Defiant in the face of repression
Most of what those of us outside Africa know about Sudan is probably taken from newspaper headlines or thirty-second pieces in a newscast. Civil unrest, bloodshed and an overall sense of instability is the picture that's usually generated. However, Sudan, like every other country in the world, is so much more than the image generated by the media, or whatever unrest is taking place at any particular time.
Beja Power, by Noori & His Dorpa Band, may not do much to change people's perceptions of Sudan, but it will at least make them aware that the country isn't the homogeneous place they think. Noori and his band hail from the country's port city on the Red Sea, Port Sudan. More importantly, they are members of the Beja community, a minority whose culture has faced years of repression at the hands of various Sudanese governments.
Their land in the eastern part of Sudan is home to huge gold deposits that have largely been sold off to foreign companies. Like many indigenous populations around the world, the Beja's requests to be awarded a share of the profits have not only been denied, they and their culture have been marginalised. It is no surprise, therefore, to discover that the Beja people have often been the ones shouting loudest for political and social change in Sudan.
Beja: a repressed minority
Under the rule of former dictator Omar al-Bashir, the campaign to erase the Beja language, music and culture was intensified. This attempt to destroy a culture, the roots of which can be traced back millennia – some historians say the Beja are among the oldest living descendants of ancient Egypt and the kingdoms of Kush – was thankfully not completely successful, as this recording proves.
With Sudan still in a state of unrest after a military coup and the civilian uprising that followed, it's not surprising that Noori believed the time was ripe for an infusion of Beja music into society. Not only would it serve as a reminder to people that their culture is still alive and well, it would be an act of civil resistance, by showing defiance in the face of repression.
In fact, it is somewhat more than that; there are very few recordings of Beja music in existence and this is not only the first modern recording, but also the first one to reach an international audience. In other words, almost nobody outside the small region of Sudan where the Beja live has heard music like that featured on Beja Power.
These are the Beja people's traditional rhythms and melodies, some of which are potentially 6,000 years old. Played on modern instruments – saxophone, bass, electric guitar and two different types of percussion – the tracks, like other indigenous music from Africa, show definite signs of contemporary influence.
Noori is the exception to that rule. He plays an instrument that is one of a kind. By grafting a traditional four-stringed tambour inherited from his father onto the neck of an electric guitar that he found in a scrap yard, he has created the only known hybrid tambour electric guitar – featuring some very idiosyncratic tuning – in existence.
Like the Desert Blues played in Mali, Beja music has a hypnotic quality. All the instruments, from the percussion to the saxophone, hone in on the central rhythm of a song and propel the listener forward. Now and again one of them will burst out above the others, changing the song's course ever so slightly. These leads, or breaks, are accents and addendums that give the pieces their spice.
The opening track, "Saagama", begins with the electric guitar establishing the melody. It's joined by percussion and saxophone that add layers of melody and rhythm. As they continue to work together they build and retreat throughout the tune. The guitar work becomes increasingly intricate and involved – turning what seemed a simple melody into something far more elaborate and interesting.
The opening bars of the third piece on the album, "Al Amal" ('hope' in English), are reminiscent of classic soul music from North America. Then it evolves – leaving the syncopation of the funky groove behind to become something more fluid and flowing. You can feel, and almost see, the music move into jazz. Instead of being disconcerting or awkward, the change is an organic transition – a natural evolution.
It's almost as if the music is too big to be contained by one genre. It refuses to fit into our easy definitions of what music should or shouldn't sound like. Perhaps this is what is meant by timeless music. Music that can't be easily placed into any of the categories we use to define it for ourselves.
There is no denying the jazz-like qualities of some of the songs. "Jabana", the fourth song on the recording, would not sound out of place in a New York or Paris club. The smooth saxophone and the elegant guitars not only create a captivating rhythm, but interweave solos throughout the song, giving it depth and feeling.
This album is a remarkable collection of sounds that will open up new worlds of music to anyone willing to listen. Sudan may be a country in turmoil, but that doesn't prevent its people from producing beautiful music.
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