Reports: Music in Sudan

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 and plenty of horns