The Harlem Band of Kinshasa

Posted September 15th, 2010 at 8:44 pm (UTC-4)

Most of the time I have found recently to devote to this blog has, unfortunately, been devoted to working on a redesign of the site. This has meant that I have had less time to finish the several long posts I have promised, and that I have been working on. The good news is that, hopefully, we will soon kick off the new and improved blog with a few serious features. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few more reels with you. Like the S.E. Rogie recordings I featured a little while ago, this first reel is not particularly unusual. It features the Harlem Band, a group of musicians from Kinshasa who Leo met in Monrovia, Liberia in 1965.

The Harlem Band was a working bar band, and their repertoire reflects the many different styles that were popular throughout West Africa in the first years after Independence. I don’t recognize any of the Congolese musicians in the group, but am hoping that you might! The lead vocalist is Andre Tchagna, the two guitar players, Gabu Lambert and Gabu Marcel, are perhaps related, the singer is Andre Pongo, and the drummer is Locomotive Daddy, who I believe is from Sierra Leone.

Leo made these recordings at the Voice of America African Programming Center in downtown Monrovia in the fall of 1965. The balance is wonderful and the band sounds terrific. Listening to this reel makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew, an era when musicians this talented were playing in bars throughout West Africa. I am particularly impressed with the guitar playing of Gabu Lambert. Check out his jazzy arpeggios and swinging solo in ‘Los Cueros.’

Yandé Codou Sène, R.I.P.

Posted August 4th, 2010 at 5:31 pm (UTC-4)

On July 15, while much of the planet was still recovering from World Cup fever, the news came from Dakar that Yandé Codou Sène, one of Senegal’s greatest traditional singers, had passed away. Known for her long association with the late President Léopold Sédar Senghor and for her commitment to Serere culture, Yandé Codou was 78 years old. In commemoration, I thought I would share a few tracks from her final cassette ‘Hommage a L.S. Senghor’, a 2003 release that was itself a tribute to her longtime patron.

Yandé Codou Sène was born in 1932 in the small village of Somb, located in the middle of the Serere heartland, roughly 80km south of Dakar and 10km southeast of Diakhao, which was the first capital of the Siin kingdom. Born into a family of griots, Yandé Codou started singing in the late 1940s accompanying her mother Amadjïgene Gning to ritual ceremonies in neighboring villages. As the story goes, one day back in 1947, having accepted two invitations to perform for the same afternoon, Amadjïgene sent Yandé Codou to sing in her place in the village of Boof Poupouye. As the young initiates in the village prepared themselves for circumcision their spirits were lifted by the young Yandé Codou Sène’s surprisingly powerful voice, and the legend of the ‘voice of the Serere’ had begun. By the time she met Léopold Sédar Senghor a dozen or so years later, Yandé Codou had the confidence of a veteran performer.

With the passing of the years this first meeting between the president and the griotte, which took place in the town of Gossas just before Senegalese independence, has become wrapped in a mystical shroud. The politician-poet, and future president, heard Yandé Codou sing at a traditional ceremony and was deeply moved by her voice. At some point during this event Senghor asked the young singer for a drink. Yandé Codou presented Senghor with a calabash of water. And once he had quenched his thirst, she dipped her hands into the calabash and washed her face with the remaining water, before sealing their fateful meeting by drinking the last drops.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the Serere heartland, Yandé Codou was dispatched to work the crowd at most of Senghor’s political rallies, extolling his virtues and singing his praises before the President arrived. Her most famous melodies were in regular rotation on the national radio and one, in particular, was adopted as the theme of a popular program. Her loyalty and efforts were also rewarded with the house in the town of Gandiaye, located on the road between Fatick and Kaolack, where she would live for the rest of her life, and where she passed away last month. When President Senghor stepped down in 1980 Yandé’s national reputation soon dissipated, and for the next fifteen years she would perform mostly at Serere weddings and funerals.

In 1995, Youssou N’Dour, whose father was Serere, resuscitated Yandé Codou’s career when he invited her into his Dakar studio to record a series of duos. Simultaneously released in Senegal and Europe, this CD introduced her to a new generation of fans and ultimately led to Yandé Codou’s first internationally released CD with her own group, 1997s ‘Night Sky in Sine Saloum’ released on the Shanachie label. After a few years of renewed attention, however, Yandé Codou returned once again to her schedule of ritual ceremonies in the villages around Gandiaye, appearing infrequently at the Theatre National Daniel Sorano in Dakar. Living modestly, and surrounded by her large family, Yandé Codou Sène passed away in the house that Senghor built for her a little before one in the afternoon on Thursday July 15, 2010. According to her wishes, she was buried in Somb.

Yandé Codou Sène’s last release ‘Hommage à L.S. Senghor’ was recorded in 2003 in guitarist Jimi Mbaye’s Studio Dogo, located in the Nord Foire neighborhood of Dakar, not far from the Léopold Sédar Senghor international airport. She is accompanied by her regular ensemble featuring her daughter and musical successor Aïda Mbaye, her son ‘Commissaire’ Birama Mbaye leading the percussion section, and the popular Serere bandleader Mbaye Ndiaye on the Riti, a one-string fiddle. The eight songs on the cassette all pay tribute to Yandé Codou’s Presidential patron who had passed away in December 2001.

The cassette opens with ‘Leo corr Dior’, a great example of the ‘A Kim No Kawoul’ or ‘Songs of the Griot’ that made Yandé famous. In this song, that she composed soon after he passed away, Yandé sings, ‘Léo you are the king of the Serere, you have come home to your family’. Singing to Senghor’s spirit in intimate terms-notice the use of the informal Léo, as opposed to the presidential Léopold-Yandé Codou continues, ‘You always said that you wanted to rejoin Philippe. Léo you have joined your family’. (Philippe Maguilien Senghor was Léopold’s only son, born to his second wife Colette Hubert. He died in a car accident in Dakar in 1981, and according to his wishes, Léopold Sédar was buried next to Philippe in Dakar).

In ‘Mbirayana’, Yandé Codou uses a melody associated with circumcision rituals, called ‘kasak’, to again praise Senghor. She sings, ‘Our champion has fallen to the ground, our leader has left us’.

‘Botadé Nélawal’ is a praise song that Yandé Codou had composed for Senghor while he was still president. ‘You can sleep easy’, she sings, ‘because under your watch all is well. You have accomplished great things’. In this song she alternates between Wolof and Serere.

This last track starts with a few verses of praise for Senghor before going on to sing the praises of one of the most famous Serere families. Throughout her career Yandé Codou not only sang Senghor’s praises but also lavished glory on the scions of the Siin region’s most noble families, the descendents of the rulers of the pre-colonial Siin and Saloum kingdoms. Up until her death, she always refused to allow her daughter to negotiate a payment before they performed for a noble family. According to her guiding values she could not put a price on the relationships that tied her as a griotte to the Siin’s royal lineages, and her noble patrons were in turn expected to demonstrate that they appreciated the true value of Yandé Codou Sène’s art. In ‘Bour Sine Maya Kor’ Yandé Codou sings the praises of Maya Kor, the last king of the Siin who passed away in 1969. She also honors the Diouf family, who were always loyal to the king.

Thanks to Babacar Diouf and Remi Dioh for their insights, memories of Yandé Codou Sène and help with translations.

S.E. Rogie, the VOA outtakes

Posted June 29th, 2010 at 8:46 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

I am one of those suckers who love massive box sets stuffed full of twelve versions of the same song, of endless alternate takes, and mumbled studio chatter. I am particularly fond of false starts, missed cues, flubbed notes and botched recordings. Listening to these by-products of the recording process makes it possible to isolate the cells, muscles, and organs that sustain the creative spirit of a piece of music.

There are, however, frustratingly few examples of this kind of audio ephemera available to feed the curiosity of the detail oriented African music lover. In most cases audio tape was simply too expensive to be wasted on false takes; the reel was re-wound and the botched take recorded over by the following take. (In some studios on the Continent, master recordings were also often scrubbed and the tape recycled).

At some point in the late 1960s-probably around 1967/68- S.E. Rogie, the late Sierra Leonean palmwine highlife star, spent an afternoon in the VOA studios in Monrovia, Liberia. As Leo remembers it, S.E. Rogie reached out to him, and asked if he could come into the studio to record a song he had composed for Liberian President Willam Tubman’s birthday (given the subject of the song, it seems more likely that this recording session was organized for Rogie rather than for the VOA). Rogie’s composition, ‘President Tubman’s Birthday Melody’, is the kind of song that I imagine he could crank out by the dozen; a sunny melody light enough to float off like a butterfly.

Rogie sings:
President Tubman-warmest congratulations to you
I wish you a happy Birthday
May you live longer
Healthy and wiser
I wish you many more Birthday
To reign over Liberia.

This is one of the few reels we have that includes all of the session’s takes: Leo, in keeping with the frugality of the times, usually erased ‘unusable’ takes. Here then, for your inquisitive ears, are the eight takes of S.E. Rogie’s ‘President Tubman’s Birthday Melody’.

I think that Rogie intended to release this song as a 45-rpm single.  (Does anyone know if ‘President Tubman’s Birthday Melody’ was ever released?  I know that Rogie did release at least one other tribute to President Tubman.)  At these same sessions, Rogie and his group also recorded a second song, that I imagine he intended to use as the B-side to ‘President Tubman’s Birthday Melody’.  I will post the different takes of this second song shortly.

Khadija al Bidaouia Teaser

Posted June 1st, 2010 at 8:34 pm (UTC-4)

I first heard the music of Khadija al Bidaouia back in the mid 1990s and I soon became obsessed with her strident voice and the rhythmic punch of her music. Fifteen years later my love for her music has not diminished.

I have just returned from a trip to Morocco, and am pleased to report that few artists in the Kingdom hit as hard as the queen of Casablanca. After many years of trying I was recently able to interview Khadija and I will be devoting a more lengthy post to her in the near future, but I could not wait to share the opening track off her latest cassette. Everything that I love about her music is contained in these twelve magical minutes.

The Hard Mbalax of Ouzin Ndiaye

Posted April 28th, 2010 at 9:16 pm (UTC-4)

Most articles on Senegalese music identify Youssou N’Dour as the man who put the mbalax rhythm on the map, who created an internationally identifiable Senegalese musical ‘brand’. And while Youssou’s many accomplishments can never be underestimated, his music remains somewhat atypical, more soigné than the ‘hard mbalax’ that packs Dakar’s dance floors weekend after weekend. Stripped of the sophisticated arrangements and catchy hooks of Youssou N’Dour’s cosmopolitan repertoire, ‘hard mbalax’ is a rawer music highlighting the relentless rhythms of the sabar drums, the tama and the ‘marimba’.

One of my favorite ‘hard mbalax’ singers is also one of the founding members, along with Youssou N’Dour, of the Super Etoile de Dakar. Ouzin Ndiaye was born on June 20, 1953 in the city of Thies, which is located 60 km east of Dakar and is the junction of the Dakar, Bamako and St. Louis rail lines. His father Bame Ndiaye and his mother Mbouba Ndiaye were both Gawlo or Pulaar griots and Ouzin grew up to the sounds of his father’s hoddu (the Fulani lute). Ouzin joined his first music group, the ‘Diamono 1’, in 1973. Sponsored by the businessman Charles Diop and based in the Colobane neighborhood of Dakar, the ‘Diamono 1’ also included Ouzin’s second cousin Youssou N’Dour, who was only fourteen at the time, and an equally young Mbaye Dieye Faye (who would later become the Super Etoile’s percussionist). The group had a regular weekend gig at the ‘Lagem’ nightclub in Kaolack, a city located 170 km southeast of Dakar, but only stayed together for a year.

When the ‘Diamono 1’ broke up, Youssou went to the ‘Etoile de Dakar’ and Ouzin joined the ‘Dagu Danu’, a group that was based in the Dakar suburb of Pikine. In 1977, after two years with the ‘Dagu Danu’, Ouzin moved to the ‘Super Xam Xam’, an orchestra then based in Guediawaye, another bustling Dakar suburb. And then two years after that, in 1979, Ouzin moved again, this time to the ‘Orchestre Takernassé’, a group that had a regular gig at the ‘Baobab’ nightclub, which was located in downtown Dakar at 10 Rue Macouda Ndiaye, in the shadow of the marché Kermel. All of these groups performed what Ouzin calls ‘la variété’, a mix of Cuban covers, interpretations of soul classics, and proto-mbalax. Then in 1979, Youssou asked Ouzin to leave the Takernassé and join him in the ‘Etoile de Dakar’, which had a regular gig at the ‘Jandeer’ nightclub, located on the western Corniche (the club still exists under the name ‘Le Kilimanjaro’).

When, in 1981, Youssou decided to leave the Etoile de Dakar and start his own group, Ouzin followed and became one of the founding members of the Super Etoile de Dakar (along with guitar player Jimi Mbaye, and percussionists Assane Thiam and Mbaye Dieye Faye, who are all still in the group). Over the next ten years Youssou N’Dour and Le Super Etoile de Dakar would become Senegal’s most popular musical team. And although there may be more virtuosic guitar players in Senegal than Jimi Mbaye, or more creative percussionists than Mbaye Dieye Faye, there is no tighter band in Senegal, or in Africa I would argue, than the Super Etoile de Dakar. Without the Super Etoile behind him, Youssou would still be one of the continent’s greatest vocalists, but I doubt he would have had the extraordinary success that he has known over the last three decades.

One of the reasons that the Super Etoile, unlike so many other groups throughout Africa, has stayed together so long is that individual members have always had the freedom to pursue solo projects. Over the years percussionists Assane Thiam and Mbaye Dieye Faye, bassist Habib Faye, and guitarist Jimi Mbaye have all released material under their own names. Ouzin Ndiaye has released five solo cassettes, four with the backing of the Super Etoile de Dakar, and one LP. He also, from 1973 to 1987, held down a day job as a civil servant at the E.N.A.M. (l’Ecole Nationale d’Administration et de Magistrature).

Ouzin has a raw, gravelly voice that is in the same register as the great Wolof griots ‘Ndiaga M’baye’ or ‘Boucounta N’diaye’; a voice that if he were Cuban would be called ‘tipico’. One of the great joys of hearing the Super Etoile de Dakar perform back in the 1980s and 1990s was the beautiful contrast between Ouzin’s sandpapery vocals and Youssou’s high clear voice. I first saw the Super Etoile perform on a Friday night in early September of 1993 and it is an evening of music that I will never forget. I showed up at the Soumbedioune (one of the several incarnations of the Jandeer/Kilimanjaro) at around midnight and walked into an empty nightclub. About an hour and half later, most of the members of the Super Etoile ambled onto the stage and started to grease their musical gears with a series of jazz standards (think ‘Take Five’) and Cuban classics. Towards the end of one of these songs, the remaining percussionists walked onto the stage, took their places and started to knock their drums into shape.

I was unprepared for what happened next. Mbaye Dieye Faye stepped up to his rack of Sabar drums, cocked his head to the right and ripped into the opening ‘bak’, the rhythmic call or introduction, to ‘Baye Waly’. The keyboard marimba (the rhythmic ostinato that anchors the group) and the rhythm guitar fell into place, and then Ouzin stepped up to the microphone, kicking off three hours of vintage Super Etoile. (I can still picture Youssou leaning into the microphone during a slow version of ‘Diamono’ with the full moon, reflecting off the bay of Soumbedioune, shining through a small window behind the stage).

‘Baye Waly’ is Ouzin Ndiaye’s ‘morceau fetiche’ or ‘theme song’. The first version of this song was released in 1988 on Ouzin’s only lp, ‘Autorail’. He composed it for his good friend Waly Mody Ndiaye. Ouzin sings, ‘stand up. Waly Ndiaye, you are here in the room, answer me. Senegal thanks you. The citizens of Rufisque thank you,Waly Mody Ndiaye’. The cassette ‘Fecc’ was released in 1993 and is, I think, Ouzin’s strongest release.

Like many other Senegalese artists, Ouzin has recorded several versions of his favorite compositions. The song ‘Jirim’ first appeared on Ouzin’s cassette ‘Xew Xew’, released back in the mid 1980s. Ten years later Ouzin recorded this punchier version of the song. ‘Why are you crying?’ he asks. ‘The young orphan is crying. He has lost his mother and father. Don’t cry you are in God’s hands. If you believe, you must not cry. He is the creator and we all belong to him. We have to submit to his will. Orphan, you are in God’s hands. If he has taken your mother and your father, he will not abandon you. You will not be alone’.

Ouzin released ‘Gao’, his first cassette, in the early 1980s: this cassette has been released with two different covers and under two different names, but Ouzin refers to it as ‘Gao’ (it has also appeared under the name Apollo). These are the only recordings that Ouzin has made without the Super Etoile de Dakar. The tracks were laid down at the old Studio 2000, which was located in a house owned by El Hadj Ibrahima Ndiaye in the Yoff neighborhood of Dakar, not far from the airport. Today, El Hadj Ndiaye owns a modern studio, performance space, and multimedia complex in the heart of downtown Dakar.

Ouzin is accompanied by what was then the Studio 2000 ‘house band’, Cheikh Tidiane Tall on guitars, bass and keyboards, Abdul Aziz Dieng programming the drum machine and Midi synthesizers, Thio Mbaye on percussion, Robert Lahoud on rhythm guitar, and Cheikh Lo on backing vocals. ‘Apollo’ is Ouzin’s interpretation of the late 1960s Guinean song of the same name. He slips in the praises of a good friend, singing ‘your mother Ndeye Maguette Diagne, son-in-law of Aissa Agne, I sing for you’.

  • [audio:]Ouzin Ndiaye ‘Apollo’

One of the distinguishing characteristics of ‘hard mbalax’ is the prevalence of praise songs. Just as the musical foundation of the genre is built on the griot rhythms of the sabar and tama, the thematic content of many songs reflects the griot heritage of ‘hard mbalax’ singers: other prominent masters of the style are Thione Seck, Mapenda Seck, Assane Ndiaye, Fatou Guewwel, and Kine Lam. In ‘Mbelelane’, Ouzin’s rearrangement of the traditional melody ‘Jali’, he sings the praises of his friend ‘Ndiogou’, who is buried in the ‘Mbelelane’ cemetery. ‘You are a good man. You were always hospitable, your mother can be proud of you.’

‘Xew-Xew’, released in 1986, is the first cassette Ouzin recorded with the backing of the Super Etoile. One of the best tracks on ‘Xew-Xew’ is ‘Doomi Baay’, another one of his original compositions that Ouzin has recorded several times; the first version was released on ‘Gao’. The title translates as ‘Father’s son’ and Ouzin sings, ‘we have the same blood, nothing should come between us. We have the same father, all that we are, we owe to our father’. Youssou joins Ouzin on backing vocals for the last several verses.

This cassette also features the first version of ‘Jirim’, which Ouzin has recorded three times over the years.

Ouzin’s fifth cassette is ‘Wor’, released in 2000, and again featuring the Super Etoile de Dakar. ‘Wor’ opens with a duo between Ouzin and Youssou N’Dour.

In ‘Serigne Mansour’ they sing the praises of Serigne Mansour Sy, known as ‘Borom Daaraji’, who is the current Khalife of the branch of the Tijanniya Sufi brotherhood located in Tivaouane, Senegal.

‘Natta’ is a praise song that Ouzin recorded for his friend Natta Mbaye. He draws on the proverbs of Kocc Barma, a 17th century Wolof philosopher, to sing her glory. This track highlights many of the elements that make the Super Etoile such a great band, Jimi Mbaye’s melodic guitar leads, Pape Oumar Ngom’s unflagging rhythm guitar, Assane Thiam’s sharp Tama, Habib Faye’s tight bass playing and the solid rhythmic core laid down by Mbaye Dieye Faye on percussion.

In recent years Ouzin Ndiaye has had some health problems that have forced him to curtail his appearances with the Super Etoile, but when we spoke several weeks he was looking forward to returning to the stage with the Super Etoile de Dakar.

Ouzin’s fifth cassette is ‘Sama Yene’, released in 1997. I don’t have it, and am still trying to find a copy. Special thanks to Idriss Fall for his help with song translations!

The Orchestre Novelty de Brazzaville

Posted April 8th, 2010 at 10:15 pm (UTC-4)

Many of the most interesting recordings in our archives are frustratingly mysterious; they have no track listings, no recording dates, no recording location, and no list of band members. One of the more enigmatic tapes in our collection is a reel sent to us from the United States Information Service Officer in Brazzaville back in 1961. This reel is part of a set of two that the accompanying memorandum, dated October 25, 1961, calls ‘Congolese town music’.

The first reel, which I posted back in 2007, features the great Orchestre Bantous de la Capitale. Its’ twin, is a recording of the elusive Orchestre Novelty, described in the USIS memorandum as ‘a somewhat younger organization with plenty of swing’. The memorandum helpfully adds, ‘Congolese town musicians play cha-cha-cha’s, merengues, rhumbas, and some tangos with a beat that is unmistakably Congolese. The rhythms of these dances which originated in Africa returned to Africa to be reinterpreted. The sample we are forwarding reflects the hybrid yet unique character of African town life today’. Not much useful information for the hungry musical archaeologist to sink his teeth into.

What is the story of the Orchestre Novelty? What became of them? These are questions, that over the last couple of years, whenever I had a few spare moments, I have tried to answer. With the help of generous colleagues in Brazzaville and Kinshasa I have been able to piece together an outline of the story of the Orchestre Novelty. I usually won’t post a feature until I have exhausted every possible lead and shaken every bush that crosses my path but, even though I am still on the trail of the Orchestre Novelty, I thought, given the great interest in Congolese music in the blogosphere, that I would share my skeletal outline in the hopes that you can help me flesh out the story of the Orchestre Novelty.

The Orchestre Novelty was founded in Brazzaville in 1959 by the bass player Montou Typoa and the saxophonist Paul Ngombe aka ‘Penki’. The guitar chair was held down by Joseph Samba ‘Mascott’, who went on to play with the Orchestre Bantous, and the vocal frontline featured Toussaint Mobenga, a singer remembered by his nickname ‘Batanga’-who it was said was so short that he had to stand on two stacked beer cases to reach the microphone- and Yano, whose last name no one seems to recall.

After a few years in Brazzaville, the group moved down to the port city of Pointe Noire. In 1966, the group split apart, with Samba Mascott going to the Orchestre Bantous, Toussaint Mobenga starting a new group ‘Africa Mode Matata’, and Penki launching the ‘Orchestre Mentha Lokoka’. Most of the members of the Orchestre Novelty seem to have passed away, but I have heard that Penki is alive, and hopefully well, still living in Pointe Noire. I am trying to track down his phone number and remain optimistic that he will be able to share the story of the Orchestre Novelty with us.

This recording, which was provided to the USIS officer in Brazzaville by the director of Radio Congo, was, I imagine, made in the studios of Radio Congo. The opening track is an instrumental rave-up with a very nice percussion break and some tasteful guitar playing by Samba Mascott.

The Orchestre Novelty appears to have benefited from the support and the patronage of the ‘Bana Nova’, a mutual-aid society in Brazza (these societies provided crucial support to many Orchestras of the era). In this track Toussaint Mobenga (?) sings, ‘It was not yet time for me to leave. Every since I left people have been begging me to return. Those who are against Nova were rejoicing. But I am back, once again within the warm embrace of the Bana Nova’.

This next track is a more conventional love song. ‘I am still a bachelor. I am not going to get married. Think of me Josephine, you have no regrets, you don’t think of your family. Falling in love with someone is a mistake, after you my heart is not the same’.

The fourth track on the reel is an instrumental dedicated to the ‘Bana Nova’. The refrain goes ‘Orchestra Nova, Novelty a fashionable orchestra’.

This track is another romantic tearjerker. ‘Think of me, think of what you are doing. There is no illness more virulent than love’.

The final track on the reel is a slow shuffle, a love song featuring some ripe clarinet playing by Paul Ngombe aka Penki: another wistful melody that nostalgically evokes the optimistic years of African independence.

Thanks to Fatouma Kalala for help with the translations and to Maitre Pierre Kalala, Maman Eugenie Lutula, and Buké Georges in Kinshasa. In Brazzaville, Adrien Wayi and especially Médard Miloundou provided most of the detailed information I have been able to pull together.

Unreleased Ali Farka Toure & Khaira Arby

Posted March 8th, 2010 at 10:52 pm (UTC-4)

This past week, in preparing a radio program featuring the final recordings of Ali Farka Toure, I stumbled on an unusual tape that I immediately wanted to share with you all. Have you ever wondered, when listening to Ali Farka Toure’s CDs, what it would be like to just hear him play-not trying to nail the perfect studio take, not for a concert audience- but just playing, taking his time and letting the music unfold? I have, and this recording is probably the closest I’ll ever come to satisfying my curiosity.

I found this cassette in Bamako, back in the summer of 2003. I was in Mali for a few weeks and was staying in a hotel that was a couple of miles south of the city center.  In the early evenings, after my working day was done, I would unwind with long walks through the neighborhood. On my second evening, soon after sunset, I walked through a bustling market and was attracted by a beautiful kamelen ngoni recording. I soon located the source of the music; a small market stall attended by a man in his early twenties who was standing between two rows of wooden cabinets, each containing dozens of drawers. As we spoke, and I asked about different styles of music, the young man pulled open drawer after drawer, laying out cassettes, each one more interesting than the next. The young man explained to me, as the music played, that his father had been a Radio Mali engineer for many years, and had collected, from a variety of sources, thousands of rare recordings. For a few dollars a cassette, he said, he could duplicate any of these recordings for me.

I had a dilemma. I was leaving Bamako in a few days and had already bought a few hundred cassettes at the Dabanani market in downtown Bamako. How many more cassettes could I fit into my luggage and more importantly how many cassettes could the young man duplicate for me in three days? He was confident he could get one hundred titles duplicated. I was dubious, but desperate enough to take a chance. Over the next three hours, of listening to fifteen seconds from hundreds of different titles, we selected a hundred cassettes that he would copy for me. I paid half up front, and we agreed on a time that Friday when I could swing by to collect my recordings. When I showed up on Friday I was thrilled to find a stack of ten cardboard boxes, each neatly labeled and wrapped for me. Over the last five years I have taken my time going through these recordings and have yet to be disappointed.

The cassette in this post features Ali Farka Toure accompanying the ‘Nightingale of Tomboctou’, Khaira Arby. This is a recording of an intimate evening of music, made back in the mid 1980s. Ali Farka Toure and Khaira Arby were invited, by Moulaye Haidara, the then governor of the Ségou region (he served between 1983 and 1987), to play, for his family and a small group of friends, in the governor’s mansion in the city of Ségou. Most of the songs on this cassette are Khaira’s compositions and Ali, for the most part, just kicks back and rocks the guitar.

Khaira Arby was born on September 21, 1959, in the Abaradjou neighborhood of Tomboctou, to a Berabiche father and a Tamachek mother. The only singer in her family, Khaira started to perform, in 1970, when she was only eleven years old. She made her public debut with a cultural group from Abaradjou, and made such an impression that she was soon recruited by the ‘troupe du cercle de Tomboctou’. And later that same year, she was promoted to soloist with ‘troupe regionale de Gao’, the ensemble with which she appeared at the 1970 biennale; a biannual music festival/competition featuring the best traditional and modern ensembles from throughout Mali.

In 1972, Khaira was recruited by the ‘Orchestre de Tomboctou’, a modern dance-band, and two years later, in 1974, was selected to represent Gao in Bamako, for the final round of the biennale. Khaira was awarded the third prize for best vocal soloist. Her blossoming music career was cut short, however, in 1976, when her father, frustrated that Khaira had abandoned her studies for music, forbid her from performing in public. Khaira obeyed, quit the ‘Orchestre de Tomboctou’, stopped performing, and got married.

Seven years later, after her divorce in 1983, Khaira started to get pulled back into music. After leaving her husband, she moved back to Abaradjou, where she was soon asked to manage a neighborhood cultural group. Khaira organized the ensemble and spent several months working, in particular, with a talented young female singer. On the evening of the group’s debut performance, an unexpected turn of events pushed Khaira back in front of the public. Several hours before the group was to take the stage, her young protégé told her that her father would not let her sing in front of an audience. Faced with no other choice, Khaira was forced to take the stage; this fateful concert kicked off the second leg of Khaira’s career.

In 1990, after working for a time in Bamako with Harouna Barry and the ‘Orchestre Badema Nationale’, Khaira released her first cassette ‘Moulaye’. Three years later, she released ‘Hala’, recorded with her own group, and then in 2002, released her masterpiece ‘Ya Rassoul’, which in my opinion is one of the best Malian cassettes of the last decade. Khaira, who still lives in Tomboctou, has been very busy over the last few months. In early February, she was invited to Bamako’s Studio Bogolan to record three tracks with the American group ‘Sway Machinery’, and later in the month was back in the same studio, this time with her own group from Tomboctou, laying down the tracks for her upcoming international debut. And, according to her producer, Khaira’s North American fans can look forward to the ‘Nightingale of Tomboctou’ making her US debut sometime in the fall of 2010.

The cassette starts with a formal introduction by Ali. He says, ‘Peace be upon all of you, this evening we are in Sanda, a neighborhood of Segou-Sikoro, the capital of the 333 Balanzans (a Balanzan is a Shea tree). Thanks to all of you who had a role in inviting us here to perform this evening. This is a memorable event for us, and we are blessed to be among so many renowned and honorable people’. And with that Ali hands things over to Khaira.

This first song is called ‘Yacoumana’; it is a song that is frequently performed at ‘Arab’ weddings in Tombouctou. (A brief aside on the term ‘Arab’ in the Malian context: ‘Arab’ refers to nomadic tribes in the Azawad, or Malian North, who speak Hassaniya, the language spoken by the Arabo/Berber population of Mauritania. These ‘Arabs’, or Berabiches, are distinct from the ‘Tuareg/Kel Tamashek’ nomads of Berber origin, with whom the Malian ‘Arabs’ nonetheless share many customs). Khaira sings, in her native ‘Arabic’, of the glories and beauty of Mali. This is the song that Khaira’s young protégé was supposed to sing on that fateful night in Abaradjou, back in 1983.

Ali Farka Toure starts this song off, before handing the vocals back to Khaira. This is another classic from the Malian ‘Arab’ repertoire. It is a praise song called ‘Yalali’, which the singers use to extol the virtues and ancestry of the patrons who have invited them to perform.

Next up is a song in the Sonrai language that calls on all Malians to come together, and work for the glory of their country. ‘Without national unity’, she sings, ‘nothing is possible. We are all brothers and sisters, and we must come together and fight for Mali’s future’.

One of Khaira’s most famous songs is ‘Aigna’, or ‘My Mother’. Composed shortly after her mother passed away, Khaira sings, ‘there is nothing eternal in this world. Look behind and you will see that everyone passes away sooner or later’. This song, which Khaira has rerecorded for her forthcoming CD, is the one that gave her the opportunity to represent the Gao region in Bamako, at the 1974 Biennale.

This final track is called ‘An Dunya’, or ‘The World’, and it was composed by Ibrahim Hamma Dicko from the town of Gao, in Northeast Mali. Khaira sings, ‘you see how the world is changing. Life is strange. Slow down and look at all that we have left behind. Think about what we are losing. The world is strange’.

This post is based on an interview with Khaira Arby. Many thanks to Moulaye Haidara of Radio Aadar Koima, in Gao, for his help with translations, and to Boris for the beautiful picture and details on Khaira’s upcoming album and US tour.

Benin Roots-Alekpehanhou and Gbessi

Posted February 4th, 2010 at 4:05 pm (UTC-4)

Benin, with artists like Angelique Kidjo, the T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, Lionel Loueke, and the Gangbé brass band, is a small country that continues to punch above its weight on the international music scene. All of these aforementioned artists, each in their own ways, have drawn inspiration from Benin’s mother lode of traditional music; a diverse body of rhythms and styles that spread to the New World with slaves, sold to European traders by the kings of Dahomey, and that sprouted new branches on the plantations of Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and Louisiana, becoming part of the bedrock of the folk and popular musics of the Americas.

This American-again in the continental sense-musical matrix, in turn, birthed the Cuban son, Brazilian samba, New Orleans second-line funk and soul, and Haitian compas; popular dance musics that have travelled the world, and contributed to many twentieth century African musical styles. The musical dialogue continues today with the rediscovery of groups like the Orchestre Poly Rhythmo by a new generation of music fans, in the collaborations between Angelique Kidjo and artists from Brazil and Cuba, and in Lionel Loueke’s work with Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson and Wayne Shorter. Meanwhile, the creative energy that stoked the artistic fires of the Black Atlantic throughout the twentieth century, inspiring artists from Arsenio Rodriguez to James Brown, Jorge Ben to Duke Ellington, Bob Marley to Coupé Cloué, continues to flow through the traditional musics of Benin.

In the market stalls of Cotonou, cassettes of tchinkounme, agbadja, and other traditional styles continue to outsell modern groups like Afafa and Diamant Noir. The two heavyweights who continue to dominate the traditional music market are Alekpehanhou and Gbessi Zolawadji. I spoke with both of them last week.

Alekpehanhou, the king of the renovated Zinli rhythm, was born Claude Michel Loucou, in 1957, in Abomey, a city in southern Benin which, from 1625 to 1900, was the capital of the kingdom of Dahomey. He grew up in a musical family and inherited both his stage name and talent from his father; who was given the name Alekpehanhou by the King Aho Glélé. The name means ‘the songbird can produce a beautiful melody in spite of his small size’, and was bestowed on the elder Alekpehanhou when he was still a young boy, singing at the court of King Aho Glélé, who was a son of the King Glélé (1858-1859) but who never held the main throne of Dahomey.

Claude Michel was also bestowed the name when he was a young boy. Most evenings, after dinner, his family would wind down the day with several hours of song, under the attentive ear and direction of the elder Alekpehanhou. It was after one of these sessions that his father formally announced that Claude Michel would subsequently carry his name and legacy. The younger Alekpehanhou started singing in public when he was still a young child in Abomey, mastering the Zinli through his participation in countless funeral ceremonies.

The Zinli is a style of music and dance, of the Fon people, that is performed to accompany the spirits of the deceased onto the next world. Centuries ago, funeral songs were accompanied by several calabashes (the calabashes were overturned in water and used as hand percussion) and a clay jug. It was during the reign of king Glélé that the Zinli style was formalized. At the death of one of his father’s best friends, Glélé organized an orchestra featuring several hand-drums of different sizes, gon bells, and a large clay jug called the Zinli; the rhythm takes its name from the clay jug. Today, Alekpehanhou’s group includes between six and ten percussionists, and up to thirty singers and dancers.

In 1980, Alekpehanhou moved to Cotonou, where for the next ten years he taught primary school. Two years after his arrival in the capital city, he started his own group, and started to develop his own style of Zinli, which he called the Zinli rénové, or the renovated Zinli. ‘I took the traditional Zinli of Abomey, that I learned as a child’, Alekpehanhou told me, ‘and opened it up. I have made it less melancholy, transformed it into a rhythm that can be performed at all occasions. We now perform the Zinli rénové at weddings, baptisms, communion celebrations, concerts, and national events, as well as at funeral ceremonies’. In 1985, Alekpehanhou released his first cassette, and today he is promoting his twenty-seventh release. Over the years, his fans have given him many titles and he is now known to all as ‘Le Roi Alekpehanhou’.

All of his cassettes kick off with a song of self-praise. In ‘Sato na hagna’, the title track to his nineteenth cassette, Alekpehanhou sings, ‘no matter how old the panther, when he roars his voice remains powerful. I live through my voice, and I haven’t lost any of my power’.

His twentieth cassette opens with the track ‘Lon mon dja sa gni gbé’, in which Alekpehanhou compares himself to a mole. He sings, ‘I am like the mole. The mole can’t be stopped; he digs labyrinths that never end. My voice is always digging deeper’.

Alekpehanhou draws a lot of his inspiration from Fon wisdom and from the events of his daily life. In ‘E non lin gnla nou mi a’, off his nineteenth cassette, Alekpehanhou uses a Fon proverb to meditate on a domestic drama he had recently lived through. A committed polygamist, Alekpehanhou once lost two fathers-in-law on the same day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and thus found himself saddled with unexpected expenses that he had trouble meeting. He sings, ‘before you try and shoulder a heavy load you have to first consider the strength of your ankles. If I have a problem today, it is a problem that I went looking for. If I hadn’t married several women, I would not find myself in this situation’.

‘Etè ka gni kou ô ton?’ is an example of a more traditional Zinli funeral song. Dedicated to one of his fathers-in-law, who passed away in January 2005, Alekpehanhou sings, ‘we were not done with you yet, but death has taken you away from us’.

Reflecting on his twenty five years in music, Alekpehanhou is most proud of the fact that his name is known and respected throughout Benin. ‘In a poor country, where most artists cannot hope to get rich’, he told me, ‘respect and recognition are the proof of a successful career’. His biggest challenge remains managing his group of three dozen musicians. ‘Human nature is complicated’, Alekpehanhou said, ‘and with over thirty musicians and dancers to please, there are always challenges’.

Koffi Albert Bessanvi was born, in 1952, into a family of musicians, in the small fishing village of Djegbadji, located on the shores of the lagoon that spreads north from the Atlantic port of Ouidah; which was a center of the Portuguese and Dahomean slave economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Koffi grew up listening to his father’s performances of ‘Avogan’, a social dance for nobles, but was more attracted to the youthful rhythms of Agbadja; a style of music that he discovered in the village of ‘Oumako’, located in the Mono department.

Koffi started his career in his early twenties and made his ‘major league’ debut in 1976, sharing a bill with many of the country’s most popular cultural artists at Cotonou’s ‘Palais des Congres’. Koffi’s talent brought him success and a nickname; for the last thirty years he has been known to Agbadja fans in Benin, Togo, and Ghana as Gbessi Zolawadji, which can be roughly translated from the Mina language as ‘the beautiful voice that brings everyone together’.

Gbessi has released fourteen cassettes, performed in Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Togo and South Africa, where in 2001 he won the Kora award for best traditional artist of the year. I asked Oscar Kidjo-Angelique Kidjo’s older brother and the owner of the Cotonou studio where Gbessi records-what distinguishes Gbessi from other traditional artists. He answered, ‘Gbessi puts a lot of research into his compositions, studying the different styles of song and dance of the Mina people, and is always meticulous in the studio. He puts as much thought and effort into his recordings as any modern composer I work with. Whereas other traditional artists will record a half-dozen songs in two days, Gbessi will spend a week to ten days making sure all of his tracks are perfect’.

Although Gbessi’s group is built around the same rhythmic core as other Agbadja groups, he has not been afraid to frame his rhythms with horn lines or piano harmonies. ‘Mi Dou Agbe’ is the title track off the cassette which won Gbessi the Kora award. He sings, ‘don’t give others a hard time. Live your life, and look for peace and harmony’.

The song ‘Djah’, which has a similar arrangement, develops a similar theme. ‘Don’t wrong others’, Gbessi warns, ‘whatever you do will come back to you’.

These next two selections have more typical arrangements. In ‘Aoyaka’, one of his more famous songs, Gbessi praises his village and his own talent. ‘Agbenou’ is a cry for help, Gbessi sings, ‘I am suffering and I have no one to reach out to’.

Today, Gbessi lives in Cotonou, and continues to perform at weddings, baptisms, celebrations and concerts throughout Benin.

Special thanks to Marc Boulovi for his help in Cotonou.  If you enjoyed the music in this post I strongly urge you to check out Orogod, a blog that features lots of wonderful music from Benin.

Unreleased Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, 1965

Posted December 29th, 2009 at 9:42 pm (UTC-4)

As this year comes to an end, I would like to take a moment to thank all of you who continue to get in touch, through email, over the phone, and by letter. All of your feedback is appreciated and very encouraging. Most of the features that I’ve published on the blog have taken weeks, and sometimes months, to research and prepare. This slow process involves getting in touch with artists, producers, journalists, and music specialists, conducting lengthy interviews (often in languages that I do not speak-in the last two years we’ve done interviews in Portuguese, French, Classical Arabic, Darija, Luo, Lingala, Bambara, Hausa, Wolof, Twi, and Tigrigna- thus requiring the help of interpreters), translating the lyrics to songs, and finally organizing all the music and the research into a digestible post.

I could not do most of this work without the collaboration of the many generous persons who have given freely of their time, whenever I have asked. I try to recognize all of those whose help I have relied upon at the end of each post, but, to highlight the collaborative nature of much of the labor that goes into sharing our African musical treasures, I want to once again thank all of my colleagues, both here in Washington D.C. and throughout Africa, who have rallied to the cause.

African Music Treasures’ last post of 2008 featured Leo’s unreleased Fela Kuti recordings, and to close out 2009 I want to return to Nigeria, with another unreleased reel from this same trip, Leo’s August of 1965 Lagos recordings of Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson. While the recordings of Fela and the Koola Lobitos captured the band at a time when Fela was still getting his sound together, these recordings of Rex Lawson caught the Cardinal in his mid-sixties prime; these were the years during which Rex and the band dominated Nigeria’s highlife scene.

This recording session was held one afternoon in August of 1965 in a Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Lagos, and if you listen carefully you can hear cars honking on the streets outside. Listening to this music forty four years later, I am nostalgic for a time when bands sounded so good live; Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson and the Majors sound loose, limber and focused, paying great attention to ensemble dynamics, tight horn choruses and flowing solos.

Different versions of all of these tracks, with the possible exception of ‘Osaba Koro’, were eventually released in Nigeria (for more information on Lawson’s recordings check out our friend John Beadle’s discography). I present these cuts with little commentary; I’ll just say that, in my opinion, Nigerian highlife doesn’t get much better. At the end of a few of these tracks you can hear applause and laughs by the few spectators in attendance, a beautiful atmosphere and some gloriously laidback highlife; it’s all here, the shuffling grooves, swinging trumpet and saxophone solos, tight percussion breaks, incisive guitar playing, and Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson’s leathery vocals.

At the end of the recording session, Leo’s colleague Tunde Sowande (it is his voice that introduces each song) sat down with Rex Lawson for a brief interview. Here is the raw unedited interview.

Happy New Year to all and best wishes for 2010, I’ll be back soon with more musical surprises from the archives.

The Golden Era of Omdurman Songs

Posted December 16th, 2009 at 10:27 pm (UTC-4)

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’.

  • [audio:] Sunai al Nagam

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!



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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