Reports: Music in Sudan

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.

Early days