The largest city in the Sudan, Omdurman, is the country’s economic and cultural capital (as well as being home to the Sudan’s three most popular soccer clubs). For the last seven decades, this city located on the West Bank of the Nile River, has exerted a magnetic pull on the Sudan’s most talented singers, poets, composers and instrumentalists. This was especially true in the two decades immediately following Sudanese Independence (January 1, 1956) from Britain; years remembered today as the Golden Age of Sudanese music. These were the years during which the National Radio, located on Neel Street on the shores of the Nile, and known throughout the land as Radio Omdurman, was the only gateway to national recognition and a successful musical career.
Created by the British Colonial, administration Radio Omdurman first took to the airwaves in 1941 and from the very beginning music programming was a cornerstone of her broadcast schedule. During Radio Omdurman’s first two decades, all of the music that was broadcast was performed live in the studio. By the early 1960s Radio Omdurman had acquired tape machines, and were organizing regular recording sessions featuring the Sudan’s most talented singers, backed by the Radio Omdurman Orchestra. This orchestra was built on a swinging string section that included violins (the first generation of Sudanese violin players were trained by Ezo Maestrelli, an Italian engineer who came to Sudan to work for the country’s railway system) and cellos, a rhythm section held down by several percussionists and an upright bass, and featuring the melodic embellishments of a piccolo flute, an accordion, an oud and/or a guitar. To be featured on Radio Omdurman an aspiring artist had to survive the rigorous audition process; the radio relied on several different quality control committees, there was one which judged a singer’s talent, another committee that scrutinized the instrumentalists, a committee that examined the quality of musical compositions, and a final committee that looked at the poetry and lyrics.
One of the results of all this effort was a new repertoire of modern songs that fused Egyptian and European orchestral influences with Sudanese rhythms and melodies. (There are over 400 languages spoken in the Sudan, and an equal diversity of regional musical styles and rhythms, my impression, however, is that most of the regional rhythms that were part of the matrix that created Sudanese modern music are from North, Central and Western Sudan.) This new repertoire was so intimately linked to Radio Omdurman that this style of music eventually became known simply as ‘Omdurman songs’. By the late 1980s, with the opening of several private recording studios and the arrival of a culturally repressive Islamic regime, this Golden era of Sudanese music had come to an end; the official Radio Omdurman orchestra was disbanded in 1994. In the early 1970s, Radio Omdurman gave the VOA several reels featuring a selection of the Sudan’s most popular artists in a variety of musical styles. These reels include some of the country’s most famous songs.
Tayeb Abdalla was born in 1940, in the town of Shendi, located 150 km northeast of Khartoum on the east bank of the Nile River. He started his professional career as a teacher but was always drawn to music. In the early 1960s he started performing with a regional theatre troupe, and it was with this company that he first drew the attention of Radio Omdurman’s music programming staff. Blessed with a sensitive and emotional voice, Tayeb was asked to record with the Radio Omdurman orchestra, and made his radio debut in 1962; over the next twenty years he would record over forty songs for the radio. In 1980, Tayeb Abdalla left the Sudan and moved to Riyadh, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he worked for a newspaper for six years. He returned to Omdurman in 1986, before leaving once again for Saudi Arabia in 1992. For the last seventeen years, Tayeb Abdalla has lived in the Red Sea port-city of Jeddah, two hundred short km to the east of the Sudan. He continues to perform for the large Sudanese community in Saudi Arabia and is currently finishing a new CD that should be released in early 2010.
This song is one of his most famous. The lyrics of ‘Ya Fathati’ were written by the poet Tayeb Mohammed Said El Abbasi. The scion of a well to do Sudanese family, Tayeb Mohammed spent several years studying in Cairo, Egypt, and during these years he fell in love with an Egyptian student. His love was not reciprocated and Tayeb Mohammed channeled the pain of his rejection into the lyrics of ‘Ya Fathati’. The song explains that his love was rejected because of the color of his black skin. ‘Love has no color, no country, my darling, loves comes from the heart’, sings Tayeb Abdalla.
Ibrahim Awad, or as his fans called him ‘the Sudanese Elvis Presley’, was born and grew up in the ‘Hay el Arab’ neighborhood of Omdurman, which for generations as been the city’s musical heart. He was the first Sudanese artist to appear in an Egyptian movie, back in the early 1950s, and by the time he made his debut on Radio Omdurman he was already a megastar in the Sudan. Always nattily dressed in sharp suits, Ibrahim Awad was also the first Sudanese singer to dance on stage, and he recorded hundreds of songs for Radio Omdurman. He passed away, in ‘Hay el Arab’, in May of 2006.
This next song was composed by Ibrahim’s friend and neighbor, the composer and accordion player Abdel Lateef Khider. Abdel Lateef was also born in the ‘Hay el Arab’ neighborhood, and for twenty five years, from the early 1950s to the mid 1970s, was the principal accordion player of the Radio Omdurman Orchestra. In the late 1970s he moved to Qatar, where he joined the Radio Qatar orchestra. He still lives in Qatar, and continues to work with the Qatari police and military orchestras. He composed around a dozen songs for Ibrahim Awad. In ‘Ya Zemen’, Awad sings ‘Oh time, give me a break. I have had hard times; I need a few moments of joy, of happiness, after that you can have my life’.
More than any other singer of his generation, Sayed Khalifa, is responsible for the popularity of ‘Omdurman songs’ throughout the Muslim Sahel and the Horn of Africa. A dynamic performer, Khalifa won fans throughout Africa with his reinterpretations of classic Sudanese songs in the national languages of his African audiences. He was born in 1928 in the village of Ad Dibeiba, not far from Khartoum, and in 1947 received a scholarship to study at the Arab Music Institute in Cairo. He made his first radio broadcasts, on Egyptian radio, during these student years, and in 1956 wrote his name into Sudanese history with his recording of ‘Ya Watani’ a patriotic song praising Sudanese independence. Like many of his musical peers, Sayed Khalifa’s career was curtailed by the Islamic regimes of the late 1980s, with some of his more sensual songs purged from the Radio Omdurman archives. The great Sayed Khalifa passed away on July 2, 2001 while undergoing treatment for heart disease.
His most famous song, and one of the Sudan’s most well travelled melodies, is ‘El Mambo Soudani’. The music was composed by Sayed Abdel Ray, and Sayed Khalifa himself composed the lyrics. This song has become a staple of Sudanese wedding bands, and was also the title of the 1998 Piranha records ‘El Mambo Soudani’ by the Cairo based group Salamat (Sayed Khalifa appears on the group’s 1998 CD ‘Ezzayakoum’). After encouraging his listeners to dance the Sudanese Mambo, Sayed Khalifa sings of his beloved, of her beauty and graceful silhouette, and of the suffering she puts him through.
There were several female duos that contributed to the Golden era of Omdurman songs, and among the more famous were the ‘Sunai al Nagam’, which brought together Zeynab Khalifa and Khadiga Mohammed (the group was originally a trio called ‘Sulasi al Nagam’). Zeynab Khalifa was born in Al Ubayyid, the capital of North Kurdufan state in central Sudan. Khadiga Mohammed is from the town of Tulus, in Southern Darfur. The duo came together in Omdurman and their career was launched by their recordings for Radio Omdurman.
‘Sunai al Nagam’ stayed together through the early 1980s, performing at weddings, celebrations and official functions. After the group split apart, Zeynab Khalifa continued to sing occasionally in public as a solo artist. Today, both women are retired and live in Omdurman. In this song they sing the praises of a responsible and caring husband and father, ‘you are precious to us, a blessing in our lives, always dedicated to our happiness’.
The 1960s, as elsewhere in the world, were a time of musical innovation in the Sudan. Inspired by British pop and American rock and roll, a group of musicians based in Omdurman created Sudanese jazz; as in East and Central Africa the adaptation of the word ‘jazz’ didn’t signify a particular interest in North American Jazz but rather an affiliation with cosmopolitan tastes and trends. These groups replaced the strings of the modern Sudanese orchestra with brass and woodwinds (most of the horn players were trained by the military and police bands) and replaced the ‘Nubian rumba’ groove-to coin a phrase- of ‘Omdurman songs’ with a steady backbeat. I do not know much about the ‘Lights of Khartoum North’. As far as I can tell, the group was built around the rhythm section of Mohammed Djibril and Salah Khalil, and got their start in the early 1960s. They were popular enough to be invited to perform for frequent weddings up through the early 1980s.
The first of these two songs, ‘Feelings’, reflects the Brit-pop influenced side of their repertoire. The songs starts, ‘the first time I saw her…’ and goes on to describe the feelings generated in the singer by a beautiful girl. The military marching band roots of many of the musicians is obvious in this track; they sound a little like a ragged marching band interpreting the Beatles. The second track, an untitled instrumental, has got a backbone that draws on early American rock and roll, while the horns anticipate the great Ethiopian sax sections of the early 1970s.
Any discussion of Sudanese jazz has to include Sharhabil Ahmed, the genre’s most successful artist, and one of the Sudan’s biggest stars. He was born in Omdurman in 1935, and grew up in Al Ubayyid. A talented visual artist, Sharhabil enrolled at the Khartoum College of Fine Arts where he studied graphic design. After graduation he joined the Sudanese civil service as textbook illustrator. Sharhabil, who by his late teens was already an accomplished amateur musician, describes in a very interesting profile published by Al Ahram in 2007, a musical epiphany he had in 1947, when he saw a Southern Sudanese musician playing the guitar on the street in Al Ubayyid: ‘I had seen the guitar in Westerns-cowboys on horses playing the guitar- but I had never seen the instrument until I met some southern Sudanese musicians who played it. I was fascinated. I wanted to try, and they taught me how to play the guitar’. In the early 1960s, a friend in Omdurman urged Sharhabil to audition for Radio Omdurman, and after he passed the test he began to sing regularly on the radio.
Around the same time, he was hired by an Italian entrepreneur to sing American and European pop covers at Khartoum’s Gordon Music Hall, one of the city’s two dancehalls. In the mid 1960s, Sharhabil and his group entered the Radio Omdurman studios and recorded ‘Helwat Al-Ainein’, which was his first composition in the new ‘jazz’ style, and his first massive hit. Here is the original recording of ‘Helwat Al-Ainein’, which translates as ‘the girl with the beautiful eyes’. The song showcases Sharhabil’s light voice over a swinging backbeat, some nice riffing saxophones, and a blunt guitar solo.
Sharhabil Ahmed still lives in Khartoum, and continues to perform his music throughout the world (he performed here in Washington DC just several months ago).
This final selection from our Radio Omdurman reels features Mohammed Ahmed Aouad, remembered fondly today as the king of Sudanese Chaabi, the style of urban folk music that he made famous. He was born in Omdurman, and started to develop an interest in music during his primary school days, around the same time his family moved to the ‘Hay el Arab’ neighborhood. He made his debut on Radio Omdurman in the early 1960s, and was soon a staple of a weekly program devoted to folk and regional musics.
Mohammed Ahmed Aouad composed many of his songs, which express the daily joys and sorrows of Omdurmanis, and also collaborated with some of the Sudan’s great poets. He became a successful enough musician that he could invest in non musical endeavors; for many years he owned a small shop that sold lamb shanks on ‘el Har el Hamza’, one of Omdurman’s busiest market streets. Mohammed Ahmed Aouad passed away in Omdurman in the early 1990s. This song is called ‘You Are Still Young’.
This post is based on interviews with Tayeb Abdalla, Margani Azzain, Mohammed Adam Suleiman Abo-Albashar, Azmi Khalil, and Mahgoub Mahmoud. Special thanks to Zubeir el Tayeb, Zaharat Abuzaid, Lamia Gritli and Tifa Bourjouane for all of their help!