Rasha was born in 1971 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, or to be more exact in Ondurman – that suburban part of the vast metropolis which was the capital of the Sudan during the time of the Mahdi and has since been one of the land’s most important cultural centers. Rasha’s family has lived here for many generations so she mentions for example that in the 1880’s her grandfather’s house was a city-wide-known meeting-place for the most prominent musicians of the Sudan. Here they would make music together or compose or just exchange their knowledge and experiences. “I didn’t play music professionally,” she recalls, “but I had a lot of people in my family in music and theater and art generally. I have a painter brother an actress and three musicians.”
Rasha and her 19 siblings were raised in this vivacious cultural and historical climate – as members of a family that has produced artists and intellectuals almost without exception: Rasha’s brothers and sisters are painters actors a theater-director or like herself musicians. One of her older brothers Wafir played with the Spanish cult-band Radio Tarifa and performs with other world music acts based in Madrid.
So it’s not too surprising that Rasha made her way to music as well. Early in life her musical talent was formed within the family and later tried and trained in the outside world with the help of one of her sisters. Rasha worked on productions for radio television and theater for and with that sister and in the process perfected her knowledge of different styles of music as well as her aptitude for composition and arrangement.
Her dream of turning her work with music into the central content of her life only strengthened Rasha’s final resolve to leave her home which was being sought by civil war. Despite the country’s wealth of musical tradition and the dynamic music scene of Khartoum there were – and still are – few possibilities to make a living as a musician in the Sudan. Leaving the country for Cairo in 1991 she eventually moved on to Spain to join family members already living there.
But accomplishing her personal goal was not easy in Spain either. To begin with, Rasha enrolled in University and earned a living with various jobs such as a nanny, hairdresser, janitor and also as an English teacher. In her free time she sought and found connection to the local music-scene, played with various band projects and worked persistently at the realization of her own musical vision culminating in the release of her debut-album “Sudaniyat”.
“I spent about six months listening to Sudanese music, different things. And I chose these particular songs because I thought they were what I know about Sudanese music.” She also gave them beautiful acoustic arrangements that feature her warm rich voice. This 1998 release established Rasha as a powerful new player in her country’s music, one with the power to reach new audiences around the world. “I’ve always wanted to introduce my native music to a broader public and at the same time not limit it to the strictly traditional themes. Sudan’s music is incredibly diverse and differs in many ways from all other ‘African’ music: it is not as distinctly rhythmic and danceable – even though it is full of complex rhythms – but puts more emphasis on melody. It is more melancholic. Partially it even sounds downright sad. And even though it is at a first glance very similar to Arabic music Sudanese music is different – a mixture of both and yet unlike either of them.”
For her next recording Let Me Be (2001) Rasha went still further in creating a modern sound informed by jazz and pop. On Let Me Be, she says, “I tried to make Sudanese music more international. I listened to a lot of music that is not from Sudan and I was influenced by all these things.”
Let Me Be brings Rasha together with mostly Spanish accompanists and has a distinctly global sound. It also breaks ground lyrically particularly on a bravely political song about her homeland called “Your Bloody Kingdom.” Recalls Rasha, “I tried to give a message in that song to talk about what’s going on in Sudan in my way. I’m not a political person at all but at the same time I couldn’t just make love songs like most of the Sudanese songs. So I was trying to talk about the situation in Sudan all this war in the 20th century.”
The lyrics are powerful and earned her an enthusiastic following not only in the diaspora but even back home.
“I went back after nine years out of Sudan,” says Rasha, “and it was a completely different place. People are much poorer than ever. Houses looked abandoned. You felt that there was no freedom that people had no chance to express themselves. That was very shocking to me.” But it only strengthened her resolve to succeed and to serve as a role model for young Sudanese especially women who yearn for a career in the arts. Among the things Rasha hopes to change is the approach to producing music in Sudan. Today, the orchestras whose music enchanted her youth have largely been replaced by keyboards.
Rasha is very involved with social issues women’s rights and the plight of the refugees. She cooperated with the United Nations when she performed on the 8th of March 1998 (Working Women’s Day) in New York at the United Nations Building in a concert for the female delegates. In April of the same year she traveled to the Saharawi refugee camps near Tinduf (Algeria) to participate in the “Sahara en el Corazón” (Sahara in the Heart) Festival. In June 2000, as a member of La Banda Negra, she participated in a concert organized by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) of Spain for the benefit of the African refugees.
Rasha appeared at the UNHCR’s 5th Anniversary in Geneva in 2001. Thousands of candles were set afloat down the river Rhone to represent the hopes of millions of refugees.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.