Reports: Music in Sudan

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 1994
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.

Scene 6: 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.

Scene 7: 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.