Sudan is a country rich with culture, but also sociopolitical strife. A coup in 1989 brought a great deal of violent persecution to artists at the hands of a hardline religious government and ended a period in the country’s postcolonial era that was rife with music and poetry. The ’70s and ’80s were a time when music was all around; bands, orchestras, and roving sound systems were ubiquitous in the capital city of Khartoum. It was a golden era popular not just in Sudan but neighboring African countries as well, combining traditional native melodies with echoes of Western soul and Caribbean reggae.
Fortunately, Ostinato Records – determined to bring this music to a global audience – sent a team to Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Egypt to unearth recordings of this vital era. The result is Two Niles to Sing a Melody: the Violins & Synths of Sudan, and it’s a fascinating listen. The compilation, whose title refers to the Blue and White Nile rivers that bracket Khartoum, collects 16 tracks from 15 artists and offers an eclectic slice of the sounds of a bygone Sudan.
Much of the music is heavily rhythmic and while the melodies are sharp, the arrangements are loose with a variety of unique instrumentation. Emad Youssef’s “Al Bareedo Ana (The One I Love)” lumbers along with jagged horns and accordion accompanying Youssef’s vocals. The conflation of east-meets-west musicality is evident on tracks like Kamal Tarbas’ “Min Ozzalna Seebak Seeb (Forget Those That Divide Us)”, where thumping percussion provides a soulful backbeat and saxophone and violin-like synths climb Eastern scales. It’s a curious, irresistible stew.
The 20,000-word booklet that accompanies Two Niles is exhaustive and befits the subject matter. Besides the cultural and political backstory, there’s a wealth of priceless photos, notes from the compilation team, and a series of revealing interviews from surviving artists of the era as well as relatives of those who have passed away. For example, the story of Mohammed Wardi, the famed Sudanese singer/songwriter who died in 2012 (and the only artist on this compilation to get more than one track) is told by his son Abdulwahab in glowing terms. “He was representative of the people,” Abdulwahab says of his late father. “He was their voice; their civilization. He summarizes the spirit of the Sudanese people when he sings.” Wardi’s two songs on the compilation include “Al Sourah (The Photo)”, a catchy slice of primitive funk adorned by complex, intertwined strings, and the epic “Al Mursal (The Messenger)”, which captures both the exotic spirit of Wardi’s homeland and the musical touchstones of the ’70s with jazzy saxophone and lightly effects-laden electric guitar.
The sound quality is certainly indicative of the difficulty in acquiring clean master recordings. As stated in the liner notes: “The management and security for the National Radio and its archive of master reels is today outsourced to national security services — the equivalent of having the CIA guard the doors of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. It is entirely off limits.” As a result, most of these recordings are from cassettes – the preferred format of the Sudanese music fan. Consequently, much of what you hear on Two Niles has a bit of a gritty flavor, but it lends to the authenticity. Madjzoub Ounsa’s “Arraid Arraid Ya Ahal (Love, Love Family)”, with its jittery beats and plaintive string synth patches, sounds like it’s coming out of a transistor radio in a Khartoum outdoor market. What “Ma Kunta Aarif Yarait (I Wish I Had Known)” by Abdel El Aziz Mubarak may lack in sonic fidelity more than makes up for in terms of pure emotion, with its languid strings and deeply felt vocalizing.
In the liner notes, Two Niles co-compiler Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel – a Sudanese actress who immigrated to the United States in the early ’90s – stresses the importance of this music to her country, despite the eventual government crackdown. “Sudanese music is part of the daily life of the Sudanese people,” she says. “That’s how I lived it. It’s just what we did every minute.” That music, lovingly captured here, is as vibrant as the people who created it.