Sudan Music

Sudan has a rich and unique musical culture that has been through chronic instability and repression during the modern history of Sudan.

Beginning with the imposition of strict sharia law in 1989, many of the country’s most prominent musicians and poets, like poets Mahjoub Sharif, were imprisoned while others, like Mohammed el Amin andMohammed Wardi (Mohammed el amin returned to Sudan in 1991 and Mohammed Wardi returned to Sudan in 2003), fled to Cairo. Traditional music suffered too, with traditional Zār ceremonies being interrupted and drums confiscated At the same time, however, the European militaries contributed to the development of Sudanese music by introducing new instruments and styles; military bands, especially the Scottish bagpipes, were renowned, and set traditional music to military march music. The march March Shulkawi No 1, is an example, set to the sounds of the Shilluk. Sudan is very diverse, with five hundred plus ethnic groups spread across the country’s territory, which is the largest in Africa. The country has been a crossroads between North, East and West Africa for hundreds of years, and is inhabited by a mixture of Sub-Saharan Arabs and Africans.

Sudan’s Music

Sudanese pop music has developed rapidly during the fifties, the sixties and the seventies. Khalil Farah and Ibrahim el- Kashif were two prominent pioneers in this field. The Sudanese music is based on the so called pentatonic scale: scale with 5 notes to the octave, like the black notes in the piano, in contrast to an heptatonic,7 notes, scale like the gypsy or Egyptian scale. Sudanese music is similar to the Scottish, Chinese and Porto Rican music, which share the same scale. Celtic folk music, American blue music are also pentatonic scale music. One of the famous western classic composers who used the pentatonic scale is the French Composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918).His piano piece La fille aux cheveux de lin has a tune which is pentatonic except for one note. The 1977 science fiction film of Steven Spielberg (close Encounters of the third kind) the tone sequence is also a pentatonic scale.

The Sudanese music influence has reached neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad and Eritrea.

Contemporary music in Sudan might be a potpourri of diverse traditions, but it has emerged as a unique blend, with a character all of its own. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient Nubian Kingdoms, the Christian eras as well as the Islamic Kingdoms and Tribal African Heritage. Yet the fundamental musical style that underlies modern Sudanese popular music is originated from the Muslim sufi gospel chants known as madeeh (praising the Prophet Mohamed in song). The genre filled out into something quite irreverent in the 1930s and 1940s when Haqiba music, the madeeh‘s secular successor, caught on. Haqiba, a predominantly vocal art in which the musicians accompanying the lead singer use few instruments, spread like wildfire in the urban centres of Sudan. It was the music of weddings, family gatherings and wild impromptu parties. Haqiba drew inspiration from indigenous Sudanese and other African musical traditions in which backing singers clapped along rhythmically and the audience joined in both song and dance. The lead singer’s incantations induced a trance-like experience in which spectators swayed along to the rhythm of the beat. (Courtesy)

In Haqiba, the ‘Riq’,(similar to a tamborine) is played by the lead singer. A chorus of three or more backing singers clap along rhythmically. The abscence of harmonic instruments, rendered the Haqiba to a predominantly vocal art, similar to accapella singing. The pace is brisk, the timing masterful and the singing melodious and cursive, bearing the characteristic sweetness of the pentatonic musical scale that pervades the music of the African Horn:Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. (courtesy: El Sir A. Gadour)

Haqiba ÍÞíÈÉ(pronounced Hagee-bah) or Haqibat al-Fan as it sometimes called, is an Arabic word meaning a Bag. Thus Haqibat al-Fan means the Bag of the Art. The Art of music and singing. Actually Singers and Musicians used to carry their musical instruments in bags as they go to perform music in a party or festival. People refer to those bags as bags of music art. There is also another version of meaning of Haqiba. It has been said that many old gramophones were gathered in a bag and was moved from the Main Post Office in Omdurman, where the National Radio was stationed, to the then new Radio Studio. Program makers and Prsentors used to look for materials to their programs in that bag, which became later a name of a Radio program titled Haqibat al Fan.

The Haqiba music type, marked the real beginning of modern Sudanese urban music. Singers such as Mohamed-Ahmed Saroar and Abdal Karim Abdalla Karoama, the singer and lyricist Khalil Farah, and the songwriter al-Abbadi were leading figures in its emergence. Two sisters from Kosti town were the first to play the tum-tum rhythm in the mid-1930s. The musician Ismail Abdalmuin and the singer Fadul al-Mawla Zinqar further developed the tum-tum and incorporated it into the mainstream music.

Zinqar SaroarKaroama Khalil Farah

The traditional music of Sudan is also based on the Dervish Sufi music. The Dervish groups are mystical sect that use music and dance to reach to a distorted state of consciousness. They mainly play drums and dance ritually wearing costumes, burning incense along with meditation, ecstasy and trance.

Sudan has rich and mosaic culture reflected by its folk music. Each region knows its original music. Yet the base remained the same. Not only the rhythm and the melodies do not differ much, but the instruments and the lyrics are in the same line. The tambour (link 29) (a lyre), and the drums are used in most of the regions. When the oud was imported from Arab Countries it replaced the tambour.

With the establishment of Omdurman Radio by the British Colonial Rule to propagate for their war against the Axis Power in North and East Africa, Sudanese pop music was institutionalized in the sense that it gets rudiments, ground rules and standards. Ibrahim Al-Kashif (link No.40 ) and Aisha Al-Fellatiya were from the first who performed on-air. The latter is known by a song in which she anticipated the victorious return of the Sudanese youth enrolled with the Allies against Mussolini soldiers who are deceived by Hitler. “Ya jau a’ideen” (to listen click link 30) – or they will be back- was not the only song with political tint. Early prolific pioneers such as Khalil Farah have played patriotic music reproving colonial domination, such as “A’zza fi Hawak “ I love you A’zza. A’zza refers to Sudan.(link No.18.Al-Kashif is thought to have been the first to organise a band using modern instruments. He is also credited with introducing a style of song in which the refrain is different from the vocal, something that marks a major departure from the simple haqiba form. This post-Haqiba style is actually an harmonic a cappella and vocal style with percussion coming from the tambourine-like riq and other instruments such as piano and qanun ( a stringed instrument). Later tonal instruments from the East and the West were introduced. Violin, accordion, tabla and banjo were used.The introduction of these musical instruments revolutionized the music, giving it a bit more heft, and leading to a stain of lyrical music. Groups were organized as big bands, Western style in structure, Sudanese in sound.The music continued to evolve, many Sudanese artists gaining much popularity in North Africa and the Middle East.

Ibrahim Al-Kashif Aisha Al-Felatiya

In the 1960s, Sudan as many other nations in the world was preoccupied by international music such as the Latin American dance music. People listened admirably to Sayyid Khalifa’s“mambo as-Sudani”. American pop music entered also Sudan. With the introduction of guitars, brass instruments, Sudanese pop music witnessed a fundamental shift. (click the link No. 36 below to listen to the song performed by Khalifa for the first time in an Egyptian film “tammerhinna”.It was a hit in the Middle East in the 50s of the last century. Sayyid Khalifa is known as The Sudan Music Ambassador. His Mambo as-Sudani, is worldwide spread.

Modern rhythms relating to popular and soul music using for the first time electric guitars, double bass and brass instruments was introduced. Sharhabeel Ahmed and his Band was a leading figure in this trend of music. He introduced for the first time rhythms relating to soul music using electric guitars. His song Al-Lail Al-Hadi “Peaceful Night”,(link 24) took the Egyptian capital, Cairo, by storm in 1973, by his synthesizer-driven renditions of traditional music. Sharhabeel launched a new genre of Sudanese song, melding jazz vocals with a big band sound. His music tour in neighboring Ethiopia to sing before Emperor Haile Sellasie gained success and recognition of his style of music all-around.

The Rastafarian Reggie of Bob Marley, James Brown lyrics are inspired many performers like Kemal Keyla. The most notorious influence was that of the British brass military bands, referred to as Jazz in the Sudan. Yet it is not related to the American style of Jazz. Sharhabeel Ahmed Band might be counted with this style of music.(link No.9).

Sudanese list of musicians and artists include duos, trios and groups. The most prominent are the female Sunai el Nagham “The Melody Duo”(link no.19), the male Sunai el-Asmaa “The Capital Duo”, and the Balabil band”The Nightingales” ( link No.10)formed of three sisters during the 1970s became very popular across East Africa.

 Blabil:The Nightingales

Muna Al-Khair Playing Oud

Provocative, hectic and sensual performances played by singers like Hanan Bulu-blu( link No.19),Elnoor Jeelani(No.21) and Khidir Bashir ( link No.17) gives the Sudanese modern music a characteristic flavour.

Among the famous modern Sudanese singers with international fame, Mohammed WardiAbdel Karim El Kabli, Mohamed Al Amin, the late Sayyid khalifa and Ibrahim Awad, Abdel Ghadir Salim who followed Kordofan (western Sudan) tendency to introduce half and even quarter tones bringing the music closer to classical Arabic traditions. The distinctive 6/8 rhythm of mardoum wedding dance has inspired so many songs throughout the region. Salim took some of its lyrics, melodies and rhythm and played them on the oud, as well as violins, electric guitars, organ, accordion, and percussion, adding to the haqiba based music a lovely idiosyncratic flavor(link no.18).

The list of singers is long and it includes Osman Hussein, the composer who manged to turn difficult and sophisticated lyrics into lovely and ear-friendly melodies. Zaidan Ibrahim who is called by the Sudanese, the black nightingaleالعندليب الأسمر, Salah ibn El Badia, who devoted his life for love and peace music since his early youth.

In the South musical bands like Rejaf Jazz, Skylarks and many others evolved in Juba’s nightclubs. Among the well-known singers, Jamus, Jelle, Tahir Jazer and the guitarist singer Ismael Koinyi of the The Black Star group have contributed to the enrichment of the Sudanese Music.

Musical instruments in Sudan vary from chordophone instrument such as tambour which is the most common instruments used throughout Sudan. Tambour (link 29) or rabbabah as sometimes called is a stringed bowl-shaped lyre. Its strings determine the available pitches, and its tone depends on the musician playing technique. Bowing, plucking or strumming will yield a harmonious rhythm. Um Kiki (woodwind instrument) is another kind of instruments used in Ingasna region, Southern Blue Nile. Percussion instruments such as drums are also common in the Sudan: the nuggara(link No.28) (Western Sudan) the taar (Northern and Eastern Sudan) and the dalouka (Eastern and Central) are all names of drums. Sudanese play also other instruments such as lute or oud, as well as western instruments especially in modern Sudanese pop-music, such as accordions, saxophones, electric guitars, basses, violins, banjos are often used. Modern styles use also keyboard instruments such as synthesizers, harmonica and flute.

Normally Sudanese artists release cassettes and CDs. The cassettes are sold in the Sudan as well as in the Gulf area, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Nigeria. It might be found in music commercial centers in some European Capitals. Albums of famed singers such as Mohammed Wardi, Abdel Karim El Kabli, Abdel Aziz Mubarak and Abdel-Ghadir Salim, might be found in music shops in main Western capitals.

Music performances in Sudan are mainly at wedding celebration, which are in the open air with the bands at a small stage.

The contemporary Sudanese music is generally formed from the four music elements: rhythm, melody, harmony and vocal character. The rhythm is a tum-tum drum beats.

In the solfège syllable, the seven syllables are: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti (with a chromatic scale of ascending di, ri, fi, si, li and descending te, le, se, me, ra.
Songs in pentatonic scale may be accompanied by patterns created from any combination of the five scale notes. Pentatonic -five note- scale comprised of d-r-m-s-l (f and t are omitted).

The Sudanese pentatonic melody has a central theme usually played by a special instrument in solo. This central or main melody theme is repeatedly played; at the beginning of the song in the middle and at the end. Sometimes it is repeated after two or three couplets. The instrument could be oud or any other instrument. In this sense the Sudanese song follows the main stream of song structure which is formed from the verse , the chorus and the bridge. The chorus which is combination of lyrics and music includes the most catchy melody in the song. It is repeated over and again so that the listener does not forget it. In many songs it bears the title of the song.

The Bridge or the interlude which connects two or more parts of song, is sometimes played in solo without lyrics. It may replace the second or the third verse or precede it. It ends by shifting back to the original verses or to another completely different melody.

Sometimes the intro that comes at the beginning of the song is played by solo.

The structure might be as follows:

verse / chorus / verse / chorus / verse…etc.
solo/ verse / chorus / verse / chorus / solo / (verse) / chorus /(verse)

The melody is played with rapid beats of tum-tum drum rhythm by darbouka.

The vocal character is very important in the Sudanese music structure. It is heard either clearly in harmony with the musical melody or it may be emerged within the musical melody coming down with it at the same lapse of time. All vocal types are to be heard: The treble and the bass. E.g. of treble tone is to be listened in Mohammed Wardi’s songs, while Mohammed Al-Amin sound is considered as a bass tone.El-Kabli uses both, deeper bass and soft treble tones at the same time in his songs in a very magnificent way; which is something unique in the Sudanese music. El Kabli wrote Sukkar, Sukkar (Sugar, Sugar)( link no.4) in 1962, ” a gently lilting take on the Twist, the dance craze he had just encountered in England and which he claimed could be traced back to the Zar( a pagan spiritual custom, spreading throughout East and North Africa, in which music is practiced). Although like most Sudanese his songs are mainly about love, his lyrics increasingly tackle issues of social and human concern”.

Abdel-Karim El KabliMohamed Wardi

The lyrics form also an essential part of the Sudanese songs.

The word or the lyric is very important in the Sudanese song. It should be full of wisdom, have a special flavour. A piece of litearture with a very sentimental tone. Sometimes the lyrics are even more important than the music. The public have a very high sense for the beautiful word. Artists such as El-Kabli gain popularity because of their successful choice for good lyrics.

Sudanese Music industry looks always for the next complete hit song. This means music plus lyrics. There are many song-writers who have skill. Each of these professionals collaborates with an Artist. He knows his vocal limits and performance, and how he can excite and energize his fans. The collaboration of Ismail Hassan and the notorious Singer Mohammed Wardi is a good example of a successful partnership between the song-writer and the Artist. Many hits were produced within such collaboration. Another examples of collaborative partners who have become famous for their teamwork are lyricist Mahammed Fadllala and composer/singer Mohammed Al-Amin, or Singer Osman Hussain and lyricist Hussain Bazzara(link no.22), who follow the tradition set by other great partnerships in creating songs that will be remembered for years to come. Yet the Artist is not always obliged to use poems written by a song-writer who solely or mostly works with him. El Kabli- a distinguishing lyricist, composer and folklorist- for instance, used lyrics written by medieval Arab poets (link no. 41), and legendary songs written by unknown poets from Sudan. Singers vocalize their words usually in unhurried modulation, like the Reggie melody. The lyrics are often nostalgic, sometimes festival, humorous, and serious expressing compassion and love for woman. The Sudanese lyricist writes about everything one might imagine. The subject of the lyrics might be a loss of a dear like a mother( El Kabli in the song titled “ Ana ibkik lli-zikra:memorial cry ”, or it might be about a missing ring ( ibn El-Badiya in Khatmi : My Ring.)(link No.32), or just coffee drinking party ( Malimbo Group: the Coffee song)( link no.42 ) A desperate lover who come to felicitate his girl in her wedding night, is a subject of a song performed by Zaidan Ibrahim. International politics may be also a theme of song like El Kabli’s “Asia and Africa” devoted to the Non-alignment movement in the fifties.(link no. 33). Hamad El Rayah chose a song with Greek mythology written by Salah Ahmed Ibrahim,in which the poet wishes to have the chisel of Pheidias to carve the beauty of his love in a big statue, and the pure wine of Bacchus, sitting at the top of Olympus. On his chest stands Prometheus bounded to a rock suffering with pain; while describing himself as an African from the Sahara desert and the equator, burned by the glaring sun, roasted like a burnt offering in Magi fire and coming out like an Ebony stick. Hamad said about this song, that he found it coincidently on one of the library bookshelves of the university of Khartoum, where he used to work. After completing reading the text, he said to himself this piece of work should be sung, and the song was ready at the same day. He later contacted with the poet to seek his permission.(link 51). Elnoor Jaylani sings in “Kadarawiya” that his girl is so beautiful that the moon has come down from the sky admiring her beauty and asking: who is that girl, while the butterfly zooms round him claopping his wings saying : this Kadarawiya, a girl from Kadaro distric in Khartoum (link No.54). One of Jailani brilliant works is “the Elephants Thoughts” which tells the story of a young elephant which was captured in the woods and have been brought to the Zoo in a cage (link No. 31 ).

Hamad Al Rayah

The legendary song, alghamar booba of Wardi, is a combination of a hectic rhythm and proactive lyrics. In (link 34 ) you may see how the song made the Ethiopian public got crazy. Notice the beautiful Arabic accent of the Ethiopian performer, his ritmes and swings which made the song as outstanding as its original performance by Wardi.

Amid the problems that faced Sudan, Sudanese music remains vivid. A New generation of artists is seeking his way in the Sudanese music spectrum. Many music bands formed by several young men and women perform it art at stage. Some of these bands have its own style of performance within the traditional Haqiba-based style, while others perefered to re-play old music of legendary artist, with a surprisingly contemporary feelings, using modern instruments. Among these bands, the South Sudan Malimbo (link no.42) and ElSafwa Group (link43)

One of the revolutionary new development in the Sudanese music is the chanted rhyming lyrics phenomenon among the new generation. This hip hop music or rap began to search its way vividly in the Sudanese music array. Despite the difference in style and performance , yet the Sudanese rap has a common link with the Haqiba based music genre in terms of lyrics, rhythms and melodies. These young rappers produce music bursting with talent and intricate melodies. The Southern Juba Boys( link 46) and the Northern Nas Jota are two of the many nowadays growing like mushrooms Sudanese rap bands.

Mohammed Al-Amin

Lyrics of Al Jareeda ( the Newspaper), song by Mohammed Al-Amin:

You seem distracted … my love,
absent-minded, lost in thought. 
I can read my life in your eyes … while you are 
absorbed in your newspaper. 

Tell m, what are you reading.

talk to me! Is it really that important?

I have important things to tell you,

things that reflect the longing in me

Spare me just one moment and listen to me

Should I tell you … or would it be better to leave you to your newspaper?
(courtsey)(to listen to the music click link no.8)

Khalil Ismail’s “Tomorrow you shall be happy my sad heart ”

An Englized text of the song

Tomorrow my sad heart will be happy

My eyes will sleep fully

After a long wake

Pleased I shall be in high spirit and vivid

A scent of delight will fill the air

along my way

Tears that spill out at the pillow

shall be wiped away

O, what a night,

awake I stayed

what a pool of tears I paid

Pain in my heart is just normal

In search of hope I’ve wasted my Youth

like a monk I lived; between my prayers and


Wishes will be soon fulfilled

and the heart will have a rest

My days will be back at its best

Happiness will be a reward for my patience

lovely wishes will shine on

Hope will smile up

My dream for tomorrow:

A fulfilled hope

and the coming back of my shiny oldie days

Click link (nr. 26) to hear the song in Arabic

The late lyricist Babiker el-Tahir described, in a brilliant piece of song performed by Zeidan Ibarahim (clip no.27), the feeling of loss and bitterness of a lover who came to congratulate his sweetheart which was married to another man, on her wedding day.hereunder a translation of the text:

Fil- Leila diek (At that Night)

At that night it wasn’t easy for me to accept the fact

and excuse you.

It wasn’t even easy to blame you.

Burdened by wounds and bitter smiles of all deprived orphans,

I came just to pas on good wishes,
to shake hands and say Congratulation to you. 
I extended my hand without any words. 
Not even able to stand firm infront of you; 
and I went back confining my tears. 
At that night, while people celebrating your wedding, 

I felt of myself like an alien;

and I felt of you as estranged in your own world.
I felt what separation means. 
I felt the existence being as dark as the henna that dyed your limbs. 
I saw the tears being repressed behind the eyelashes of yours, by grief and loss. 
I saw the chilling henna-tinted palm of yours, 

coupled with a farewell glance,
that brought this sort of fate on your way. 
At that night it wasn’t easy to blame you 
The song in its Original Arabic text


Posted on April 16, 2013, in Sudan life style. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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