Two Niles to Sing a Melody – The Violins & Synths of Sudan is a superb collection of music produced during the golden age of modern music Sudanese in the country’s capital Khartoum, in the 1970s and 1980s.
The anthology begins with the charming violin and accordion-fueled orchestral music of the 1970s that brought together Arabic influences and seductive African rhythms.
With the arrival of electronic instruments, the Sudanese musicians started using synthesizers and drum machines in the 1980s, mixing tradition with western influences.
In the mid-1980s, the increasing influence of Turabi Islamists led to crackdowns on alcohol consumption, burnings of records and the banning of songs about women. A brutal military coup in the late 1980s brought religious Turabi extremists to power and they increased the attacks on musicians. Some were tortured and many fled the country or were silenced.
Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan features essential artists such as Abdel El Aziz Al Mubar and Mohammed Wardi and many other outstanding musicians as well.
Finding the original recordings in Sudan was a difficult task. Thankfully, the influence of Sudanese music across the Sahara region was widespread in the 70s and 80s. Ostinato’s producers traveled to neighboring Ethiopia, Somalia, Jibuti, and Egypt in search of cassette tape and vinyl recordings.
With assistance from Sudanese associate and co-compiler Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel, a once famous poet and actress in 1970s Khartoum, the Ostinato crew restored and remastered the music and has released it in various formats.
The CD version of the compilation contains two discs and is beautifully-packaged in a hard cover book that provides a historical overview of how the music thrived across Sudan and later died because of political and religious factors, as hardline Islamists targeted and persecuted musicians. The liner notes are written by Vik Sohonie and edited by Manish Melwan.
Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan is also available as a triple LP gatefold set.
The Ostinato team and their collaborators have done an outstanding job, giving life once more to some of the jewels of Sudanese music.
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.
Alsarah & The Nubatones – Manara (Wonderwheel Recordings, 2016)
Manara is the new album by an American world music band called Alsarah & The Nubatones. The group is led by Sudanese-American vocalist and songwriter Sarah Mohamed Abunama-Elgadi, better known professionally as Alsarah.
Alsarah & The Nubatones’ music is deeply influenced by Sudanese and Nubian music, featuring vocals in Arabic intertwined with irresistible North African percussion and the mesmerizing sound of the ‘ud.
Manara was sequenced to be listened to from the opening to the end, as it intertwines through various instrumental interludes and songs. Sudan is a musical crossroads of musical influences so you’ll hear a mix of influences that range from high-speed -paced percussion to slow cadence songs that connect with the desert blues that has become so popular in recent years. The group describes its sound as East African Retropop.
After ‘ud player Haig Manoukian passed away, Alsarah & The Nubatones recruited two new members, Brandon Terzic on ‘ud and Nahid on additional vocals.
The lineup on Manara includes Alsarah on vocals; Rami El Aasser on percussion and backing vocals; Mawuena Kodjovi on bass and trumpet; Brandon Terzic on ‘ud and ngoni; and Nahid Elgadi on backing vocals. Guests: Yusuke Yamamoto on keyboards; Marie Abe on accordion; and Marandi Hostetter on violin.
Manara is a finely-crafted album that captures the essence of modern Sudanese music.
Abu Araki al-Bakheit is a musical giant who emerged during the latter years of Sudanese music’s golden era. With his fabulously smooth and supple voice, Abu Araki reached a pinnacle of success in the late 1970s, a time of blooming creativity in Sudanese performance arts. Two decades later, he ran afoul of Islamist authorities who banned his music, arrested him, and forbade him from singing at public events. When he responded by saying he would not sing at all, the public outcry was so great that he was forced to relent. Today, he stands both as a grand figure of Sudanese song, as well as a brave and principled example of artistic resistance during one of the most oppressive periods of Sudan?s modern history.
Abu Araki was born in Wad Madany ?Sudan, the capital of Aljazeera State, a center of agriculture in the country. As a boy, he endured the hard life of a traditional, rural farming family. The family later moved to Omdurman, home of Sudan?s influential radio and television station, and there he received inspiration from Islamic religious practices. “I joined a Khalwa,” he recalls, “a religious house in which young kids like myself used to learn the Quran. My first day there was scary especially when the young people shouted while reading the Quran. The variety of voices helped me later on to understand the variety of a large orchestra, and to understand complicated theories such as harmony and counterpoint.”
After graduating from the Institute of Music and Drama in 1978, Abu Araki emerged as a popular young singer on Sudanese radio, and was soon performing at wedding parties as well as festivals in and out of Sudan.
After the rise of Sudan’s Islamist government in 1989, Abu Araki, like many Sudanese artists, had difficulty working, in part because of the strong social content of his song lyrics. He made some of his most important recordings in Egypt, working with Yousif el Mosley, maestro for Hassad Music, the most prolific record label for Sudanese music ever. Meanwhile in Sudan, Abu Araki recalls, “I wasn’t able to perform my songs in the theaters because of the powerful words they have, and also because of the enthusiasm my fans felt about these songs. I had many difficulties, but I was able to overcome them.”
Ever since, Abu Araki has engaged in a delicate dance, remaining true to his musical and social principles, satisfying his loyal audience, and risking the wrath of suspicious authorities. In recent years, he has increasingly performed for Sudanese diaspora communities around the world, including in the United States. He says he has not been able to record his newer songs “the way I want to,” and very much hopes that his work in the United States will allow him to do so in the near future.
Abdel Gadir Salim is among the most significant and influential singers Sudan has produced. He first introduced the rhythms and melodies of the western province of Kordofan into the national music, and then played a key role in bringing Sudanese music in general to the world. Unlike many of his great contemporaries, Salim still lives in Sudan, where he is viewed as a national icon. He has traveled the world extensively with his group, and in 2005 made history and proved himself a truly contemporary player when he collaborated with former child soldier and southern Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal on the groundbreaking CD Ceasefire.
Salim was born in the mid-50s in Dilling, in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan’s western province of Kordofan. Salim recalls his youth in Kordofan as a broad musical education, “a mix of tribes singing all night.” Nuba tribes, as well as various peoples of Kordofan and Darfur to the west “lived together in friendship like one tribe.” The dance rhythms Salim heard as a boy, “at midnight,” like the cantering merdoum, were often tied to the natural word, imitating for example the gait of camels and horses, and all of this formed the core of a young man?s musical sensibility. He came to Khartoum in 1970 as a teacher, but soon formed his group, the All Stars, and began performing modern, urban adaptations of the sounds he had loved since boyhood.
Salim befriended Sudan’s greatest singer Mohammed Wardi, and studied at the Institute of Music and Drama. “The first song I played,” he recalls, “was Alur Halabi in 1971. It’s about the first lorry that came to Dilling. It says that I am very glad the first lorry has come to my village, but also I am sad because this lorry has taken my lover from this village. I want this lorry to be broken because it has taken my lover.” When Salim took old songs like this one and arranged them for his group, with saxophone, keyboard and electric guitar joining oud, violin, and traditional percussion, he made his mark as a force in modern Sudanese music. His band combined the aesthetics of an orchestra, a traditional ensemble, and a jazz combo, and their sound became standard fare at wedding celebrations. Salim’s music was so deeply loved by the public that his group continued to perform even during the harsh period of the 1990s when Sudanese artists suffered under a regime of strict, Islamist government.
In 1994, Salim was a victim in a knife attack in Omdurman, which took the life of famed singer Khogali Osman. The assault reflected the fiercely anti-cultural environment that followed the 1989 coup, but Salim, always a figure above politics, dismissed it as the act of a crazy man, and carried right on with his work.
Salim is a statuesque presence and a warm, charismatic performer. As such, an ideal ambassador to the world for Sudanese music. He has released some of the best known Sudanese recordings, notably The Merdoum Kings Sing Songs of Love (1991), and Khartoum Blues (1999).
In 2005, he surprised fans everywhere with his collaboration with rapper Emmanuel Jal, who had survived the experience of child warfare in a horrific civil war between north and south. Ceasefire straddles cultural, generational, stylistic, ethnic, religious and political divides, and stands as a powerful symbol of collaboration and unity in a deeply divided nation.
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