Combine the unique Ethiopian music five-note scale with classic Arab rhythms and add some sub-Saharan call and response and you’ll get the sweet and soothing popular music coming out of Khartoum these days.
Harking back to an earlier era, Sudanese pop bands feature violins, accordions, ouds, guitars, woodwinds and percussion. Vocalists weave intricately ornamented melodies back and forth with their orchestras. Lyrics are key and judged by their poetic merit. And like better-known Ethio-jazz and funk of the 1960s and 1970s, the pentatonic scale gives Sudanese pop a distinct otherworldly sound.
Despite coming from a country that has known so much conflict and strife, popular Sudanese music has to be some of the most calming and unrushed music on the planet. Bandleaders such as Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz El Mubarak brought urban Sudanese music to an international stage, with the latter performing at WOMAD and Glastonbury in the 1980s. While Sudan’s isolation has somewhat silenced these stars in Europe and North America, it is still going strong in Sudan.
These days Sudanese popular music is most often performed at weddings. Bands play an elaborate repertoire of traditional dances and rituals that goes late into the morning. But if you can’t make it to a wedding (spend more than two days in Khartoum and you’ll get invited to one), you can just tune in to one of many television music shows for a great performance, often sung from a talk show couch.
While in Sudan for work, I came to the Professional Musicians Union in Khartoum in search of this music. Located across the Nile in Sudan’s legislative capital, Omdurman, the Union is much like other musical clubs found around the world – the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar comes to mind but also the famed Buena Vista Club in Havana. Musicians come to hang out with colleagues, get hired for gigs, gossip, play some tunes, complain, drink lots of tea etc.
As is also the custom in Khartoum (probably the friendliest city in the world) we came to the Union after an invite from a total stranger. Within seconds, we were seated with a group of musicians, including renowned vocalist Majzob Onsa. Sweet tea and ginger-infused coffee was served and I did what anyone would do in such a potentially awkward situation: I grabbed a fiddle and proceeded to play a set of Appalachian hoedowns!
Our new friends became even better friends. We were invited to come back the next night for a jam session and the following video is a wonderful snippet of the night that followed, filmed by ace photojournalist Neil Brandvold:
In the video, Majzob performs an acoustic duet with one of his colleagues from the Union in the venue’s courtyard. Then, we all go inside to a dilapidated practice studio to learn a tune made famous by Abdel Gadir Salim called 'Gidraishinna' – ‘I am destined to love’. I had requested the tune earlier and Majzob decided I needed to learn it. After a few tries on an electric piano, I eventually got the tune (more or less) and picked up an accordion to join the band. My Klezmer-influenced playing mixed pretty well with the Sudanese pop music.
The jam was over soon enough, as the musicians had to soon run off to play a wedding. Here’s hoping that Klezmer and Sudanese music will mix yet again!
Originally published on 20 January 2016 in True Africa.