Reports: Music in Sudan

Women singers
Half a century ago, urban women singers such as Mihera bint Abboud and Um el Hassan el Shaygiya began carving individual styles from the rich oral heritage of traditional women's songs. The most famous woman from this era was the accomplished Aisha el Fellatiya, who made her name as a singer during the Second World War when she toured the camps of the Sudan Defence Force across North Africa to boost the troops' morale.

Demurely echoing the rise of the 1960s girl groups in the west, a few female duos rose to local popularity including Sunai Kordofani, Sunai el Nagam and Sunai el Samar. In the early 1980s three gifted teenage Nubian sisters with a supportive father formed the group Balabil. Trained by oud player and songwriter Bashir Abbas, who also found lyricists and musicians for them, they found an avid audience around the Horn of Africa. In the uncertain climate of Sudan's sharia law, however, their yearning undertones were sometimes sufficiently sensuous to get them banned from television.

Balabil got back together for the first time in ten years to play in Eritrea in 1997 - and made a recording for Rags Music - and Hadia Talsam, the ablest sister, has made a solo album in Cairo entitled Kul' al-Nujum ("All the Stars"), on the Hassad label.

The fortunes of women singers mirror the social trends of recent years. Consider an extreme case, Hanan Bulu-bulu, the poutingly provocative Madonna (or Marie Lloyd) of 1980s Sudanese pop. After the popular uprising that overthrew President Nimeiri and ended his despised version of Islamic sharia law, Hanan Bulu-bulu reflected a new mood as she warbled and wiggled her way to fame at the 1986 Khartoum International Fair. Her notoriety arose from her stage act, captured on video, which borrowed the sensuous bridal "dove-dance" of Sudanese weddings and orchestrated the often saucy songs of the urban women's daloka or tom-tom tradition.

But the backlash came soon after, as Islamist hardliners banned her concerts and beat her up for immoral behaviour. They insulted her "half-Ethiopian" background, which for them was a euphemism for sexual licence. She was by no means the best singer - her mewing little girl's voice and coarse repertoire never rivalled the poetic and emotional impact of other, more soulful female artists - but her naughtiness was a welcome antidote to the hollow pieties of the fundamentalists. Apparently she's still performing, somehow, somewhere.

More credit should go to women such as Gisma and Nasra, from whom Hanan Bulu-bulu stole much of her act. In the 1970s and 1980s they pioneered a performance version of the erotic kashif wedding display, coupled with torrential drumming and facetious, worldly-wise lyrics. They were popular at private gatherings and were frequently arrested for the irreverent and revealing nature of their songs. Despised by the political elites of left and right, they were regarded as a much-needed source of dirty realism by the lower classes. Home truths such as "Hey Commissioner, we know your Toyota's the pick-up for the groceries, and your Mercedes is the pick-up for the girls", and "This sharia is driving us to drink" were never likely to endear them to the authorities. Most Sudanese women can drum and sing, and the less genteel urbanites delighted in reproducing Nasra and Gisma's salty treatment of the traditional daloka style.

The closest you can get to this on disc is Tariq Sudan, a recording by Setona.

At the more polite end of the market is the blind singer Hanan an-Nil, who in 1992 released "al-Farah al-Muhajir" in Cairo. She accompanies her delicate, wistful songs on an electronic keyboard, managing to avoid the deadening effect the "curse of the Casio" seemed to have in most Sudanese hands. The subtlety and power of local rhythms were often trampled in the cheap electronic invasion of the late 1980s, which continues to hobble the musical sensibilities of a generation. Too many recordings - especially those made in studios in Egypt - suffer from an overdose of saccharine synthesizers.

Keeping the flame of authenticity and perhaps the most promising new artist in international terms, is Rasha, a young woman of seemingly impeccable taste and assured talent, loyal to her roots and possessing a breadth of repertoire to rival any of the men.