Sudan was once Africa’s largest country. Its people embodied such a collision of Arab and African cultures that it was often impossible to tell where one culture ended and the other began. However, as of 2011 the southern autonomous region gained independence, forming the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan. A heated debate around different interpretations of Islam, including issues like the legitimacy of music and dance, contributed to the division between North and South Sudan.
Despite the countries' complicated relationship with music, it is heard everywhere in the Sudanese media. The National Music Festivals have been re-launched and concerts by music veterans are attended by thousands. Still, curfew restrictions are in place: after 11pm, music performances are forbidden and the diversity of Sudanese folk music and dance is still threatened. These laws and regulations are influenced by political instability and violence, especially in South Sudan.
Between World War I and II, modern urban music started to take shape. Besides his prominent role in the independence movement, Khalil Farahis often seen as the 'Father' of contemporary Sudanese music. Lyric songs, created by singer-songwriters such as Karoma, make use of pentatonic scales and are performed on the tambour, a type of lyre. These scales are very different to the Arabic maqam structures. A new way of plucking strings was developed when the Arabic oud made an entrance into Sudanese music. Other instruments such as the violin, horn and accordion, were adopted after World War II. The electric guitar arrived in the sixties with influences from Hendrix & Santana and the electric keyboards were more often heard from the eighties onwards. Musicians mixed traditional styles such as haqiiba with Egyptian-Arab or European elements and developed al-aghani’ al-hadith (modern songs).Amble down the narrow walkways of a North African medina past the cafés filled with the aromatic smoke of hookah pipes and hum of local chatter all around. The Rough Guide To North African Café is a musical journey through the bustling backwaters of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, featuring artists from Algeria’s legendary Maurice El Médioni to French-Tunisian oud master, Smadj. Welcome to North Africa’s most intoxicating sounds.
In the sixties and seventies, as East African 'jazz' became more and more popular in Sudan, British military-style brass band gave way to police and army “jazz-bands.” Congolese soukous was influential too, and contributed to the Sudanese variant, Je-luo.
In 1988, Abdel Aziz el Mubarakbecame the first Sudanese artist to perform at WOMAD, bringing Sudanese music to the international scene. With the imposition of sharia law in 1989, however, Sudanese musicians struggled through a difficult decade. Abu Araki al–Bakheit, Igd el Djilad and Mohammed Wardi, for instance, all faced radio bans, threats, and arrests.
Female singers have played an important role in Sudanese music too. Urban, post-WWII, female artists including Mihera bint Abboud and Um el Hassan el Shaygiya derived a new style from their background in traditional women's groups. Some of these singers rose to fame touring through camps across the country to boost troops' morale during the war. In the sixties and onward, quite a few duos were popular locally; yet, it wasn't until the eighties, when three teenage Nubian sisters formed the group Balabil, that an all-female group reached extreme popularity in the horn of Africa. Afterwards, the most talented sister moved to a solo career in Egypt. Female performers in the seventies through nineties incorporated the influence of wedding displays through the use of drums and worldly-wise lyrics. Notwithstanding some backlashes and arrests, increased opportunites for women in music represent recent social changes in Sudan. The most promising contemporary artist is Rasha, a young woman of impeccable taste and assured talent.
Sudan went through two civil wars after its independence in 1956. The latest peace agreement was signed in 2005. After a referendum in 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, although internal conflict remains.
In the early nineties, the Sudanese government destroyed recordings of important cultural artefacts to create space for propaganda. This included the wiping of unique tapes of Southern Sudanese artists such as Yousif Fataki. It was only later that artists found strategies to overcome governmental restrictions. Female southern Sudanese singer tactically combined styles from different regions, masking the meaning of their songs in a different languages, mixing Dinka lyrics and ululations from the South with northern-style synthesizer beats. When the successful hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal collaborated with Abdel Gadir Salim in 2005, it marked Sudan’s most optimistic cultural milestone for a long time.
Back in the seventies and eighties, Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, was relatively prosperous. Nightlife flourished. Groups like The Skylarks and Rejaf Jazz, who were inspired by music from Kampala and Nairobi, frequented local venues. Nowadays, southern Sudanese music is more often heard in church. The Dinka tribe used to sing hymns about their famous long-horned cattle. A new Sudanese repertoire is growing and covers topics on war and liberation.For the first time, musicians from the north and south of Sudan come together to explore their common ground. Southern Sudanese artist Emmanuel Jal, one of the hottest rappers to explode out of the African music scene, joins northern Sudanese singer, composer and oud player Abdel Gadir Salim in a captivating musical collaboration. This incredible alliance of a renowned maestro with a young rapper produces music bursting with intricate melodies and a central message calling for peace in Sudan.
The Nuba,not to be confused with the the Nubiansof North Sudan, are an indigenous Sudanese people, originating in South-West Sudan. Geographically placed in the middle of the conflicts between the North and South, the Nuba have suffered severely from the civil wars. Nuba communities have not only tried to defend their land, but their culture as well. Luckily, the Kambala, or harvest festival, is still celebrated across the region. Even in Darfur, new Sudanese artists continue to appear. Ismael Koinyi, perhaps Darfur's most famous vocalist, sings in multiple Nuba languages and Arabic. He is also an accomplished guitarist.
Electricity is scarce, so Nuba bands tend to play their music without amplification, in the style of Kenyan and Congolese unplugged guitar music, Je-Luo. The Sudanese version of Je-Luo is performed with stringed rababas (clay-pot bass drums),tin bongos and shakers. The songs concern topics of war, the military and psychological challenges, and are often danced to until the early morning hours.
As mentioned before, 2005 was a breakthrough for the South Sudanese performer Emmanuel Jal. As an ex-child soldier, he had fled to Kenya where he found spiritual and political power in hip-hop. Jal's second album was a collaboration with famous North Sudanese muslim musician Abdel Gadir Salim. Ceasefire, released in 2005, literally brought together two opposing sides of conflict with one message: peace. Jal released his fourth album, See Me Mama, in 2012. After Jal's success, other southern Sudanese artists have also risen to fame. Omar Ihsas, for example, is a soul singer who continues to explore the boundaries of Sudanese music backed by his Sahel-based blues band.
In northern Sudan, religious dogma continues to distort debate. While some artists have given up their career because of belief in the illicit nature of song and music, other religious brotherhoods such as the Sufi Tijani continue to perform zikr. They view their ancient rhythms and chants as religious exhalations, rather than music.
In South Sudan, new music from the world's youngest country remains steeped in the area's rich musical tradition. Wayo combine spiritual chanting with interlocking grooves. The mesmerizing music, centered around the kpaningbo, a large wooden xylophone played by three people, is completed by the rest of village, who rotate through a series of bells and percussive instruments.
Trance Percussion Masters Of South Sudan celebrates the joy of communal music making. The beating drums and hypnotic chants summon the ancient polyrhythms of Africa’s newest nation. Surrender to Wayo’s percussive musical potion with their pulsating debut album.
A civil war in South Sudan erupted in late 2013. Throughout 2014, both sides of the conflict have killed thousands. International humanitarian organizations warn that continued violence will lead to a famine which could leave 50,000 children dead. Some South Sudanese musicians responded by encouraging youth to fight famine instead of each other. In 2014, Juba dancehall band The Jay Family released, 'Stakal Shedit,' a song calling for youth to go into agriculture instead of war.