Omdurman, Sudan – To stroll through Omdurman, Sudan’s old capital across the White Nile from Khartoum, during wedding season, is to walk through time.
Large halls and open-air performance spaces, free to the public, offer a small window into the Sudan of old, when bands and orchestras kept sharply-dressed young people on their feet.
Tonight, a Fulani band from western Sudan plays balafon music at a concert for disabled people. Nearby, spiritual Nubian rhythms and chants create a woozy atmosphere. The night’s big wedding has legendary singer Salah ibn Al Badia performing with a full violin and synthesiser orchestra.
The lavish spread of sounds is reminiscent of an earlier era, a time when Sudanese music captured the hearts and minds of post-colonial Africa and the Middle East.
“I remember in the 70s and early 80s there was music on every corner of every street in Khartoum,” said Reda Hassan El Ashi, then a young man from a well-known, successful family who revelled in the swinging city.
Mohamed Abu Sabib, a scholar in Khartoum, said: “In Sudan, the political and cultural are inseparable.”
Colonial legacies that centred power in Khartoum and an economy tampered with by external powers have condemned Sudan to political dysfunction, with highs and lows that affected the arts.
When army colonel Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiry seized power in Sudan’s first coup in 1969, he coddled Sudan’s artistic elite.
His patronage drew from leftist politics, inspired by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
A shrewd politician, Nimeiry commanded popularity through tangible support for the arts to thwart his many political foes.
His government organised music festivals and cultural exhibitions, where new talent competed and established artists were celebrated.
“If we ever had a problem,” said Abdel El Aziz Al Mubarak, one of Sudan’s famed singers who toured Europe and Japan, “we could just make one phone call to Nimeiry.”
What took hold in Nimeiry’s era – violin and accordion orchestras helmed by enigmatic singers – became the signature sound of Khartoum and earned Sudan clout in Africa.
“Until now, we didn’t get to do what we did in Nimeiry’s time,” said singer Abdullah Abdelkader, who in the 1970s led a 40-member folkloric troupe on a world tour.
Mohammed Wardi was considered an iconic poet, singer, revolutionary, and national treasure.
“He was the last king of Nubia,” said Wardi’s son, Abdulwahab.
“When he died, I called him the Nile. Nobody can take the Nile away from the Sudanese people. It is for every Sudanese person.”
Abdulwahab recalled the story of a Malian man who had travelled across the Sahel on foot for three months to get an autographed cassette from Wardi – a condition set by the father of the woman he wanted to marry.
Wardi once performed at a sold-out 60,000-capacity stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon, to a largely Francophone crowd infatuated more with his character than the content of his Arabic lyrics.
A member of Sudan’s Communist Party, then the largest in Africa, Wardi became politically active when Sudan allowed Egypt to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile in 1964, flooding his hometown of Halfa by Lake Nubia.
His works became national songs, used at rallies and days of national celebration, and served as a pacifier.
Sudan’s communist party was relegated to the fringes after sponsoring a failed coup against Nimeiry in 1971.
Political fragmentation allowed hardline elements into the mainstream, often led by Western-educated professionals like Hassan al-Turabi, an alumnus of the Sorbonne in Paris.
Sensing the appreciation of al-Turabi’s ideas, Nimeiry reoriented his world view from Nasserism to al-Turabi’s vision of a Sudan governed by Sharia, or Islamic, law.
In 1983, Nimeiry passed the September Laws, an edict that made Islamic law the foundation for Sudan’s legal system.
Alcohol bottles were steamrolled on the banks of the Nile. Production of Camel Beer ended. Nightlife wound down and retreated to the oases of expatriate clubs. Song lyrics no longer spoke of women.
Wardi was one of the first musicians to leave Sudan.
“Even the personal freedom that was there, being valued as people, this was gone,” said Abdulwahab. “He sent songs for revolution from the outside.”
A coup toppled Nimeiry in 1986 and by 1989, Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s current leader, guided by al-Turabi’s followers, took power. Music and musicians were targeted.
“If you want to make war on people,” said El Ashi, “you can deprive them of their music, and it’s almost as bad as incarcerating them.”
Artists moved to the US and Europe, but many found a safe space in Cairo.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak opened the capital to Sudanese dissidents and political refugees in response to an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa blamed on al-Turabi.
Budding singer Hanan Bulu Bulu stayed at first.
“I had to answer for summons in different parts of the country and was subject to several arrests,” she said.
Then an incident that shocked the country, the killing of Khojali Osman, a singer who performed to audiences from Eritrea to the Emirates.
“At the musicians union, they called him the fruit of the union,” said Osman’s son, Shihab.
On November 10, 1994, Osman and fellow singer Abdel Gadir Salim were stabbed multiple times, Salim survived.
Wardi believed Osman’s killing was a direct consequence of government policy.
“The Imam’s main sermon from the Friday prayers at the Central Mosque is televised throughout Sudan,” he told the New Internationalist Magazine. “A week before the attack, this sermon condemned music and musicians as [forbidden]. It is the government that directly controls the contents of the sermon … The ground was well-prepared for such an attack.”
Wardi returned in 1997 and thousands rushed to welcome him home at Khartoum’s airport.
His album that year, “Al Mursal”, recorded in exile, was Sudan’s highest-selling and most widely exported cassette.
A new generation of artists, at home and in the diaspora, continue to draw from time-honoured traditions.
Weddings remain the last bastion for the old guard.
Back in Omdurman, Salah ibn Al Badia’s orchestra plays with the same gusto they had in Nimeiry’s era.
Once an artist who sang about unity between the north and south, he now caters to the whims of a different crowd.
This is the story behind Ostinato Records‘ latest compilation Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan”