Seeking spirits Sudanese
Ordinarily inured to the intoxicating sounds of Sudan, Gamal Nkrumah
is intrigued by fresh songfests from down south
Salma Al-Assal is the veritable mistress of sexual simile and spiritual idiom. Her rich, deep vocal timbre has been likened to that of Aretha Franklin. She broke with tradition and began to sing professionally at the tender age of 16. Al-Ghaddara Deema (Life, the All Time Deceiver) was an instant hit.
Ennaya (My Eyes), a term of endearment in the Arabic language, was another record breaker. Tear-jerking conclusions followed in quick succession -- a torrent of nostalgic musical magic.
Behokm Al-Sid (Under the Command of the Lord), another of Al-Assal's hits, leaves no room for questioning the traditional Sudanese constructs of femininity incarcerated in the confining spaces of domesticity and rooted in Islamic restrictions.
Contralto, the deepest female singing voice, enables Al-Assal to traverse the sonorous adventure of gender crossing. But she is all woman, no matter how far her voice travels. Her lyrics are as traditional as they are musically unorthodox from the Sudanese perspective. Either way, few things encapsulate more aptly the spirit of contemporary Sudan. The schizophrenic spirit of the land that embodies both the melodies of ancient Nubia and medieval Arabia, Al-Assal's songs prove, has not been extinguished.
The profusion of song and dance in contemporary Sudan survived the onslaught of the cruel sensor disguised as Islamic fundamentalism. Creative skill in modern Sudan has been varied, themes ranging wide, from the conflict in Darfur to romance and unrequited love.
Al-Assal's outpourings stir the soul and piques the emotions. Pelvic gyrations, mesmerised women shrieking hysterically, and shrill ululation characterise Sudanese wedding songs. The madness is contained, the shrew tamed. The dance is dignified. Al-Assal rejects the formulaic repertoire of typical Sudanese wedding songs. She does not plagiarise the traditional songs of her ancestors or parrot their timeless strains unimaginatively, but rather improvises with such sensitive and subtle discernment designed for our sensation-hungry age. The rhythmic music and inebriating incantations reflect certain aspects of the darker side of the Sudanese character.
Sudanese music has a long and checkered history. In the 1980s Hanan Bulu-Bulu emerged as the undisputed Queen of Sudanese Soul. Her sensual style and sexually provocative songs prompted the Sudanese authorities to detain her. But the spirit of Bulu-Bulu lives on.
The singer Abu-Araki Al-Bakheit was similarly banned in the 1990s on the pretext that his lyrics contravened strict Sharia law codes. Cultural advocacy was traditionally an intrinsic objective of Sudanese music in much the same way as reggae in the Caribbean. Like reggae, contemporary Sudanese music oozes a romantic defiance. It borrows from the West, as much as it is infused with the spirit of the East. Sharhabeel Ahmed was one of the first Sudanese vocalists to mix jazz and modern rhythms with traditional Sudanese lyrics.
Al-Assal's music is a product of this cross- cultural fertilisation. She sings of everyday encounters, and of memories of yesteryear -- simultaneously both of the old and the new. Her trademark, however, is carnality. Her belated consciousness of squandered love is articulated in song. With echoes of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, she adamantly refuses to solicit pity, opting instead, perhaps, for compassion.
Al-Assal is bewitching with her romantic fantasies. Her performance is a picture of perfection -- little short of miraculous.
In sharp contrast to Al-Assal, the ethnic Beja traditional singer, Ahmed Said, dominates through his very restraint, a restraint underpinned by the seductive rhythmic swaying of his dancing boys cloaked in youthful athleticism. Unperturbed, the middle-aged bard, steps gracefully unto the dance floor to join his juniors who have obviously been won over by his lyricism. His performance last month at Makan, downtown Cairo, was a highly charged modern take on traditional Sudanese music. Arab, African and Western sounds intermingle in a "cultural stew", a most palatable concoction.
The lead dancer, his heavily kohl-adorned eyes focussed impassively on the high ceiling, moves with abandon and illicit overtones. In an age that prizes sensation, the dancer who mimics the moves of the ancients fits in perfectly with the present.
Out on stage, his heaving torso has repositioned him in relation to his mainly foreign audience. He aims at the heart of the specifically Sudanese masculine enactment of the warrior -- a role he happily bequeaths to his master, the lead singer.
The music is highly skilled but not nearly as vividly dramatic as the dance. This is an enjoyable ensemble, an evening of reverie and utter surrender to the senses with dancers seizing the chance to flaunt a traditional Beja male erotica. It leaves no place for subtlety. The result was high camp, but the lead dancer gave it his all, and it was his visible enjoyment of the music, and his playful open-heartedness, that lifted the performance out of the ordinary.
A good crowd turned out for the arresting Beja performance. The 6,000-year-old history of the Bedawiyet, as the Beja call themselves, attests to their indomitable and uncompromising spirit. They fought sometimes against and sometimes for the ancient Egyptians. The Romans and the Byzantines dubbed them the Blemmyes while the Axumites of Ethiopia called them the Bega. To the British colonialists they were the infamous "Fuzzie-Wuzzies", as Kipling christened them. The men's hair and arms stand as symbols of masculinity among the Beja people.
To this day, the bushier the Afro hairstyle on an individual Beja is, the more masculine the bearer. Women, on the other hand, braid their hair in long, generously fat-daubed plaits. They indulge in aromatic oils and incense baths and they exude a most pleasant scent. Perfumed with frankincense, which is also thought to lighten their skin complexion, the women watch the men perform erotic and sexually explicit dances.
The septatonic scale of Arabic music contrasts sharply with the pentatonic scale of Sudanese music, not excluding that of the Beja. These nomadic peoples' dances usually take place around the time of harvesting the sorghum, the Beja's staple food crop. In as much as the music is beautifully melodious, the dancing is impeccably constructed.
This has been an especially rewarding summer for aficionados of Sudanese music in Cairo. Fused with enthusiasm for the genre, it prompts a yearning for the deeper knowledge of the music of the peoples of Sudan. It also calls for a proper assessment of the cultural-historical perspective of contemporary Sudanese music. One of the earliest Sudanese singer song-writers was the prolific Karoma, author of several hundred songs in the 1930s and 1940s. Then there was the arresting Ibrahim Al-Abadi and Khalil Farah. Female vocalists such as Um Hassan Al-Shaygia Mihra bint Abboud, and Aisha Al-Fellatia were among the first Sudanese women to leave an indelible mark on the modern Sudanese musical scene. Theirs, like Al-Assal's, was vaguely suggestive of Mahalia Jackson's Make a Joyful Noise To The Lord -- of her Great Songs of Love and Faith, and Every time I Feel the Spirit -- Sudanese-style.