Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Storied History of Sudanese Jazz

Around the year 1955, in the city of Omdurman, Sudan, a cartoon illustrator for the Al-Subyan magazine struck up a friendship with several students whose residence was just across from his office. These students had recently moved to Omdurman from South Sudan after the suspension of Rumbek Secondary School, which occurred on account of rising levels of violence in the South. The students noticed that their new friend’s instrument was strung incorrectly—in a manner appropriate for an oud rather than a guitar—so they assisted him with stringing it the right way. Western influences were beginning to penetrate Sudanese musical society at this point in time, but the guitar was still rarely played in the North, where Omdurman is located. Unbeknownst to the students, they had just taught Sharhabil Ahmed, a man who would go on to be widely considered the king of Sudanese Jazz, how to correctly string a guitar. 

Today, Sharhabil’s music blares from speakers around the globe. His music represents the golden age of Sudanese jazz, an age which lasted from the early 1960s until 1983 when Islamist reforms led to the shutdown of the vibrant music scenes and venues that existed across not only Khartoum and Omdurman but throughout Sudan. The history of Sudanese jazz highlights the duality between tragic and oppressive political developments and a vibrant and persistent musical culture, a culture which continues to this day through the performances of its forefathers and their musical influence throughout Sudan and the world. Not only is Sudanese jazz incredibly exciting to listen to, but it also has a storied history that deserves to be widely known far beyond Sudan.

Sudanese jazz is not jazz in the traditional sense. When listening to it, one does not usually think of Miles Davis or John Coltrane (although some artists do follow this more conventional style of jazz). Instead, it represents a fusion of Western influences such as jazz, funk, rock, and blues with Sudanese styles of music such as haqueeba and madeeh. 

This rich blend of influences has its beginnings in Sudanese military and academia. The first military music school was established in 1925 while Sudan was under British administration. At the same time, new instruments, such as the oud and violin, were beginning to be introduced to Sudan’s new generation of musicians. Omdurman Radio, a station that would be essential to the genre’s formation, launched its first band in 1947. Following Sudan’s independence from British rule in 1956, the Music Corps was established, merging the many military music schools and bands into a cohesive entity. Through the Music Corps, pioneers such as Captain Muhammad Ismail Badi, Lieutenant Colonel Abdel Qader Abdel Rahman, and Professor Colonel Ahmad Murjan received musical instruction at the hands of British instructors. Afterward, these men would go on to work as military composers and music teachers, educating and inspiring many of the future legends of both Sudanese jazz and Sudanese music more broadly.

This military music scene would evolve beyond traditional military music, with “entertainment” bands such as string and jazz bands beginning to appear among the ranks of the Sudanese armed forces. While jazz, rock, and blues first emerged in Sudan in the 1940s due to the introduction of foreign films, records, and bands to the country, local bands were now actively playing jazz and taking influence from these genres. Badi, Rahman, and Murjan would form a band called “The Dance,” which would be eventually headed by the frontman Othman Almo. This band, in particular, would be extremely influential in the foundation of Sudanese jazz; Almo is widely regarded as the first Sudanese musician to perform in the jazz style. Almo’s style would heavily influence Sharhabil Ahmed and his contemporaries, such as Kamal Keila and Al-Jilani Al-Wathiq. While Western influences were certainly present in the compositions of these musicians, many did not seek to imitate Western music. Rather, they sought to return jazz to its African roots. 

By the early 1960s, a golden age of Sudanese jazz had burst onto the scene. Clubs and venues consistently hosted jazz concerts throughout the country, particularly in Omdurman and Khartoum, which the most successful and widely known bands typically called home. Crowds would pack into venues to see bands such as the Bluestars, led by William Andrea, The Scorpions, featuring performers such as Al-Tayeb Rabeh and Amer Nasser, and the Dayum Jazz Band, featuring Omar Abdo, perform. This trend would continue throughout the rest of the 60s and 70s, during which the governments of Ismail Al-Azhari and Gaafar Nimeiry either supported or at least tolerated the rising music scene.

When discussing the history of Sudanese jazz, one cannot skip over the influence of its “King,” Sharhabil Ahmed. The story of Sharhabil Ahmed began in 1935 in the Abbasiya suburb of Omdurman, a neighborhood known for its artistic character and being the home of many great Sudanese singers. Throughout his childhood, it was clear that Sharhabil had great musical talent. His musical abilities, combined with his academic success and artistic talents, led him to enroll in and graduate from the music institute at Khartoum University. By 1960, Sharhabil was gaining prominence through his appearances on Radio Omdurman and his creation of the character of “Uncle Tanqo” for the Al-Subyan magazine. Songs such as “If You Knew Longing,” “The Quiet Night,” and “The Joy in Your Eyes” became famous not only in Sudan but throughout the Arab world and beyond, thrusting Sharhabil into the forefront of the Sudanese jazz scene. 

Notably, Sharhabil featured his wife, Zakia Abdul Qasim Abu Bakr, on guitar in his band. This represented the first time a woman played in a popular Sudanese band. Sharhabil’s career led him to perform around the globe, including for emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Admirers branded him “the King of Sudanese jazz” due to his unique music, immense domestic influence, and international success. Sharhabil influenced essentially every Sudanese jazz musician and band that followed him.

The Scorpions Perform “Nile Waves” with Saif Abu Bakr, 1980

Sudanese jazz existed in a tenuous political space for much of its development, especially after Gaafar Nimeiry rose to power in 1969, with Nimeiry bringing about increased censorship of the burgeoning jazz scene. Kamal Keila, often referred to as the Fela Kuti of Sudanese jazz, defied government censorship primarily through singing in English. Tracks like “Muslims and Christians” and “Agricultural Revolution” call for peace between the Southern Christians and Northern Muslims. Simultaneously, these songs implicitly criticize Sudan’s government for its actions in the South and its failure to provide for the basic needs of its people. Criticism of war was consistently present in Kamal’s English songs, with many of them touching on the government’s actions during the First Sudanese Civil War, a conflict fought between the Sudanese Government and the Anyanya Rebels, who were fighting for greater representation and autonomy for the predominantly Christian and Sub-Saharan African South from the Arab and Muslim North. “Shmasha” gives the story and perspective of a Southern orphan while further calling for an end to the war. These calls for peace and open criticism of the government were certainly not allowed, but by singing them in English, Keila could evade government censorship authorities and perform more freely. 

Keila’s songs were not all overtly political or critical of the government: many focused instead on the beauty of Sudan and its people. For example, “Sudan in the Heart of Africa” describes an idyllic vision of Sudan with people from Juba, Khartoum, and the many cities and towns in between, happy and dancing the freedom dance while also describing the beauty and vibrant culture of the country. While Kamal Keila and some of his contemporaries sought to deliver political messaging, the genre itself is not inherently rebellious or political. The extent of its political nature can be determined on a case-by-case basis, with the focus of many artists simply being to promote Sudanese culture and to play beautiful music, drawing heavily on the emotional experiences of people rather than advocating for political causes. 

At the beginning of his administration, Gaafar Nimeiry was a secular Arab socialist, aligning himself with the regimes of Gaddafi in Libya and Nasser in Egypt. Nimeiry was a heavily authoritarian leader, outlawing most political parties outside of his Sudanese Socialist Union. By 1971, Sudan’s relations with Libya, the Soviet Union, and leftist elements of the coalition that brought Nimeiry to power were rapidly deteriorating. Nimeiry then turned his focus to domestic concerns, ending the war in South Sudan through a negotiated settlement that granted the South autonomy. He also took a more pragmatic approach to domestic politics, allowing many former opponents, including members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, to return to Sudan from exile. 

By 1977, Nimeiry had begun a national reconciliation with Islamists, and he had also tasked a committee led by Muslim Brotherhood leader Hasan Al-Turbi with bringing Sudan’s national laws in line with Sharia, or Islamic, Law. By 1983, the ruling Sudanese Socialist Movement had formally begun enacting Sharia into Sudanese law. These Islamist reforms would mark the end of the golden age of both Sudanese jazz and Sudanese music as a whole, as religious authorities saw many aspects of music and dance as haram—against Islamic values.

According to the Sudanese jazz legend Saleh Brown in an interview with Al-Shorook, after 1983, venues that had previously been friendly to jazz artists began to be unwilling to host these bands. While the Islamist reforms had shut down many music venues, they also encouraged previously friendly venues such as casinos and hotels to stop hosting jazz bands. As a result, many bands and artists were forced either into exile or to pursue other careers, such as advertising, since the only songs permitted to be played on the radio were those that promoted the government’s agenda or Islamic values.

The bleak circumstances surrounding Sudanese jazz would not improve following the 1989 coup that brought longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir to power. Shortly after the coup, Radio Omdurman, the very station that had been so instrumental in establishing Sudanese jazz, proclaimed that it would not permit any songs to be played on its radio that did not glorify either religion or the new government. This campaign of censorship was not limited to new music: the al-Bashir regime embarked on a campaign of destruction of the music from the 60s and 70s, erasing archives of music and arresting or assassinating many musicians who dared to defy the party line.

Rampant oppression would largely continue until the end of al-Bashir’s rule in 2019, although the 2010s did provide limited openness towards Sudanese jazz, at least when compared with the 80s and 90s. Speaking with Ultra Sudan, Jamal Deng, the general manager of Dayum Jazz Band, explained that by 2019 only eighteen jazz bands remained in Sudan, and they were left without significant organization due to the oppression of al-Bashir.

Unfortunately, al-Bashir’s campaign of destruction came with consequences. In an interview with Noonpost, Sounds of Sudan founder Hatem Al-Ajeel pointed out that “Sudanese music has not been well documented” due to it not being “archived in an organized way.” Vic Sohoni, founder of Ostinato Records, expanded on this sentiment earlier in the Noonpost article, arguing that “Sudan’s cultural identity has been erased globally,” leading to aspects of Sudan’s history such as conflict and genocide coming to mind when one thinks about Sudan, furthering Sudan’s marginalization in conversations about African music. This marginalization is due to a variety of causes, but prominent among them is Bashir’s oppressive policies. However, no amount of lost history can change the fact that recordings of Kamal Keila, Sharhabil Ahmed, Saleh Brown, the Bluestars, Dayum Jazz Band, and the many other legendary men, women, and bands that made up the golden age of Sudanese jazz are no less impressive than their contemporaries throughout Africa. 

A brief renaissance of Sudanese musical culture followed the 2019 overthrow of the Bashir regime. Old bands and musicians began to come together, playing alongside the youth at newly opened music venues. Projects such as the Sounds of Sudan came into existence with the goal of preserving what was left of the golden age of Sudanese music after decades of oppression. Meanwhile, the new transitional government welcomed back many musicians, with 2020 New Year’s and Independence Day celebrations seeing widespread performances of bands previously exiled by the Bashir regime. A general feeling of jubilation could be felt among the crowds, with many musicians and spectators alike expressing their happiness. This renaissance also brought about many younger bands that are continuing the development of the music. Artists and bands such as Hazim Al Shafei, Asya Satti, the Blue Magic Band, and Mohamed Araki continued to push the boundaries of Sudanese jazz during this renaissance. 

When listening to Sudanese jazz, one cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of beauty from the unique combination of Sudanese, Middle Eastern, and Western instruments and melodies. Despite the best efforts of despots and fundamentalists, the music lives on. It is alive through recordings of ages long passed, the current performances of older legends, and a new generation of artists that grew up inspired by the artists named in this article and beyond that continues to evolve the music. The story of Sudanese jazz is melancholic in many respects, but it is also a story of perseverance, beauty, and culture.

Sudan is now entering its second year of civil war, and the future of the country is increasingly uncertain. However, if there is one thing that is certain, it is that the cultural impact made by the great generation of Sudanese jazz musicians will not be forgotten, and it will not disappear. At the end of Saleh Brown’s interview with Al-Shorook, Saleh and the interviewer emphasized that Sudan is not just a country of war, economic problems, political problems, and the like. It’s a country with music, love, and peace. These central attributes of Sudanese culture beautifully shine through the bluesy guitar and echoing vocals of old jazz recordings, and there is no doubt that they will continue to do so for centuries to come.

I would like to thank my good friend, Patrick Skaf, for assisting with much of the translation necessary for this article.

Feature Image Source: Habibi Funk Records

Comments are closed.