Sudan, Music Capital: Album Recalls Former Rhythm Beacon
Traveling Africa in search of its music, Vik Sohonie was struck by a common influence -- Sudan, whose songs still hold power over a generation in much of the continent.
Sohonie, the founder of Osinato Records, a New York-based label devoted to bringing the music of overlooked and conflict-riven countries to wider audiences, has led a restoration of Sudan's musical heritage through a new album that arrives as the major artists of the country's golden era fade away.
"Two Niles to Sing a Melody," which comes out on September 14 on three LPs or two CDs, follows Osinato's project on Somali music, "Sweet as Broken Dates," which was nominated this year for a Grammy for Best Historical Album.
Unlike Ethiopian or even Somali music, which soaked up the big-band brass and jazz of the United States, Sudan's music is notable not for its foreign inspirations but the lack thereof.
The Sudanese sound, as developed in the capital Khartoum in the 1960s and 1970s, was driven by accordions and lush, precise violins -- string arrangements that were common elsewhere in the Arab world, including neighboring Egypt.
But underlying the music was a distinctly African rhythm -- the fast-paced tum-tum drumming that attest to Sudan's Nubian culture.
"Sudanese music seemed to be something that was organically created and produced. Instead of absorbing a host of influences, it spread those influences out across Africa, not just musically but in terms of stature," Sohonie said.
Foremost in impact was Mohammed Wardi, Sudan's best-known singer who married classic poetry with the nascent pop scene and challenged a succession of political strongmen.
A communist, Wardi was imprisoned and then fled into exile in Cairo and Los Angeles. He returned home before dying in 2012 at age 80.
To Sohonie, Wardi was a historic figure who parallels Nigeria's Afrobeat activist Fela Kuti, although Wardi, while packing crowds in Africa, remains far less known outside.
Two of Wardi's songs appear on the 16-track album. Other featured artists include Saied Khalifa, who had roots in the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam and was a rare Sudanese singer to have formal musical training, and Khojali Osman, whose songs of longing won him a following across the Arab world.
- Focus on capital -
Few casual observers outside Africa are likely to think first of music when considering Sudan.
Military ruler Gaafar al-Nimeiry in 1983 began to impose a strict version of Islamic sharia law. By the 1990s in the early days of Sudan's current president, Omar al-Bashir, the government took off the airwaves most music that did not glorify Islam or military campaigns.
While Sudan remains scarred by multiple conflicts, "Two Niles to Sing a Melody" focuses on the music of Khartoum, a decision Sohonie made reluctantly.
Sohonie's attempts to gain access to Sudan's National Radio archives were rebuffed. The building is guarded by national security services -- which Sohonie likened to the CIA being stationed outside the Smithsonian museum complex in Washington.
Instead, "Two Niles to Sing a Melody" relies on cassette tapes recovered in nearby countries including Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia and the breakaway Somaliland area -- attesting to the regional clout of the erstwhile Khartoum music scene.
"At the risk of promoting a culture that has been accused of imposing itself on others, I just thought that these were legends who needed to be put in the same kind of weight and stature as so many of the other great African musicians who have made such an impact on the continent," Sohonie said.
- Easing of restrictions -
With the gradual easing of social restrictions in Sudan, many of the major singers of the 1970s have returned to Khartoum and enjoy relative comfort as performers at weddings.
But, even with younger musicians on the rise in Sudan, Sohonie said a moment had definitively passed.
"What really inspired me was learning so much about somebody like Mohammed Wardi, and what he meant to people when he passed," he said.
"How come his story hasn't been told? Before the memories of that generation die, it's really important to focus on that era."