First Annual Sudanese Music and Dance Festival

This summer, an unprecedented gathering of musicians from the East African nation of Sudan will come together in New York to accomplish something politicians, war lords and diplomats have thus far failed to do: Unify Sudan. The event will take place Saturday July 21st, 2007 at Central Park Summer Stage, New York, 3pm-7pm.

 The artists participating in the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival have lived the diverse and troubled history of Sudanese music. One of the festival’s grandest figures Shurahibeel Ahmed was born in Omdurman in central Sudan in 1935, and he came to the capital, Khartoum, at a time when the lyric songs of the Sudanese tambour (lyre) were beginning to find common ground with the Arabic maqaam system of music, as well as the tradition of madeeh, praise songs to the Prophet Mohamed.The secular, and at times irreverent haqiba genre was emerging as an entrancing and distinctly local form of recreational song, especially popular at weddings. Shurahibeel was transfixed when he encountered a man from southern Sudan playing a guitar, an instrument he had never seen. Shurahibeel went on to specialize in guitar, and also to play saxophone, trumpet and trombone.

He fell in love with jazz, the songs of Harry Belafonte, and Egyptian art music, especially Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, and all of this went into his unique and groundbreaking style. Shurahibeel recalled the 50s as a time of exuberance and optimism in Khartoum. Still, like Sudanese many greats of his generation, he ventured on to Cairo to begin his recording career. But he returned home, and during the 60s and 70s, his performances on Sudanese radio and television helped set a new, modern direction for popular music throughout the country.

In the 70s and 80s, fascinating musical hybrids flourished in Sudanese cities, such as Khartoum in the north, and Juba in the south. Mohammed Wardi’s rich fusion of elements made him a sensation, along with other vocal giants such as Abdel Gadir Salim, Abdel Aziz el Mubarak, and Abu Araki Al Bakheit, who will represent this crucial generation in the festival. The music was orchestral and celebratory, Arab and African—quintessentially Sudanese.

The musical director for the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival is Yousif El Moseley, who moved from singing traditional songs with percussion to composing for and performing with wedding bands in 1970s Khartoum. As a star student at the Institute of Drama and Music, El Moseley earned the chance to travel to Cairo, where he attained a Masters degree in composition. When he returned to Khartoum in 1989 modernity was in the air. The amazing Balabils had hit the scene. This trio of talented, musically trained Nubian teenagers became Khartoum’s answer to the Supremes, and they revolutionized social and artistic possibilities for Sudanese women.

Music and social life were advancing hand in hand as Sudan broached a new era, and El Moseley was poised to shepherd the Sudanese music scene to new heights. But shortly after his return, this tale of promise ended with the coup of 1989, and the imposition of sharia law. From this time onwards, life became terribly difficult for musicians. There was an 11PM curfew, and popular figures like El Moseley and Al Bakheit faced pressure to sing for the regime. Both refused, and suffered the consequences. El Moseley eventually moved to Cairo, where he became a successful producer, and between 1992-96, recorded 45 albums for all the top Sudanese singers. Al Bakheit tried to retire rather than sing for the regime, but his fans wouldn’t let him stop, and he was harassed and threatened often as government minders scanned even his love songs for subversive messages.

There are many terrible stories from the 1990s and since. Irreplaceable manuscripts and recordings—especially of artists from the south—have been destroyed and erased. Musicians have been beaten, even murdered, and over 200 of the most beloved performance artists have gone into exile. From Cairo, Yousif El Moseley moved to the United States in 1996, and he now teaches in Monterrey, California.

A number of other singers of his generation have followed him to the U.S., and the musicians with whom he made so many classic recordings, the Nile Music Orchestra, now live in Virginia. Some Sudanese artists, like the young singer/songwriter Rasha Sheikh Aldein Gibreel, moved to Spain. Rasha has made a promising crossover career blending Sudanese tradition with contemporary jazz and world music, and delivering powerful social commentary. Meanwhile, Rasha’s older sister, Tumadir Sheikh Aldein Gibreel, abandoned her career as an actress and director Sudan to found the Brides of Nile Dance Group, presently based in Boston.

In New York, these artist will be reunited not only with one another but with legends like the Balabils—now divided between Doha, Khartoum, and Monterrey—and beloved artists who still struggle to make ends meet in Khartoum, like Shurahibeel Ahmed, Abu Araki Al Bakheit, and Zeidan Abrahim, beloved for his soft voice and sad songs. There will also be singers from the next generation, like Atif Aneis and Omer Banaga, who made his name with the band Igd Al Galad, champions of modernizing Sudanese folklore as electric pop music.

Most radical of all will be combination of these artists with rising stars from the southern Sudan and Darfur. Emmanuel Kembe is a contemporary Afropop star from the south, whose frank lyrics caused him to be jailed in Sudan in 1994. From his home in exile in the United States, Kembe now makes hugely successful recordings, and tours for the Sudanese diaspora community worldwide. Omer Ihsas of Darfur transitioned from a medical nurse to a successful soul singer, and now creates haunting, bluesy contemporary music, deeply connected with the suffering of his people back in Sudan.

The Nile Music Orchestra includes some of Sudan’s most respected instrumentalists as well. The group’s elite corps of string players, the Nile Strings, includes veterans with over 25 years of experience in the Sudan Radio and Television Orchestra, and other top ensembles.

Ahmad “Bass” Al Tigiani is a master violinist, songwriter, composer, arranger and singer, beloved for his vocal adaptations of folk songs from his native region, Darfur.

Merghani El Zain studied violin and composition in Russia in the late ‘80s and returned to found, along with Al Tigiani, Sudan’s first instrumental orchestra. El Zain toured for years as part of Abdel Gadir Salim’s ensemble.

Mekail Bakhid is another veteran violinist from Darfur, but there is also young blood in today’s Nile Strings, notably up-and-coming violin virtuoso Magdi Al Ageib.

Among the many other instrumentalists here, two are particularly acclaimed, keyboardist Mahir Hassan, with over 25 years experience backing Sudanese vocal stars, and superstar percussionist Faiz Miligy, who comes from one of Sudan’s most beloved musical families in the central, Jazira region. Members of the Nile Music Orchestra will travel from Sudan, Canada, the UK, and many parts of the United States for this unprecedented performance.

Although these artists come from different locations, ethnic backgrounds, generations, and experience, they all share a passionate vision of a united Sudan. Their presence on one stage will not only be an unprecedented summit of Sudan’s greatest living musical talent, and an emotionally charged reunion for the participants, but most of all, a powerful symbol of what could be possible back home. This will be a true life example of musicians showing the way to a better world. This entire event will be presented worldwide via streaming on StayTunedTV.TV, the new all-music network bringing the music of the world to you via the Internet.

The Sudanese Music and Dance Festival event is produced and created by a veteran of daring world music initiatives in the United States, Dawn Elder. Elder a composer and award winning music producer has a passion for Sudanese music which goes back to her work with one of the greatest living Sudanese singers, Mohammed Wardi. Wardi no longer leaves his homeland, but the superlative orchestra that backed him and other Sudanese legends, the Nile Music Orchestra, will be the musical hub of this historic, Sudanese showcase, and the spirit of Wardi and his seminal generation will pervade the performance.

Dawn Elder is also the Director of Programming for the Internet all-music and dance site www.StayTunedTV.TV. StayTunedTV is producing the concert video of the event for worldwide streaming as a “Recorded Live” event. The video production will be directed by John Kuri, an award winning filmmaker, writer, and television producer. Kuri created the StayTunedTV concept and has produced and directed the majority of the programming available on StayTunedTV.TV. StayTunedTV is a presentation of Kuri Productions, Inc. and its sister corporation Elixir Entertainment, Inc.

Dr. Mahmoud Mutwakil, head of the Sudan Information Center, and a key sponsor of the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival, says that everyone involved in this event shares one overriding motivation, “to work for a united, peaceful, democratic, and just Sudan.” Dr. Mutwakil concludes, “It’s time that these senseless wars stopped, and that people sat down together and solved their problems once and for all.”

Background about Sudan

Sudan is Africa’s largest country. It is also one of the most diverse, with some 300 ethnic groups living in deserts, mountains, and along the shores of the great Nile River. Once called “the bread basket of Africa,” Sudan today is better known for poverty, war, and ethnic and religious division. At the heart of Sudan’s crisis is the fact that the country has never really coalesced.

In ancient times, the north was the Kingdom of Nubia, with close ties to Egypt and the Arab world, and the south the territory of African agricultural groups, such as the Dinka, Shilluk, Nuer, and Azande. The south was physically cut off from Nubia by the nearly impassable swamplands of the White Nile. These two distant worlds became politically joined when Egypt annexed Sudan in the 19th century. When Britain then occupied Egypt in 1898, it claimed Sudan without so much as a fight. The trouble was, neither occupier had ever sought to forge an overarching, Sudanese identity. This was a country in name only.

Sudan won its independence in 1956, but given its history, fair and effective governance was impossible. Power tended to center in the Muslim north, and after the government imposed sharia law in 1989, people in the Christian south felt radically disenfranchised and victimized. After much strife and conflict, the north and south established a fragile Peace Accord in 2005. Meanwhile, new fighting surged in the West, in Darfur, and the world’s attention focused there. The broad array of Sudanese musicians participating in the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival believe that both of these conflicts must be understood as pieces in a larger puzzle, the puzzle that is Sudan. Today, with the North-South Peace Accord as a model to be applied in Darfur and elsewhere, many Sudanese sense an opportunity to at last build a nation. These artists intend to show the way.

A press conference with all the artists is to be held in New York on July 18th. The location and time of the press conference will be announced soon.