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Memories of Sudanese music

There's more to the African nation than volatile politics

Sudan is in the news for another political upheaval, one of the many that have plagued what was once Africa's largest country, a nation with a deep and fascinating musical culture.

It was during my time in Tokyo, around the late 1980s and early 90s, that I was introduced to Sudanese music by the late Nubian oud master Hamza El Din, who was then residing in Tokyo. He had arrived in Japan on a scholarship to research the development of music along the Silk Road, specifically how the oud travelled along the ancient route to eventually end up as the Japanese lute, or biwa. He noted the Asian influence on Sudanese music as well.

Hamza El Din encouraged me to look at all the different music in the Horn of Africa, from Nubians (like himself) like the funkateer Hasan Ali Kuban to Sudanese masters like singer Abdel El Aziz Al Mubarak and oud maestro Abdel Gadir Salim. As luck would have it, Mubarak and Salim performed in Tokyo while I was there, and I had the good fortune to see them both perform together on stage -- they were terrific. Mubarak is a powerful but mellifluous singer, while Salim accompanied with his fine oud playing.

I noted the arrival of Ostinato Records' latest compilation -- Two Niles To Sing A Melody: The Violins & Synths Of Sudan -- in my last column and now I have the chance to listen to this compilation by company founder and Bangkok resident Vik Sohonie and Sudanese poet Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel. The package includes a 36-page booklet filled with interesting photographs. The liner notes are very well written, providing the reader with a historical and social perspective on the 1969-89 period when music flourished in Sudan, prior to the violent coup in 1989.

The Two Niles package is available as a 2-CD set or as three vinyl LPs.

The groove that pulses through much of the music -- a loping, rolling rhythm set up by percussion and strings -- features strongly on the opening track, Al Bareedo Ana (The One I Love), as singer Emad Youssef soars over percussion, twangy guitars and accordion.

The violins and synths of the title wash over the listener on the second track, Ma Kunta Aarif Yarait (I Wish I had Known) by Abdel Aziz El Mubarak. Sometimes dubbed the Smokey Robinson of Sudan, he is in fine form on this song, one of my favourites on the compilation. The compilers have translated all the titles so you can get an idea of what each song is about.

There are no weak tracks on this compilation, so it is quite difficult to pick standout songs. But so far my favourites would include the dreamy strings and synths of Min Ozzalna Seebak Seeb (Forget Those That Divide Us), the frantic Malo Law Safeetna Inta (What if You Resolve What's Between Us) by Khojali Osman, and the wonderful Igd Allooli (The Pearl Necklace) by Saied Khalifa, with its driving handclaps and call-and-response vocals.

The synths in question don't feature in the same way as the Farafisa sound from nearby Ethiopia; there is less jazz in Sudanese music than in Ethiopian, the swing in the former created by strings and percussion, making all the difference.

Much of the music featured in the compilation comes from Khartoum; the compilers note and indeed hope at the end of the booklet that other compilations on the diversity of Sudanese music, from other cities and regions, will be compiled in the future. This essential compilation is a great place to start.

Those interested in Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz El Mubarak should check out the releases they made for Globestyle (part of Ace Records) in the 80s. There is also an excellent general compilation on Sudanese in Rough Guides.

I played both Abdels at my DJ night on April 4 at Studio Lam to celebrate 25 years of this column, and they went down very well with the dancers in front of the DJ booth. It was a good turnout and we partied till the early hours. One young man came up to me and told me that the track I was spinning -- I won't tell you which; you'll have to come to the next World Beat night -- was the best song he'd ever heard. I take that young man's comment as inspiration for the next 25 years.

World Beat wishes all our Thai readers the very best for the New Year.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com

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