Sudan. Bigger than Western Europe / scene of the 21st Century’s first genocide/ one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations/ meeting point of countless cultures/ fundamentalist censorship and flourishing culture. Sudan is so vast, complex and contradictory that one could only have the sketchiest expectations of this LP. Well, forget all that for a moment, this is a collection of great tracks you will love.
French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari claim that the interesting moments in culture happen where one cultural force encounters another and this collection of tracks certainly bears witness to that. We have the tectonic plates of the Arabic musical world crashing into Sub Saharan African influences with great force. West African musical influences sometimes remind one of the great Malian musical heritage that navigates broadly equivalent musical fault lines.
This is also a tale of tragic loss; of prohibition on performance and recording and of vandalism on the musical archives of the country as happened to its neighbour Ethiopia — although for different reasons. The nineties saw a Taliban style response to music and dancing. While there has been some lightening of the restrictions on music of late, this is still a country tearing itself apart and its civil war has had a profound and appalling effect on the people.
Depressingly, this is largely an album made by exiles. I say depressingly because the experience of displacement and repression is a spectre in the background of much of the great music we get to hear from Africa and Latin America.
Perhaps, exemplifying these currents the best is Emmanuel Jal, former child soldier and now East African hip hop star. A victim of the genocide in the South, he has become a spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. His song ‘Gua’, is a catchy slice of African hip hop in several languages including English to make sure his message is heard far and wide. Add a thumping beat, an addiction-forming chorus and you have the answer to how he stormed the charts in Kenya.
As good as Jal is, no one is going to come close to the legendary Mohamed Wardi and his compilation-stealing track ‘Azibni’. Like an inspired cocktail of Zydeco, funk, soukous and rai, it hits you with so many good time vibes that you are powerless in its grip just as the live crowd in Addis Ababa clearly were. Wardi stands in defiance of artistic repression and the ethnic divisions of Sudan. I am going to track down his album for more of this but this track alone would make the collection essential.
And then, a mournful classic of inspired oud playing and singing to cover a completely different spectrum of emotions, comes Muhamed El Amin’s ‘Habibi’. Muhamed El Amin’s a folk hero and revolutionary. His life a tale of defiance, imprisonment, exile and return. The sad timbre of his voice a powerful counterpoint to the clear cut of his exquisite oud playing.
Other tracks on the album float between these great musical axes, drawing from a cultural and musical palette of great variety and subtlety. This is one of the best releases in the whole Rough Guides series and I hope that the attention that Emmanuel Jal has brought to it can expose it to a wider audience than it would otherwise have got. Essential.