiration to thousands of ghetto children. As for Michael, well, he shared the Sudanese problem with skin colour (skin bleaching is still in vogue) and showed the nimbler ones the possibilities of moonwalking.
There was loveable trash, too.
A trip to the cinema for the street-kids wasn't complete until
they played Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" in the
auditorium, vaguely in honour of Bruce Lee.
Quirks of fashion turned a short-lived Welsh disco queen, Tina Charles ("I love to love", "Dance little lady, Dance"), into an idol: buxom and heavily made-up, looking like the cover of an Egyptian magazine. They liked her even more than Diana Ross, who was a bit skinny for their tastes.
Dance and trance
The Sufi Muslim dervishes, or darawiish, brought the first wave of Islamic influence to Sudan several hundred years ago. Their often wild and colourful appearance, some with dreadlocks and elaborate patchwork clothes, and the spectacular manner of their religious devotions, made a lasting impression on the British rulers of the "Anglo-Egyptian Sudan" in the late nineteenth century.
But the Victorian caricature of the "whirling dervish" misses the point. Within the religious tradition of zikr - "remembrance" - the dervishes use music and dance to work themselves into a mystical trance. Undulating lines of male Sufi dancers bop their way to ecstasy with a physical grace that confounds ageism. Their tolerant spirit has profoundly influenced the easy-going approach that characterized Sudan until relatively recently.
The most spirited rhythms - in every sense - are mainly for women, in the psychotherapeutic zar cult. Zar sessions combine mesmeric drumming with incense, massage and a licence to release deep frustration. Under the guidance of the sheikha az-zar, gatherings last either four or seven days, drumming from dawn to dusk for different spirits that plague people and have to be brought out and pacified.
These are occasions outside the bounds of life's ordinary rules, when women can smoke and drink and act out rebellious fantasies without having their religious piety or social respectability called into question. The zar cult is older than Islam and works around and through it rather than compete against it. But like everything else that challenges the ruling National Islamic Front's social programme, zar is suffering a government clampdown under the pretext that it is anti-Islamic.
The lute and the lyre
The lyric songs of northern Sudan were originally played on the tambour, or lyre, using pentatonic scales, and are quite distinct from the Arabian maqam structures. When the far more sophisticated oud or lute was introduced from across the Red Sea, Sudanese players developed a style of plucking and striking the strings of the oud from the technique they had used on the lyre.
Some of the more basic lyre-players scrub jerkily across the splayed strings, a sort of acoustic grunge to western ears, while others extract a plaintive quality.
The lyre is also common in south Sudan, where these days the instrument is just as likely to be made from a hub-cap or a land-mine casing as from the gourds of old.
Plenty of horns
Odd and tantalising styles of horn playing crop up in unexpected places - traditional Nigerian Fellata and Blue Nile Berta, post-imperial quasi-military, James Brown funky, smooth makossa . Some resemble wounded cows, and take a while to get used to; some are just badly rehearsed. Others are immediately uplifting. A generation ago it was Juma'a Jabir, who once taught in the Army Music Section and later became a valued session player, who pioneered the contemporary use of horns. These days the best-known - at least among outside collectors - is Hamid Osman.
Many of the best international touring musicians reappear in different guises. To give just one example, both Abdel Gadir Salim's Merdoum Kings and the Abdel Aziz el Mubarak Orchestra feature violinist Mohammed Abdallah Mohammediya, bass-player Nasir Gad Karim, accordionist AbdelBagi Hamoda and sax player Hamid Osman. They and other familiar names have turned up backing Balabil, Hussein Shendi and Kabli.
Mohammed el Amin is a Sudanese
folk-hero for his majestic voice and superb oud playing, and the
near-blind, reclusive old revolutionary is also a brilliant composer
and arranger. Never a prolific writer, his work is concentrated
and even his rearrangements of old songs sound fresh. I forgot
the irritating half-assed reggae of lesser bands the night Mohammed
el Amin conjured up a playful dub fade-out of one epic song with
just a violinist (Mohamediya), bass player and tablas.
Born in Wad Medani, central Sudan, in 1943, he began learning the oud at the age of 11, taught by the well-known professor Mohammed Fadl. He wrote his first compositions aged 20, and went on to become honorary president of the Sudanese Artists' and Composers' Society. Frequently in trouble for provoking one military dictatorship - he was jailed by Nimeiri's regime in the 1970s - he moved to Cairo after 1989 to avoid similar run-ins with the National Islamic Front, but returned to Khartoum in 1994 and kept a low profile.
"Art is like water: you can't seal off its source. It will trickle inexorably through the rock to emerge in a new spring somewhere else."
- Mohammed Wardi, exiled leader of the Musician's Union, speaking in London at the Memorial Concert for Khojali Osman, the singer who was murdered at the Musician's Club, Omdurman, November 1994.
The soaring voice of "golden throat" Mohammed Wardi has won acclaim right across the African Sahel and the Arab world. Although this singer from Nubia is now in exile, his music always stirs emotion for many Sudanese, sometimes with directly political allusion - to the October 1964 popular uprising, for example - and sometimes more obliquely, but always with powerful resonance. He was born in 1932 near old Wadi Halfa. Schooled across the border in Egypt, he returned as an elementary school teacher, then moved to Khartoum in 1957 and became a professional singer two years later. Four decades and 300 songs later, he can stand on a stage, hand in pocket, the epitome of relaxation, leaving the audience to complete the lines of a song - and make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. He's had spells in jail which only confirmed his popularity; at a human rights demonstration outside the Sudan Embassy, his unaccompanied voice galvanised the spirit of an otherwise sombre gathering. But the most compelling occasion of all must be his 1990 concert at Itang, temporary home to 250,000 war-displaced southern Sudanese in Ethiopia, performing from a makeshift wooden platform in the dusty wastes of a refugee camp. The healing power of music was never more convincingly displayed, and for a while the prospect of reconciliation in this torn country seemed a little less forlorn.
The contemporary poet and teacher Mahjoub Sherif often writes in colloquial Arabic, mixing observations on everyday life and politics with love songs and poems for children. He has also been detained for long periods under Sudan's military dictators. Even in the remote western desert prison at Shalla he continued writing lyrics that became songs of resistance. Many have been set to music by Mohammed Wardi.
Abu Araki al-Bakheit
The songs of Abu Araki al-Bakheit, like Wardi, were banned from the airwaves by
the NIF. In the early 1990s he was arrested and told by the authorities not to sing his political songs at public gatherings. He responded by saying he would prefer silence, and would no longer play. The public outcry at this news eventually prompted him to sing again, in defiance of the authorities, but at the cost of repeated harassment and threats. His friends say he is walking a tightrope, and his popularity is his only protection.
Igd el Djilad
The multi-vocalist band Igd el Djilad was formed in the mid-1980s by a dozen young music students with progressive aims. Their song lyrics reflect these concerns, and their music strives to be both forward-looking and reflective of the country's roots, using rhythms and chants from right across the country. To an outsider this seems innocuous enough, but it's an approach that takes guts. Members of Iqd al-Jalad have been arrested on several occasions, questioned by security police and threatened. Rather than being stopped from playing altogether they were forced to give written assurances that they would not provoke the authorities with songs about poverty and famine. The name, by the way, refers to a circlet of musky perfumed hide traditionally worn by a bride at her wedding.
Kafka by the Nile
The fact that you can still find plenty of music in northern Sudan might give the impression of freedom, but it's a system that Kafka would recognise for its arbitrariness, in which repression can descend at any moment. It is still possible to find, for example, cassettes of Mohammed Wardi on open sale despite the probability that the singer himself would be imprisoned if he returned because of his outspoken role in opposition to the National Islamic Front. In this schizoid atmosphere, nothing is straightforward.
Cab drivers can be punished for playing unacceptable music, too. But since they thrash their car stereos until everything sounds like comb-and-paper or kazoo, how can anyone tell?
The NIF both fears and seeks to manipulate music and musicians. Any references to past freedoms in Sudan prior to the 1989 coup are unacceptable. Periods of repression are alternated with periods of coercion; officials differ in their interpretation and application of the 1990 Public Order Acts which regulate performances.
Hostile to art that it cannot control, the NIF has introduced an "Islamisation of Art" programme in an attempt to dictate the terms of the discourse. All performers and works of theatre, cinema and music are supposed to be approved by religious jurists. Songs in praise of the para-military Popular Defence Force and jihad are broadcast all the time. Sporadic prohibition is enforced on "low grade" Western music. More important, the diverse range of folk music and dance within Sudan itself often fails to meet the criteria, or is relegated to condescending "ethnological" broadcasts.
Attacks on Artists
In 1996 the Cairo-based Sudanese media workers association reported to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, Dr Gaspar Biro, on harassment of musicians in Sudan by the NIF.
The Morality Monitoring Unit of the shadow "police force" known as the
General Administration of Public Order extends its remit to musical performances at wedding parties - the most frequent venue for music. Weddings are regular targets for raids on the grounds of Public Order Act offences, mixed dancing, or "unapproved" songs or singers. Seven singers were arrested in one week at the beginning of 1993.
Broadcasting editor Salma al-Sheikh was interrogated for hours after allowing a student at the Institute of Music and Drama to use a radio tape of Sudanese songs banned by the regime. She played music by Mohammed Wardi, Mohammed al-Amin, Abu-Araki, Mustafa SidAhmed and Yousif al-Mousli on her daily radio programme "Good Morning My Country" until it was taken off the air in 1992.
In the early 1980s, song lyrics
referring to women's bodies were among
those banned. The official decree remained on the books after Nimeiri's
overthrow, but was ignored by broadcasters. The NIF coup in 1989 was followed
by a decree in which the Director-General of Radio Omdurman
prohibited the broadcast of any song other than those glorifying religion or
the jihad of the National Islamic Front.
Video and music cassettes of songs
mentioning kisses or wine, or with
political allusions, have been erased and pro-NIF speeches and religious
sermons recorded over them. Large amounts of irreplaceable studio archive
material have been lost in this way.
In 1995 singer Sayyid Khalifa declared that all songs in the archives of the national radio station, Radio Omdurman, were being reviewed and revised. New "moral" versions would be made, excising all unacceptable references.
Staying out of the political arena and thus reasonably free of persecution are two major musicians - Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz el Mubarak - who made their impact on the international world music scene at the end of the 1980s, and a third, the equally important Abdel Karim el Kabli. Kabli, now in his sixties, is one of those walking cultural memory banks, a folklorist who can talk in depth about the background of any number of Sudanese songs, and who plays oud in a variety of styles with deceptive ease.
The differences between the styles of Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz el Mubarak become apparent in the lyrics. While Abdel Gadir sings of a farm girl tired of waiting for her man to come and wipe the sweat off his face, Abdel Aziz is more likely to proclaim his admiration for a woman's high heels.
Abdel Gadir Salim was born in Dilling, in the Nuba Mountains, the same village as Hamid Osman Abdalla, the inspired saxophonist who features in his All-Stars. He studied European and Arabic music at the Institute of Music and Drama, and became a primary school headmaster in Chad somewhere along the way. After his studies, he shifted in 1971 from composing "Khartoum city songs" to folk songs, and had a hit with "Umri Ma Bansa" (I'll never forget you), which is still part of his set. His home area of Kordofan and Darfur has its own unique rhythms and beautiful songs, with which he has flavoured his own music.
Abdel Aziz el Mubarak, from Wad Medani, was the first Sudanese artist to play WOMAD, at Glastonbury in 1988, with a dozen musicians romantically resplendent in long white jellabiyas. Next day they appeared at London's Jubilee Gardens wearing tuxedos. His love songs are songs of the city.
Every pleasure in the absence
of your eyes
Is incomplete and does not touch me.
Every road that does not take me to you
Is a dark road that doesn't deserve the walk.
Darling, all through my life
I have been longing for your smile.
(Abdel Aziz el Mubarak, from "Ya A'asaal" on Straight from the Heart. Tr: Moawia Yassin)
The Institute of Music and Drama
When Sudan's Institute of Music and Drama was begun by the civilian government in
1969, dedicated teachers like El-Mahi Ismail, its first director, helped provide college-level practical instruction and research in music, drama and folklore for the first time in Sudan. Despite funding and status wrangles, the Institute survived until 1989, when the National Islamic Front regime took power and it became a target for political demolition. A new director began "Islamization" of the Institute: new, ideologically-approved lecturers were brought in, and the talent test for admission was replaced with an interview on religious attitudes.
Song and Dance
No matter how severe the social stresses, however, the songs themselves endure - the poetic ones and the vulgar ones - circulating in a culture where nearly any group of people can reproduce them by drumming or singing or clapping.
Lyrics come first in the Sudanese appreciation of music, whether they are made up on the spot or relate an epic poem. The lyricists and poets are as celebrated as the singers themselves. Spontaneous songs of praise for the bride and groom are common at weddings. Along the Nile in the northern region, semi-settled nomads display their machismo by baring their backs for the groom to beat them with a camel-whip, working up a massive adrenaline buzz to the sound of massed women's drumming, then cooling off as the local bard strings together extended doggerel about the qualities of the newly-weds. Young unmarried women then take turns to strut past the line of men, holding the worn-down whip handle aloft in a triumphant - not to say suggestive - manner.
Of course, modern urban weddings are not as raw as this, but they remain probably the best place to hear musicians and witness the dove-like bridal dance or kashif, which can be powerfully erotic.
Words, in the strictest sense,
are not always necessary. The Nubian hm bee, a regular wordless
chant, is used to add weight to stamping and clapping behind the
singer. In western Sudan, too, animal and bird sounds are mimicked
in the backing chants that flesh out complex, interweaving hand-clap
rhythms. One bewitching example sounds at first like sampled sheep
and goat noises with a belching chant of "Rambo" pulsing
through it. Meanwhile the singer is urging his girlfriend to fetch
him a packet of Gold Leaf cigarettes (ilbat Bahari) and asking
if he can go to her house to refresh himself with cold water.
(This is clearly a man who knows what he wants, and doesn't bother
with the simpering odes to a woman's eyes, forehead or other anatomy
above the neck that characterize the less direct Arabic love songs.)
This acapella form is often called al-tanbour. A less consistently rhythmical, more improvised form of story-telling in song, again without instruments, is known as dobait.
Half a century ago, urban women singers such as Mihera bint Abboud and Um el Hassan el Shaygiya began carving individual styles from the rich oral heritage of traditional women's songs. The most famous woman from this era was the accomplished Aisha el Fellatiya, who made her name as a singer during the Second World War when she toured the camps of the Sudan Defence Force across North Africa to boost the troops' morale.
Demurely echoing the rise of the 1960s girl groups in the west, a few female duos rose to local popularity including Sunai Kordofani, Sunai el Nagam and Sunai el Samar. In the early 1980s three gifted teenage Nubian sisters with a supportive father formed the group Balabil. Trained by oud player and songwriter Bashir Abbas, who also found lyricists and musicians for them, they found an avid audience around the Horn of Africa. In the uncertain climate of Sudan's "sharia" law, however, their yearning undertones were sometimes sufficiently sensuous to get them banned from television.
Balabil got back together for
the first time in ten years to play in Eritrea in 1997 - and made
a recording for Rags Music - and Hadia Talsam, the ablest sister,
a solo album in Cairo entitled Kul' al-Nujum ("All the Stars"), on the Hassad label.
The fortunes of women singers mirror the social trends of recent years. Consider an extreme case, Hanan Bulu-bulu, the poutingly provocative Madonna (or Marie Lloyd) of 1980s Sudanese pop. After the popular uprising that overthrew President Nimeiri and ended his despised version of Islamic sharia law, Hanan Bulu-bulu reflected a new mood as she warbled and wiggled her way to fame at the 1986 Khartoum International Fair. Her notoriety arose from her stage act, captured on video, which borrowed the sensuous bridal "dove-dance" of Sudanese weddings and orchestrated the often saucy songs of the urban women's daloka or tom-tom tradition.
But the backlash came soon after, as Islamist hardliners banned her concerts and beat her up for immoral behaviour. They insulted her "half-Ethiopian" background, which for them was a euphemism for sexual licence. She was by no means the best singer - her mewing little girl's voice and coarse repertoire never rivalled the poetic and emotional impact of other, more soulful female artists - but her naughtiness was a welcome antidote to the hollow pieties of the fundamentalists. Apparently she's still performing, somehow, somewhere.
More credit should go to women such as Gisma and Nasra, from whom Hanan Bulu-bulu stole much of her act. In the 1970s and 1980s they pioneered a performance version of the erotic kashif wedding display, coupled with torrential drumming and facetious, worldly-wise lyrics. They were popular at private gatherings and were frequently arrested for the irreverent and revealing nature of their songs. Despised by the political elites of left and right, they were regarded as a much-needed source of dirty realism by the lower classes. Home truths such as "Hey Commissioner, we know your Toyota's the pick-up for the groceries, and your Mercedes is the pick-up for the girls," and "This sharia is driving us to drink" were never likely to endear them to the authorities. Most Sudanese women can drum and sing, and the less genteel urbanites delighted in reproducing Nasra and Gisma's salty treatment of the traditional daloka style.
The closest you can get to this on disc is Tariq Sudan, a recording by Setona, a renowned henna artist from Kordofan, western Sudan. Currently resident in Cairo, but playing well-received gigs in Europe and America, Setona gives lusty voice to a generous handful of well-known women's songs, fleshed out by a largely male band. The Artist formerly known as Prince is reported to have sought out Setona for a henna tattoo job. Pity he didn't publicize her music.
At the more polite end of the market is the blind singer Hanan an-Nil , who in 1992 released "al-Farah al-Muhajir" in Cairo. She accompanies her delicate, wistful songs on an electronic keyboard, managing to avoid the deadening effect the "curse of the Casio" seemed to have in most Sudanese hands. The subtlety and power of local rhythms were often trampled in the cheap electronic invasion of the late 1980s, which continues to hobble the musical sensibilities of a generation. Too many recordings - especially those made in studios in Egypt - suffer from an overdose of saccharine synthesizers.
Keeping the flame of authenticity and perhaps the most promising new artist in international terms, is Rasha, a young woman of seemingly impeccable taste and assured talent, loyal to her roots and possessing a breadth of repertoire to rival any of the men.
Relatively few Sudanese musicians have access to modern recording studios, although a couple more have recently been built in Khartoum. A growing number of Sudanese CDs has been released on the international market, but few people in Sudan have CD players and many classic performances are still on tape only - if you can find them at all.
A good selection of cassettes is available from Natari in the UK and Africassette in the US. For information on field recordings, including Zar and women's music, contact Sudan Update, PO Box 10, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 6UX, England (Tel/Fax +44 1422 845827; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
*Joint Number One Recommendation
He began singing at the age of five; his first hit was in 1960, and he still has the most extraordinary effect on a Sudanese audience, having come to embody the collective memories and aspirations of an entire nation. Mohammed Wardi sings not only in Arabic but also in his native Nubian - a quite different sound from Ali Hassan Kuban - drawing on 7,000 years of culture.
CD Live in Addis Ababa 1994 (Rags Music, UK)
The wrinkled old Nubian effortlessly enraptures an entire stadium, with his band sailing along like a felucca on the Nile; swaying strings, tumbling tom-toms, musing saxophones and choppy guitars create a majestic waltz over which he unfurls his impassioned, weary choirboy voice.
*Joint Number One Recommendation
CASSETTE - NEW SUDAN SINGS (Counterpoint, UK, 1997) A essential dose of reality - songs from the war zone. Sudan's imbalance of power is highlighted by the fact that these stirring and poignant field recordings by Maggie Hamilton are about the only musical material from Southern Sudan available at present. Up to now it's on cassette only, but DON'T let that put you off. Among the group chants and hymns - Dinka, Zande, Nuer, Didinga and other languages - are some extraordinarily beautiful unaccompanied women's songs. There's a shiver of emotion on hearing words like "[peace] agreement" and "Killington [Clinton]" stand out in an otherwise obscure tongue.
Compilations / Various Artists
CD Musiques et chants du Soudan - l'Ile de Touti (Institute du Monde Arabe / Blue Silver, France)
From Tuti Island, where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile at Khartoum, comes this tremendously evocative recording by some of Sudan's best musicians. Lie back in Tuti Island's lemon groves, shaded from the scorching sun, and breathe in citrus flute essence on drifting breezes of violins, as the Nile water gently beats against the shore. Blissful.
Further CDs planned by Institute du Monde Arabe for 1998-99 include music from the Beja of Eastern Sudan, the Berta of Blue Nile province, the Nuba Mountains and Nubia, as well as artists Abdel Karim el Kabli and Mohammed Ali Gubara.
CD Balabil, Hussein Shendi, Abdel Aziz el Mubarak - Live in Eritrea (Rags, UK) First chance to hear three-woman group Balabil, specially re-united for this tour of Eritrea with two of Sudan's top male artists and a fine backing band.
CD Sudan: Music of the Blue Nile
Province (Auvidis/UNESCO, France 1996)
The Ingessana and Berta people of Blue Nile, bordering Ethiopia, are under pressure from war and commercial agriculture and mining, and their way of life is changing fast. This is a rare chance to hear their traditional music, including horns, lyres and balafons, recorded by Robert Gottlieb in the mid-1980s.
CD Rain in the Hills - Beja Ballads
of Port Sudan (Original Music, USA)
Staking out the distinctive identity of the people of the Red Sea Hills with vigour and wit, these 1995 field recordings by John Low feature gritty oud players and a lusty fishermen's band.
CD Sounds of Sudan (World Circuit,
Solo acoustic recordings of Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz el-Mubarak playing oud, and the Shaygi tambour player Mohamed Gubara, who wrote Mohammed el Amin's hit Habibi. Highly informative background notes by Moawia Yassin.
CD The Rough Guide to the Music
of North Africa (World Music Network, UK) As well as two characteristic
tracks from Abdel Aziz el Mubarak and Abdel Karim el Kabli's albums,
this useful sampler also includes the Nubian Hamza el Din's delicate
A gentle-voiced newcomer in her mid-20s, northern Sudanese singer Rasha has an accomplished and thoughtful grasp of traditional and contemporary styles, varying the type and texture of her songs to hold the attention.
CD Sudaniyat (Nubenegra, Germany)
Rasha's first disc convincingly shows off her range, from Sufi meditations to big band wedding songs, and is eminently listenable. Backed by a variety of musicians from Sudan and from Spain - her current home - who innovate but don't intrude, she sings with a soulful sensitivity. A damn fine starting point.
When the Princess of Henna, Kordofan-born Setona, let rip on her 1998 tour of Europe and North America, western audiences got their first proper taste of the earthier side of Sudanese women's culture.
CD Tariq Sudan - African Crossroads (Blue Flame, Germany) is urban women's daloka music, tarted up a bit but still authentic. Setona's voice is swampy, hoarse and gritty, and only a little inhibited by the studio. It's forgiveable that the recording doesn't match the headlong intensity of the live drum-only versions of these songs, because you'd need the Pogues as a backing band to do that. The opening track, Kumsur, still has an uninhibited rush. The dance re-mix at the end is a bit clumpy, but a potential floor-filler nonetheless.
Mohammed el Amin
The sonorous Mohammed el Amin, now in his mid-50s, has long been one of Sudan's best-loved singers and composers, and an artistic hero of the political left. He played legendary concerts in London, Manchester and Moscow in the 1980s, which spawned thousands of pirate tapes - but when will someone put his best group recordings onto the world market?
CD The Voice of Sudan (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Germany)
This is an intimate solo acoustic set recorded by Mohammed el Amin in Berlin in 1991. It captures his smokily majestic voice and nimble oud playing - the latter sometimes got lost in his earlier big band outings - in glorious epics such as Habibi, where the roller-coaster riffing of the 1980s electric version gets altogether subtler treatment.
Abdel Aziz el-Mubarak
With his apparent fondness for spangled jackets and polished love songs for the ladies, Abdel Aziz el-Mubarak sometimes comes across as the Bryan Ferry of Sudanese music, albeit with a better voice. One of Sudan's great international stars - and unlike others, a shrewd businessman - Abdel Aziz comes from a family of musicians and was trained at Khartoum's famous Institute of Music and Drama in the early 1970s. After successes on the radio and television as early as 1975 he went on to become one of the country's best known bandleaders.
CD Abdel Aziz el Mubarak (GlobeStyle, UK) and Straight from the Heart (World Circuit, UK).
Mr Tuxedo does his Arab nightclub stuff to great effect on both these CDs, showcasing the lush and ornamented sound of a Khartoum big band. The live album Straight from the Heart features the Ethiopian hit Na-Nu Na-Nu, always a crowd-pleaser.
Hamza el-Din, Nubian ethnomusicologist, composer and virtuoso oud player, has spent most of his life outside his birthplace. With his Zen-like complexity-in-simplicity, he may be bigger in Japan than on the streets of Sudan, but the echoes of home remain strong.
CD Lily of the Nile (Water Lily Acoustics, USA) has an austere elegance like a night journey under a starry desert sky. After the hypnotic melancholy of four epic oud songs comes a compelling tour de force on the deceptively simple bodhran-like hand-drum called the tar.
CD Songs of the Nile (JVC, Japan). Rhythmically interesting set of songs for voices, oud and percussion, if a little stark, recorded in 1982.
Abdel Gadir Salim
Abdel Gadir Salim's rich powerful voice and dynamic arrangements make music which is less fussy and more hard-driving than many of his urban counterparts. His concerts and record releases abroad have made him one of the most familiar Sudanese singers for western listeners. The content of his songs strives to be closer to countryside directness, while the arrangements reflect his studies of both Sudanese and western music.
CD Nujum al-Lail/Stars of the Night (GlobeStyle, UK)
Recorded during a London show in 1989, refreshingly faithful to the live sound of his prestigious big band.
CD The Merdoum Kings Play Songs of Love (World Circuit, UK)
An enduring favourite album: Merdoum is one of the vocal and drum styles of Kordofan, Abdel Gadir's homeland in western Sudan, and the professionalism of the all-star band notwithstanding, this recording has fire and precision, polish and funk.
Abdel Karim el Kabli
The avuncular poet, composer and folklorist Abdel Karim el Kabli, now in his mid-sixties, has become a walking encyclopaedia of the musical heritage of north, east and central Sudan. Kabli embraces both colloquial and classical styles, and is equally beloved by academics and ordinary Sudanese.
Limaza (Rags, UK)
An album full of musical sparkle, and his best recording to date, with some stunning interplay between Kabli's oud and the violins, flute and bongos. Abdel Karim el Kabli wrote Sukkar, Sukkar (Sugar, Sugar) in 1962, a gently lilting take on the Twist, the dance craze he had just encountered in England, and which he claimed could be traced back to the Zar ritual in Sudan. His restrained style is a million miles from spirit possession, but he comes across as an amiable old toad.
Kamal Tarbas, now 50, is referred to by admirers as the King of Sudanese Folk Music. He founded the Dar Karoma centre for music in Omdurman in 1985 in honour of Karoma, who pioneered Sudanese popular song from the 1920s to the 1950s. Perhaps because of his earthy populism Kamal Tarbas is dismissed as a vulgarian by those who like their lyrics more elevated in tone. Beyond dispute is his immediately recognisable laid-back voice against revolving tom-tom rhythms and swaying accordion, derived from the hibaaq style and fleshed out in later recordings with strings. At his best when sounding rough-hewn, Tarbas makes one of the classic - if rather static - sounds of modern northern Sudanese music.
CD Ya Rait and Ayam Safana (EthioSound,
Two Kamal Tarbas albums issued earlier on cassette were remastered onto CD in 1997. Every home should have one - although one's probably enough.
Igd el Djilad
Young vocal group - half a dozen harmonising voices and half a dozen players, revolutionary (for Sudan) in their readiness to use material from the whole country - north and south, African and Arab. Their best moments recall early Steeleye Span.
CD Madaris (pam jaf, Germany 1995)
So bright-eyed and bushy-tailed you might mistake some of the songs for TV jingles. Sometimes the earnestness is too palpable in this production, like songs to make children behave well. Why then do the Nuba and Southern Sudanese songs covered so delicately by Igd el Djilad still provoke a tear? Probably for the same reason they get the band into trouble. The Juba Arabic of "Mama" - a song about poverty - is beautiful, sad and sweet despite the upbeat tempo. It would make an amazing single in aid of peace in Sudan.
After playing in Ali Hassan (Walk like a Nubian) Kuban's band in Egypt for two years, Sudanese saxophonist-singer Tariq Abubakar settled in Toronto, Canada, in the 1990s. He became one of that country's best-known African musicians, and a video at the end of 1997 put him on all the music TV channels. His band, the Afro-Nubians, threw influences from Zaire/Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia and Ghana into a bubbling blend that had mass appeal as dance music in the West, while referring across the African continent to the sounds of Hugh Masekela, Thomas Mapfumo and Tabu Ley Rochereau. Tariq would set Arabic lyrics to soukous melodies, dissolving Sudan's north-south cultural divide, and ventured to sing earnestly of peace and unity in his rumbling English. During a brief return to Sudan in January 1998, Tariq was killed in a car accident on his way to Khartoum airport. He was 32.
CDs Tour to Africa (Stern's, UK),
Great Africans, and Hobey Laik (Socan, Canada)
Released between 1994 and 1997, Tariq Abubakar's three albums venture much further into African musical territory than other Sudanese artists. Often bold, sunny and bouncing with energy, he also appeals wistfully for tolerance and diversity. Once you get used to his growly-bear voice, his fusions have a special charm. Once a pointer to a peaceful future, now he'll be painfully missed.
Ahmed M. Osman (Satoor)
Satoor is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who has toured internationally with singers including Wardi, Abdel Aziz el Mubarak and Abdel Karim el Kabli. He joined forces with Arizona-based Mohamed elOmrabi, DJ, producer and reggae promoter, to showcase his abilities without a vocalist, starting with
CD Rhythms of Sudan, Volume 1 (Blue Nile, USA)
Multi-tracked, air-conditioned instrumentals of familiar-sounding songs, more catchy riffs than rhythms, skillfull but a little antiseptic. Hints of Philly Soul strings and jolly oud make it pretty painless - until the synthesized handclaps on the remix. Ideal for an aspiring Sudanese restaurant, or the lobby of the Khartoum Hilton.