The Sudanese Music and Dance Festival returns in 2008 with concerts in Chicago and Detroit. The festival had its inception in 2007 at New York’s Central Park Summerstage. This one-time event was the largest and most representative gathering of major Sudanese talent ever assembled on an international stage, and the 2008 events will build on that success and surpass it. The festival is produced by ISAMI, in collaboration with a veteran of daring world music initiatives in the United States, Dawn Elder.
Elder’s passion for Sudanese music goes back to her work with Sudan’s greatest living singer, Mohammed Wardi. Wardi no longer leaves his homeland, but some of the musicians who backed him and other Sudanese legends will perform in the Nile Music and Dance Orchestra, the musical hub of this historic, Sudanese showcase. The orchestra combines traditional Sudanese percussion with instruments from Arab tradition (oud, violins, and percussion) and also western music (brass section, electric guitar, keyboards). As such, the inclusive, progressive spirit of Wardi and his seminal generation will pervade the performance.
Dr Mutwakil Mahmoud—a festival sponsor, patron of Sudanese arts, and advisor to ISAMI—says that everyone involved in this festival shares one overriding motivation, “to work for a united, peaceful, democratic, and just Sudan.” These words carry weight coming from a man who has dedicated his life to his country. Dr. Mahmoud’s family has deep roots in Sudan’s movement for democracy. After studying medicine in Chicago, he completed his medical degree in Khartoum, and has since worked tirelessly for the health, well-being, and success of Sudanese musicians. Just one example of Dr. Mahmoud’s selfless generosity: In 1998, he brought Mohammed Wardi to the United States for what turned out to be life-saving treatment. ISAMI’s vision is an all-inclusive one, based on the belief that the health of musicians reflects and even helps determine the health of the nation as a whole. Dr. Mahmoud says, “It’s time that these senseless wars stopped, and that people sat down together and solved their problems once and for all.”
The artists gathering this summer share this hope because they have lived the diverse and troubled history of Sudanese music. During the 1960s and 70s—often called “the golden era” of Sudanese music—fascinating musical hybrids of African, Arab, and European music flourished in Sudanese cities, especially in the cities of Khartoum and Omdurman, home of the national radio and television station, but also Juba in the south and elsewhere.
Among the most remarkable golden era acts to appear in this year’s festival are the three singing sisters known as Al Balabil. In the early ‘70s, this trio of talented, musically trained teenagers became Khartoum’s answer to the Supremes, and they revolutionized social and artistic possibilities for Sudanese women. With the rise of Islamism after 1989, the doors Al Balabil opened for women began to close. The three sisters married, then separated, two leaving Sudan and one remaining in the country. For the past 22 years, circumstances in Sudan have made it virtually impossible for the three to perform together, so their reunion this summer will be historic, especially for young Sudanese expatriates who have grown up knowing of this legendary group, but have never seen them perform.
Singers like Abu Araki al-Bakheit and Ali Al Sigaid came up in the orchestral tradition of the north, long the dominant force in commercial music. Like many of their peers and successors, these vocal stars studied at the prestigious Institute of Music and Drama in Khartoum. The music they championed bears similarities to Egyptian orchestral music, and even the taarab orchestras of Tanzania and Kenya. But while much of the instrumentation and aesthetics were borrowed from Arab and European sources, the music itself relied on distinctly Sudanese rhythms, scales and melodies. As Sudanese music developed, talented artists came from different regions of the country to introduce new ideas and colors to the national sound, effectively building a kind of unity that has evaded politicians.
Abdel Gadir Salim introduced the traditions of Kordofan in the west, and became one of the country’s most beloved singers and bandleaders. Like Mohammed Wardi before him, Salim brought influences from international jazz and pop as well—electric guitars, keyboards, and saxophone, side by side with the oud, violins, and traditional percussion.
Omer Ihsas charted a similar course bringing in the traditions of his native Darfur, which borders Libya, Chad, and Central African Republic and is home to a dazzling array of local music and dance. Ihsas modernized these styles and made them accessible to all Sudanese. A champion of eastern Sudanese music, Mohammad Adaroab, will also be present the music of the Bija and other eastern tribes, performed on oud, tambour (hand drum) and rababa (bowed lute).
The musical director for the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival, Yousif El Moseley, moved from singing traditional songs with percussion to composing for and performing with wedding bands in 1970s Khartoum. As a star student, and then an instructor, at the Institute of Drama and Music, El Mosley 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 Al Balabil had hit the scene with their electrifying performances of familiar Sudanese styles, but also, the distinct music and sensibility of their ancestral homeland, Nubia. Music and social life were advancing hand in hand as Sudan broached a new era.
All of this progress was cut short after the 1989 coup. Life became extremely difficult for artists. There was an 11PM curfew, and popular figures like El Mosley and Abu Araki faced pressure to sing for the regime. Both refused and suffered the consequences. Abu Araki tried to retire rather than cooperate, 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. El Mosley returned to Cairo, where he became a successful producer for Hassad Productions, the biggest production house for Sudanese music ever. Between 1992-96, El Mosley recorded 45 albums featuring the top Sudanese singers of the day. From Cairo, Yousif El Moseley moved to the United States in 1996, and he now teaches in Monterrey, California.
Among the most socially engaged groups of the 90s was Igd al Djilad, featuring composer and singer Omar “Banaga” Amir Amir, another participant in the 2008 festival. Igd al Djilad’s early songs focused on the suffering of ordinary people under the regime, and the group incurred th government’s wrath on many occasions. There are horrifying stories of music and musicians in Sudan since 1989. Irreplaceable manuscripts and recordings appear to have been lost or destroyed. Musicians have been beaten, even murdered, and over 200 of the most beloved performance artists have, like El Mosley, Omar “Banaga” Amir, and Mohammed Mergani, gone into exile. Some Sudanese artists, like the young singer/songwriter Rasha Sheikh Aldein, have moved to Europe. Rasha has made a promising career interpreting Sudanese tradition in her own ways, bringing in influences from jazz, pop, and world music, and delivering powerful social commentary.
The music of southern Sudan has had a particularly hard time developing and reaching the world. In the past, southern Sudanese music, which takes influence from the neighboring musical powerhouse in Congo, was rarely well recorded or disseminated. But in recent years, young rappers have brought new attention to the region with international careers based abroad. Rapper Emmanuel Jal’s collaboration with Abdel Gadir Salim, Ceasefire (2005) was a landmark in this developing story. The Sudanese Festival features the south’s best known singer/guitarists John Kudusay, leader of the group Aweil Jazz, and as well as a young rapper who is making waves around the world and gaining star status back home.
Dynamq, known by fans as “Sudanese Child,” first came to prominence as a singer and soccer player among the Sudanese refugee community in Kenya. In recent years, he has shared stages with top names in international reggae and hip-hop. His appearance on stage with great musicians from the north will be another historic feature of this summer’s performances. The Chicago concert will also make history for the inclusion of the southern Sudanese expatriate best known to Americans, basketball star Manute Bol.
Although the artists in the Sudanese Festival of Music and Dance come from different locations, ethnic backgrounds, generations, and experience, they share one vision: to see their country peaceful and united. 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 pointing the way to a better world.
Chicago event info: The City of Chicago Department Of Cultural Affairs Presents
Date: Thursday, July 10th
Where: Jay Pritzer Pavillion, Millennium Park, Chicago, Il
When: 6:30 pm
For more information, call 312.742.1168 or visit www.millenniumpark.org.
Detroit event info: Concert Of Colors 16th Diversity Festival Presents
Date: Saturday, July 19th
Where: Max M. Fisher Music Center, Orchestra Hall, Detroit, Mi
When: 6pm -7:30 PM
Venue: 313-624-0215 or visit www.concertofcolors.com
Additional information: www.myspace.com/sudanesemusicdancefestival