Reports: Music in Sudan

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