For hundreds of years Sudan has been an important crossroads between African and Arabic cultures. With over 750 ethnic groups of its own, and attracting people from throughout East, North and West Africa, Sudan’s diversity is unmatched. Slicing through the heart of the largest country in Africa is the great Nile River, the lifeblood of the region. As long as people have come to the water’s edge, they have brought their music. Songs of praise, rhythms set to a camel’s gait, stringed instruments from the Orient, bagpipes from Europe – they’ve all found their way to the Sudan. And like the grains of sand within a shimmering dune, each of these individual sounds has contributed to the exotic and beautiful style that we know as Sudanese music.
With a rich history of musical expression and cultural exchange, it’s mysterious that music from Sudan is so difficult to find outside Khartoum. Walk into any music store in the United States of Europe and you’ll find piles of recordings from Mali, Morocco and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But what about the Sudan? The imposition of strict sharia laws have crippled Sudan’s music scene. This interpretation of Islamic law prohibits music and dancing, which are two of humankind’s most fundamental expressions.
Many of the country’s most prominent musicians have been imprisoned, while others live in exile in neighboring countries. And it’s not just contemporary singers who are targeted; traditional zar ceremonies have been interrupted, drums confiscated, ouds destroyed and musicians beaten. In a display of complete cultural ignorance, the same government sponsored radio network that helped popularize so many of these very same musicians erased historic recordings of Sudan’s greatest musicians. Since 1989, Sudan’s musical growth has been stunted.
Not long before the dark times of the sharia, Sudan was a vibrant center of musical creativity. From 1941 to 1979, the country celebrated its “golden era” of music. This was a time when Sudanese people would dance and sing together, a time when the radio revolution was broadcasting new sounds to every corner of the desert, and when poets and politically motivated singers were rising to stardom. There has never been a period of time more significant than these golden years.
Like many other countries around the world, Sudan’s development was accelerated with the arrival of radio. Originally intended to carry news of World War II, radio waves united Sudanese from all corners of the nation. When the war ended, the news broadcasts were replaced with music. Songs of celebration, cultural pride, love and praise were broadcast far and wide, and the radio revolution of the 1940s was born.
For the first time, musicians like Hassan Attayah and Osman Alshfi had an audience. Their golden voices filled the airwaves and inspired millions of Sudanese. Alshfi is considered one of the pioneers of modern music; his songs have deep African roots but bloom beautiful Arabic flowers. Attayah is sometimes referred to as the “Prince” of Sudanese music, and was one of the first to master the art of the oud (an Arabic lute brought to Sudan by way of Turkey in the 1920s).
Between 1956 and 1979, Sudan experienced a period of musical sophistication. Classical elements from Arabic countries smoothed the rough edges of tribal music, without silencing the rhythms and songs that had been sung for generations. Western instruments
Like violins, accordions, guitars and brass instruments found their way into Sudanese compositions. This was also a time for vocalists to perfect their craft. One of the most important singers of this time was Abdul Aziz Mohammed Dawoud. As a young boy studying in a primary school in Khartoum, Dawoud heard the incredible voice of Karouma – a pioneer of Sudanese singing – playing on a distant phonograph. This single experience left a lasting impression, and directed the course of his life. Many of Sudan’s greatest contemporary singers consider Dawoud’s style “revolutionary.”
The 1960s brought American and European pop music to Africa, and it was impossible for musicians in Sudan not to take notice. The charismatic and contagious tunes had a great affect on Ibrahim Awad, a famous vocalist who danced his way into East Africa’s history books. Before Awad, no entertainer had ever danced on stage in public before.
While Sudanese pop and Arabic-influenced modern music was filling the streets of Sudan, folk music was also experiencing great popularity. Singer-songwriters were the heroes of the day, especially those that integrated traditional ethnic rhythms and elements into the tapestry of vocals and oud, guitar and violins. Khadir Bashir is one folk singer who was in demand, both on the radio and at weddings throughout the country.
Last, but certainly not least is Mohammed Wardi. A true musical rebel who has affected positive change, provided inspiration, and kept social activism at the forefront of his musical career, Wardi is in a league all his own. Despite the political instability of his homeland, sharia laws that forced him to flee to Cairo, and civil wars that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Wardi has remained steadfast in his belief in humanity and the irrepressible spirit of the Sudanese people. Wardi, along with Osman Hussein and Hassan Attayah – the only three living musicians on this compilation – represent the past, present and future of Sudanese music.
“I am very proud to be able to represent these artists,” says Mohammed M. Elomrabi, a Sudanese native now living in the United States. “This is the first time that many of these artists have ever been heard before. All of these artists were chosen because of the fingerprint they have left on Sudanese music. But this is more than just music. It is the preservation of our culture, our heritage. I want to share this music with the world to increase cultural awareness and the rich musical history of the Sudan. But this is only the beginning…”
by Matthew Moon
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