Reports: Music in Sudan

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, e-mail or write to: Sudan Update, PO Box 10, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 6UX, England. Tel/Fax +44 (0)1422 845827.

Joint Number One Recommendation
Mohammed Wardi

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)

An 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, UK)
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 Ashranda.

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.

CD Tariq Sudan - African Crossroads
(Blue Flame, Germany)

This 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
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
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
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
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.

Kamal Tarbas
CD Ya Rait and Ayam Safana (EthioSound, USA)
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
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.

Tariq Abubakar
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 Abubakar, who died in 1998, will be painfully missed.

Ahmed M. Osman (Satoor)
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.