Madrid-based Wafir Sheikh al-Din Gibril is a talented multi-instrumentalist from Sudan. He’s almost a living orchestra, gifted with an incredible musicianship. He plays ud, accordion, flute and violin.
Wafir was born in Kurdufan and studied at the Khartoum superior conservatory. He started playing accordion professionally with the bands of Abdul Aziz Almubarak, Mohammad Al Amin and Abdul Karm Al Kably.
Wafir was an occasional member of famed Spanish world music band Radio Tarifa and played also successfully with his won group Kambala for years. He was a member of La Banda Negra and has composed music for film, including the Spanish movie Finisterre.
Jardín De Al-Andalus. Música Arabigo-Andaluza De La Sevilla Medieval (Pneuma,1999) Nilo Azul (Nubenegra, 2002) Sefarad En Diáspora (Pneuma, 2005)
Shurahibeel Ahmed was born in Omdurman in central Sudan in 1935 and arrived to the capital Khartoum at a time when the lyric songs of the Sudanese tambur (lyre) were beginning to find common ground with the Arabic maqaam system of music, as well as the tradition of madeeh praise songs.
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 1950s 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 1960s and 1970s his performances on Sudanese radio and television helped set a new modern direction for popular music throughout the country.
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.
Sudaniyat (Nubenegra, 1997)
La sal de la vida (Nubenegra, 1998)
La Banda Negra (Nubenegra, 1999) Let me be (Nubenegra, 2000)
Omer Ihsas is one of the most respected singers and composers of Darfur. He has led a band for over 20 years, composing songs that have helped sensitize the nation to the rich culture and profound challenges of his home region. At a time when many of Sudan’s most accomplished artists no longer live in the country, Ihsas is a model of commitment to his country remaining on the scene from city stages to refugee camps using music as a persistent force for change and to bring a better future.
Ihsas was born in 1958 in Nyala, Darfur. His mixed Arab and African heritage makes him a quintessential Darfurian. This vast region borders Chad, Central African Republic and Libya and so is fantastically diverse culturally. That diversity was the charm of Ihsas’s youth.
“Nyala is one of the most beautiful serene civil places I’ve ever known,” recalls Ihsas. “When I was young it was quite different from now. Different tribes gathered peacefully every year for celebrations with dancing and singing. We lived together naturally.” That unity has been savaged today by decades of neglect and divide-and-rule tactics from a hostile government in Khartoum. But it lives on in Ihsas’s memory and it is his life’s dream to see it restored.
After he began singing in 1977, Ihsas went to Khartoum in 1981 and auditioned to study at the Institute of Music and Drama. He is a natural talent with a powerful voice that is also capable of great sensitivity and nuance so it’s no surprise he passed with flying colors. He auditioned with an Arabic song that speaks of feeling in Arabic Ihsas and this immediately became his stage name. Initially Ihsas worked at fitting into the music scene in Khartoum mostly imitating what other artists were doing. “I tried to be accepted,” he recalls, “but I realized that this was not the right goal. They were limited to 5 or 6 styles of music. I wanted to bring the richness of Darfur to the world.”
The Sudanese sound had been created when artists brought their unique traditions to Khartoum and Omdurman and found successful ways to modernize them. Ihsas knew this was also possible for the diverse rhythms and modes of Darfur but he was determined not to distort his sources in the process. “I did not intend to change the music,” he says. “I wanted to present it as it is then just develop it a little mostly by adding instruments.” Eventually he found himself leading a 16-piece band with three violins saxophone trumpet keyboards accordion percussion bass and guitar. In 1996 Ihsas added twelve dancers creating a full-force stage experience the likes of which no Darfur artist had ever delivered before.
The music of Darfur is a mix of complex African rhythms many of them 12/8 variants but it is also informed by Arabic music and importantly the most mystical side of Islam. “We are Sufis,” says Ihsas. “We draw from hakeba folkloric Sufi music which uses the riq [a small frame drum] the most popular Sufi instrument.”
After 1989 Ihsas like so many other Sudanese musicians faced harassment and arrest at the hands of the new Islamist state. He understood that he had to address the political realities of Sudan in his compositions but in a positive way. “We are singers,” says Ihsas. “We sing love songs first. But the conscience of a singer is with the people and with the land. My conscience woke up.” In 1991 he composed one of his most famous songs “Darfur Our Homeland.” Ihsas knew that the problems in Darfur had deep roots. As with the conflict in the south of Sudan, the real issue was not religion or ethnicity but rather unequal development and the government’s unwillingness to share the country’s resources with any region where its political support was weak. At the height of the north-south civil war Ihsas performed with a major singer from the south as a sign of solidarity.
Ihsas has struggled to champion the culture and plight of Darfur while still promoting the idea of a unified Sudan. This has been no easy task given the divisive politics of the 1990s. “People accused me of fomenting tribalism,” recalls Ihsas “Of enclosing myself in Darfur. But no I was singing for all of Sudan. I’m a Sudanese singer singing Sudanese songs in the name of Sudan. This is why I call my music Sudanese songs from Darfur. Now many other singers are using this idea.”
Recording music is also not easy in Sudan. Ihsas and his band recorded an album called Imagine in Austria in 2005. But most Sudanese know him through his mesmerizing stage performances. Ihsas travels throughout the Sudanese diaspora but keeps his home in Khartoum along with his two families, his wife and four kids on the one hand and his band on the other. Despite all the violence chaos and danger, he continues to perform in Darfur today. He feels that the multi-cultural nature of Darfur’s music holds the key to resolving the conflict for the divisions that tear tribe from tribe have been introduced during his lifetime and thus can be ended. “First the fighters from must come together,” says Ihsas. “Then we can have hope. I ask for this in my songs.”
Amir Omar ‘Banaga’ was born in the west of Sudan and began his performance career singing on a children’s television program on Sudanese television. He also continued his musical studies at the Institute of Music and Drama with the goal of finding a way to represent the rich diversity of traditional rhythms and melodies he grew up with.
In 1986 he joined with other students to form a group Igd el Djilad a landmark ensemble dedicated both to preserving traditions of the past and also addressing social issues of poverty and oppression. The group became extremely popular but in the increasingly repressive milieu of the late 1980s and early 1900s its members faced harassment detention and interrogation.
Ultimately in 1997 Omar Benaga moved to the United States. It was a wrenching decision that he made along with other key Igd el Djilad members.