Music of Sudan
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|Culture of Sudan|
The rich and varied music of Sudan is made up of traditional, rural East African roots, as well as of Arabic, Western or other African influences on the popular urban music from the early 20th century onwards. Since the establishment of big cities like Khartoum as melting pots for people of diverse backgrounds, their cultural heritage and tastes have shaped numerous forms of modern popular music. In the globalized world of today, the creation and consumption of music through satellite TV or on the Internet is a driving force for cultural change in Sudan, popular with local audiences as well as with Sudanese living abroad.
Even after the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the Sudan of today is very diverse, with five hundred plus ethnic groups spread across the country's territory, which makes it the third largest country in Africa. The cultures of its ethnic and social groups have been marked by the complex cultural legacy, going back to the spread of Islam as well as by indigenous African cultural heritage. Though some of the ethnic groups still maintain their own African language, most Sudanese today speak the distinct Sudanese dialect of Arabic.
Due to its geographic location in East Africa, where African, Arabic, Christian and Islamic cultures have shaped people's identities, and on the southern belt of the Sahel region, Sudan has been a cultural crossroads between North, East and West Africa, as well as the Arabian Peninsula, for hundreds of years. Thus, it has a rich and very diverse musical culture, ranging from traditional folk music to Sudanese popular urban music of the 20th century and up to the internationally influenced African popular music of today. Despite religious and cultural objections towards music and dance in public life, musical traditions have always enjoyed great popularity with most Sudanese. Even during times of wide-ranging restrictions of public life, public concerts or the celebration of weddings and other social events, music and dance have always been part of cultural life in Sudan.
Folk music and other traditional musical forms
Rural traditional music and dance
As in other African regions, the traditional musical styles of Sudan are ancient, rich and diverse, with different regions and ethnic groups having many distinct musical traditions. Music in Africa has always been very important as an integral part of religious and social life of communities. Performances of songs, dance and instrumental music are used in rituals and social ceremonies like weddings, circumcision rites or to accompany the long camel treks of the Bedouins. In these performances, music always has been a social event, marked by the combination of performers, lyrics, music and the participation of the community, like dancing or other types of sharing a musical event. Traditional music and its performance have been handed down from generation to generation by accomplished musicians to younger generations and was not written down, except in recent times by formally trained musicians or ethnomusicologists.
The music of Sudan has a strong tradition of lyrical expression that uses oblique metaphors, speaks about love, the history of a tribe or the beauty of the country. In his essay "Sudanese Singing 1908–1958", author El Sirr A. Gadour translated the lyrics of a love song from the beginning of the 20th century as follows:
O beautiful one, draw near
Reveal your cheek's scarifications
Let my elation be hallucination in love
The sting of a scorpion
Is more bearable than your disdain.
One of the most typical East African instruments, called tanbūra, or kissar in Nubian music, was traditionally played by the singers as the usual accompaniment for such songs, but this traditional Sudanese lyre has largely been replaced in the 20th century by the Arabic oud. Drums, hand clapping and dancing are other important elements of traditional musical performances, as well as the use of other African instruments, like traditional xylophones, flutes or trumpets. One example for this are the elaborate wooden gourd trumpets, called al Waza, played by the Berta people of the Blue Nile State. In contrast to traditional Arabic music, most Sudanese music styles are pentatonic, and the simultaneous beats of percussion or singing in Polyrhythms are another of the most prominent characteristics of Sudanese Sub-Saharan music.
In many ethnic groups, distinguished women play an important role in the social celebration of a tribe's virtues and history. In her report about female singers in Darfur, the ethnomusicologist Roxane Connick Carlisle recounts her fieldwork during the 1960s in three ethnic groups. She describes the common traits of these female bards from the Zaghawa,  Fur and Beni Helba Baggara people as follows:
"Her personal character must have won the respect of her people, before she can be acceptable functionally as someone with power to move their thoughts and their emotional reactions into the areas she directs. She must be acknowledged as the most clever and witty singer; often she must embody the idea of physical attraction, and particularly she must have the gift of poetry and improvisation, all this encompassed in a person of dignified bearing."— Roxane Connick Carlisle, Women Singers in Darfur, Sudan Republic (1976), p. 266
Another traditional form of oral poetry are the songs of praise or ridicule by female singers of western Sudan, called Hakamat. These are women of high social standing, respected for their eloquence, intuition and decisiveness, who may both incite or vilify the men of their tribe, when engaged in feuds with other tribes. The social impact of these Hakamat can be so strong, that they have recently been invited by peacebuilding initiatives in Darfur in order to exert their influence for conflict resolution or other social issues, like environmental protection.
Dervishes and zikr rituals as religious forms of recitation and dance
The numerous brotherhoods of Sufi Dervishes are religious, mystical groups that use prayers, music and ritual dance to achieve an altered state of consciousness in a tradition called zikr. Like in other Islamic communities, the prominent Sufi orders of Sudan engage in ritualized zikr ceremonies that are not considered by the faithful as musical performances, but as a form of prayer. Each order or lineage within an order has one or more forms for zikr, the liturgy of which may include recitation, instrumental accompaniment by drums, dance, costumes, incense, and is sometimes leading to ecstasy and trance. Zikr rituals are most often celebrated on Friday late afternoons, like the one in front of the tomb of Sheikh Hamed el-Nil in Omdurman. Also, traditional forms of exorcising evil spirits from possessed individuals are the musical performances of women's gatherings called zār.
Brass bands and the origins of modern Sudanese music
From the early 1920s onwards, radio, records, film and later, television have contributed to the development of Sudanese popular music by introducing new instruments and styles. Already during the Turkish-Egyptian rule and later during the Anglo-Egyptian condominium until independence, first Egyptian, and then British military bands left their mark, especially through the musical training of Sudanese soldiers and by introducing Western brass instruments. According to Sudanese social historian Ahmad Sikainga, "Sudanese members of military bands can be regarded as the first professional musicians, taking the lead in the process of modernization and indigenisation." – Until today, these marching bands represent a characteristic element, playing the National Anthem on Independence Day or other official celebrations.
The 1920s – Haqeeba, the roots of modern popular music in Sudan
The strongest stylistic influence in the development of modern popular Sudanese music has become known as Haqeeba style music (pronounced hagee-ba and meaning "briefcase"). The name Haqeeba, however, was only applied much later to popular songs from the 1920s, when radio presenter Ahmed Mohamed Saleh talked about old records, collected in his briefcase in his show Haqeebat al-fann (Artistic Briefcase), that he played on Radio Omdurman during the 1940s.
In terms of the history of music in Sudan, the label haqeeba applies to an important change in the development of modern music: A new urban style of singing and lyrics was evolving, moving away from tribal folk songs and the melodies of religious, devotional singing. This style was inaugurated by the singer Mohamed Wad Al Faki, as well as others like Mohamed Ahmed Sarour, who were inspired by him. These songs were initially inspired by the vocal tradition of Islamic praise of the prophet, known as madeeh. Gradually, melodies known from madeeh were used by singers like Wad Al Faki and others to accompany new, non-religious lyrics. During his childhood years at a religious school, called khalwa in Sudan, Wad Al Faki had learned recitation in classical Arabic, voice control and correct pronunciation. According to El Sirr A. Gadour "he did not belong to any of the main ethnic communities in Omdurman. This freed him from a narrow identity and made him a 'general' singer, crossing the tribal barrier to broader national affiliation."
Haqeeba started as essentially vocal music, sung by a lead singer and a chorus, with percussion coming from the tambourine-like tar frame drum. It was performed at weddings and other social occasions and soon became popular. – During this time, the first commercial 78 rpm gramophone records were recorded and marketed from Omdurman, from where this new music spread to listeners in greater Khartoum and other urban centres.
The 1930s up to the 1950s – Rise of popular music through records, radio and music halls
In the 1930s, a number of music companies opened in Sudan, among them the Gordon Memorial College musical company, which promoted Mohamed Adam Adham, whose Adhamiya was one of the earliest formal Sudanese compositions, and is still often played.
The pioneers of this era were often singer-songwriters, including the prolific Abdel Karim Karouma, author of several hundred songs, the innovative Ibrahim al-Abadi and Khalil Farah, a poet and singer, who was active in the Sudanese independence movement. Al-Abadi was known for an unorthodox style of fusing traditional wedding poetry with music. Other songwriters of the era included Mohammed Ahmed Sarror, Al-Amin Burhan or Abdallah Abdel Karim. – Also, a specific style of rhythmic choral singing by Sudanese women evolved out of praise singing during the 1930s, called Tum Tum. Originating from Kosti on the White Nile, the lyrics of tum tum were romantic, but sometimes also talking about the difficulties of female life. The music was danceable and became quickly popular in urban centres.
Subsequently, Sudanese popular music evolved into what is generally referred to as "post-haqeeba", a style dominating in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. This period was marked by the introduction of tonal instruments from both East and West, such as the violin, accordion, oud, tabla or bongo drums. A big band style with a string section and brass instruments came into existence, mirroring trends in the West. Post-haqeeba music, mixed with Egyptian and European elements has also been called al-aghani al-hadith (modern songs).
The 1940s saw an influx of new names due to the rise of live radio shows at Radio Omdurman. Notable performers included Ismail Abdul Mennen, Hassan Attia, and Ahmed al Mustafa. Ismael Abdul Queen was a pioneer who strived to adapt to the new conditions and deserted the old style. He was followed by a singer-songwriter called Ahmed Ibrahim Falah. But both were soon overtaken by Ibrahim al Kashif, who became known as the "Father of modern singing". Al Kashif began to sing under the influence of Mohamed Ahmed Sarour, a pioneer of Haqeeba, and relied on what Abdel Karim Karouma had started, renewing popular singing styles. For live performances, there were also two dance halls in Khartoum, St James' and the Gordon Music Hall.
The 1960s up to the 1980s – The Golden Age of popular music in Sudan
In the 1960s, American pop stars became well known, which had a profound effect on Sudanese musicians like Osman Alamu and Ibrahim Awad, the latter becoming the first Sudanese musician to dance onstage. Under these influences, Sudanese popular music saw a further Westernisation, and the introduction of electric guitars and brass instruments. Guitar music also came from the south of the country, and was played like the Congolese guitar styles. Congolese music like soukous, as well as Cuban Rumba, exerted a profound influence on Sudanese popular music.
Starting his career in the late 1950s, the Nubian singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Mohammed Wardi became one of Sudan's first Superstars. Despite his exile following the military coup in 1989, his popularity in Sudan and beyond kept rising until his return in 2002 and up to his death in 2012.
From the late 1970s onward, another popular singer was Mostafa Sid Ahmed. A teacher as a young man, he entered the College of Arts and Music in Khartoum and composed his music to the lyrics of many well-known Sudanese poets like Mahjub Sharif, often expressing the longing for freedom and the struggle of the Sudanese people against dictatorship.
An important shift in modern Sudanese music was introduced by the group Sharhabil and His Band – formed by a group of friends from Omdurman – namely Sharhabil Ahmed, Ali Nur Elgalil Farghali Rahman, Kamal Hussain, Mahaddi Ali, Hassan Sirougy and Ahmed Dawood. They introduced modern rhythms relating to Western pop and soul music, using electric guitars, double bass, and jazz-like brass instruments, with an emphasis on the rhythm section. Their lyrics were also poetic and became very popular. Up to the 2010s, Sharhabil's band has been one of the leading names in Sudanese music, performing both at home as well as internationally. – Another popular group of the late 1970s that employed "jazz-like" brass arrangements were The Scorpions and Saif Abu Bakr.
Since the 1940s, female singers had slowly become socially acceptable: Well-known singers were Mihera bint Abboud, Um el Hassan el Shaygiya and most of all, Aisha al Falatiya, who as early as 1943 was the first woman to sing on Sudanese radio. Another outstanding female singer and political activist of the years before and after Sudan's independence in 1956 was Hawa al-Tagtaga, who left a long lasting influence for the "moral and cultural legitimacy she bestowed on younger generations of Sudanese women singers who follow her tradition.", as critic Magdy El Gizouli put it. During the 1960s, a wave of new female vocal stars became prominent. Most famous among these was a band composed of three sisters called Al Balabil (The Nightingales). They formed in the early 1970s, appeared on many live and TV shows and became very popular across East Africa. The 1980s also saw the rise of Hanan Bulu-bulu, a female singer, whose performances were sensual and provocative; she was eventually detained by the authorities and even beaten up by hardliners.
International popular genres like Western dance music, rock or pop music and African-American music, have had a profound effect on modern Sudanese music. As in other African countries, one of these influences were the military brass bands. Playing in such bands attracted many young recruits, who later carried the music style and instruments over to popular music. The result was a kind of dance music, referred to as (Sudanese) jazz, which was not related to the American style of jazz, but similar to analogous modern dance music styles throughout East Africa. Prominent band leaders in this era include Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz El Mubarak, both of whom have achieved some international fame and distribution of their albums. – In retrospect, the 1960s up to the early 80s were called "The Golden Age of Sudanese popular music". This period was documented by several re-issued albums in 2018, when researchers from the US and Germany were looking for still existing recordings from that era. Out of this research, several digitised albums of popular music from Sudan, including stars like Abdel Aziz El Mubarak, Kamal Tarbas, Khojali Osman, Abu Obeida Hassan, Kamal Keila, Sharhabil Ahmed, Hanan Bulu Bulu, Samira Dunia and, most famously, Mohammed Wardi were digitally remastered and are available for international listeners.
A special place among contemporary musicians from Sudan can be attributed to composer, instrumentalist and music director Ali Osman, who settled in Cairo in 1978 and became one of the important figures in Egypt for classical and contemporary music in the European tradition. After his beginnings in Sudan as a self-taught rock musician, he later turned to classical music and composed symphonic works of Sudanese or Egyptian inspiration that have been performed internationally.
The 1990s up to the 2000s – Restrictions through sharia law and the decline of popular music
After the military coup in 1989, the imposition of sharia law by an Islamist government brought about the closing of music halls and outdoor concerts, as well as many other restrictions for musicians and their audiences. Many of the country's most prominent musicians or writers were barred from public life, and in some cases even imprisoned, while others, like Mohammed al Amin and Mohammed Wardi, took exile in Cairo or other places. Traditional music suffered too, with traditional Zār ceremonies being interrupted and drums confiscated.
The popular singer Abu Araki al-Bakheit was banned from performing political songs, but he eventually managed to continue performing in defiance of the authorities. The Southern Sudanese celebrated singer Yousif Fataki had all his tapes erased by Radio Omdurman. Other popular performers of the time include Abdel Karim al Kabli or Mahmoud Abdulaziz, both with a notably long and diverse history of performance and recordings, as well as Mohammed el Amin and Mohammed Wardi. Up to today, the vast majority of Sudanese singers express their lyrics in Sudanese Arabic, thereby touching the feelings of their national audience as well as the growing number of Sudanese living abroad, notably in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
International musicians that became popular in Sudan included reggae superstar Bob Marley and American pop singer Michael Jackson, while the funk of James Brown inspired Sudanese performers like Kamal Kayla. The spread of international pop music through radio, TV, cassette tapes and digital recordings also prompted a growing number of Sudanese musicians to sing in English, connecting their music with the outside world. – Even though the government of the time discouraged music, dance and theatre, the College of Music and Drama of Sudan University in Khartoum, going back to 1969, continued to offer courses and degrees, thus giving young people a chance to study music or theatre.
The 2000s and up to the present
Reggae, hip hop and rap
As in other countries, reggae, rap or hip hop music combines local talents and international, young audiences, both in live performances as well as on the internet. Among other issues, these communities in Sudan have attempted to use the subversive power and immense popularity to call for freedom of expression and democratic unity of the country. Ever since the Sudanese protests started in December 2018, musicians, poets and visual artists have been playing an important part in the mainly youth driven movement. International artists, such as the extremely popular Bangs, who was born in Juba, South Sudan, see the genre as an avenue for peace, tolerance, and community for millions of African youth, who are powerful in numbers, but politically marginalised. As the example of South Sudanese singer Emmanuel Jal shows, the lyrics have the unique ability to reach even child soldiers to imagine a different lifestyle. According to Jimmie Briggs, author of Innocence Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War, “A music group is not an army, but it can get powerful social messages out before trouble starts.”
Urban contemporary music of the 21st century
Since producing music in recording studios, using modern instruments and digital media, has become available in Sudan, growing numbers of people are listening to private (online) radio stations like Capital Radio 91.6 FM or are watching music videos. As in other countries with restrictions of freedom of expression, the use of smartphones offers especially young, urban and educated people, and most importantly, Sudanese women, a relatively safe space for exchange with their friends or distant relatives, as well as access to many sources of entertainment, learning or general information.
Until the Sudanese Revolution of 2018/19, permission for public concerts had to be obtained by the Ministry of Culture as well as by the police, and after 11 pm, all public events had to end. As the mostly young audiences did not have enough money to pay for tickets, most concerts, for example in the National Theatre in Omdurman, the garden of the National Museum of Sudan or the Green Yard sports arena in Khartoum, were offered free of charge. Musical performances were also organized in the premises of the French, German or British Cultural centres, giving young artists a chance to perform in a sheltered environment. Workshops with visiting artists or festivals like the international Sama Music Festival have given opportunities to young Sudanese musicians to improve their skills and experience. Famous local artists of this era are the musicians of Igd al-Jalad, a group known for its critical expression for many years, the popular singer Nancy Ajaj or the pop group Aswat Almadina, all of them singing more or less obvious lyrics about their love of the country, which they claim as their heritage and future, despite the ruling government of the time. – As members of the important group of the Sudanese diaspora, the female singer Alsarah & The Nubatones, Sinkane or the songs of rapper Oddisee are examples of musicians with a Sudanese background in the US, who, thanks to the Internet, also have their following back home. Another popular expatriate Sudanese musician is Sammany Hajo, producing electronic remixes of historic Sudanese tunes from his base in Qatar.
Following their musical studies at Ahfad University for Women in Omdurman, as well as by participating in workshops and concerts at the German cultural institute in Khartoum, a band of young women called Salute yal Bannot became well known in 2017. Their song African Girl has scored more than 100,000 clicks on YouTube alone and earned them an invitation to the popular music show Arabs Got Talent in Beirut. After the band split up, their lead singer, composer and keyboard player Hiba Elgizouli is pursuing her own career, also producing her own artistic music videos.
Another musical example of Sudanese artists, celebrating the many faces and social roles of women in today's Sudan, is the popular music video Sudaniya (Sudanese woman) that claims more than 6 million viewers on YouTube.
During the Sudanese Revolution of 2018/19, hip hop and other types of urban contemporary music were a means of important cultural and political expression for young people in Sudan and its diaspora. A new trend in Sudanese music since the late 2000s is called Zanig and has become popular as a form of underground music through live shows and sound systems on public transport. It was described in the following way by journalist and fellow of the Rift Valley Institute Magdi el Gizouli:
"This bootleg musical genre, pioneered by the King Ayman al-Rubo, is a fusion of West African beats and Egyptian mahrajanat style, with frequent accelerations and deceleration and techno-style repetition. Zanig queens sing about ‘antibaby pills’ and the agency of ‘MILFs’ and introduce themselves with maxims like: ‘If you follow the sugar mummies you’ll end up driving six cars, and if you follow the little buds you’ll waste your money in restaurants’."
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Music of Sudan.|
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