Sudan: Can’t dance / won’t dance?

Speech by Mr. Peter Verney from Sudan Update, held at the 1st Freemuse World conference in 1998

In the 1980s, I used to take a mobile disco around the shanty areas of Khartoum – until 1989, when the security police of the National Islamic Front (NIF) came and took it away. Around the same time police burst into a women’s traditional Zar ceremony, armed with Kalashnikovs, and carted everyone away to the lock-up, confiscating the drums that powered the ritual and calling them ‘pagan’.

The dictatorship of Sudan’s NIF embodies in repressive laws the attitude that can’t dance and won’t let anyone else. Musicians such as Abu-Araki al-Bakheit, Mohammed el Amin, Saif al-Jami’a, Yousif al-Mousli and the band Igd el Djilad have been prevented from performing in public and banned from the airwaves.

In Sudan there’s an added dimension to the ages-old argument over the legitimacy of music and dance under Islam: one third of the people affected by it are not even Muslim. And whatever their religion, Sudan’s people – 300 ethnic groups – embody such a collision of Arab and African cultures that it’s often impossible to tell where one culture ends and the other begins.

Arab tribes arrived in the 14th and 15th centuries from across the Red Sea and the northern fringe of Africa; in the 16th century West Africans began journeying through northern Sudan on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Both settled and intermarried with the indigenous people. Southern Sudan, largely cut off until the mid-19th century by the vast swamps of the White Nile, was treated as a source of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers and gold. No wonder the continent’s largest country has an identity problem alongside a deep-rooted civil war.


Itang refugee camp, near Asosa, Southwest Ethiopia, 1990
Nubian superstar Mohammed Wardi gets even the lame dancing, at a concert for Southern Sudanese displaced by a horrific civil war. Land-mine victims on crutches and able-bodied alike respond enthusiastically to a singer who transcends the murderous hostilities between north and south Sudan. Unity and harmony momentarily seem to be more than just cliches. The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army videos this extraordinarily moving occasion, but fails to exploit it.

Scene Three: Khartoum, mid-1994
The government-controlled media gives extensive air-time to hardline Islamist mosque leaders campaigning to outlaw secular music altogether.

Scene Four: Abri, Wadi Halfa province, Nubia, Northern Sudan, September 1994
75 wedding-guests are arrested when police with tear-gas, batons and live ammunition break up defiant party-goers protesting at a ruling that wedding parties – formerly an all-night affair – must end before sunset prayers and be supervised by sheikhs and police. Conflict is sparked when guests, including children, arrive after dusk. Demonstrations continue for several days until the army moves in.

Scene Five: Omdurman, Sudan, October 1994
Travelling home at night, a professional violinist is stopped, taken to the edge of Omdurman and severely beaten by security police who smash his instrument. Told he should stop playing music and follow Islam, he turns round and quotes eloquently from the Quran in his defence. His tormentors are left speechless.

Scene Six: Omdurman, by the Nile, November 1994
Khogali Osman, a well-loved singer in his early forties, is killed by a ‘fanatic’ – a religious primary school teacher – who talks his way into the Musicians’ Club and stabs several people in the belief that secular music is an abomination. ‘Merdoum King’ and international recording artist Abdel Gadir Salim and a violinist are wounded.

The government denies any role in the assault, but buries the singer in great haste to avoid public protest. Security police threaten other musicians not to talk about the killing. (Meanwhile the regime increases its efforts to appear tolerant on the international stage, supporting ‘cultural festivals’ in London and Paris. )

Scene Seven: Khartoum, Sudan, 1998
The National Islamic Front (NIF) government enacts a new law banning women from dancing with men or in their presence during folklore celebrations or wedding parties. It also segregates the sexes on public transport.

So long as the NIF is in power, you’ll have to go to the rebel-held territory of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (most of Southern Sudan) to join in ‘legal’ mixed dancing – no such hang-ups there.

The lyre, that ancient instrument, is a common instrument throughout Sudan, usually in various forms of improvised construction. In war zones like south Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, these days the instrument is just as likely to be made from a hub-cap or a land-mine casing as from the gourds of old.

Even today, few Sudanese musicians have access to modern recording studios, although a couple more have recently been built in Khartoum. A growing number of Sudanese CDs has been released on the international market, but few people in Sudan have CD players and many classic performances are still on cassette only – if you can find them at all.


In 1992 the controllers of Radio Juba – government-held capital of the south – wiped its unique tapes of the celebrated Southern Sudanese singer Yousif Fataki. It’s an apt demonstration of the government’s attitude to the south, to erase a cultural artefact to make way for its own propaganda. And although South Sudan, like the Nuba Mountains, creates plenty of music, there are fewer opportunities to hear it now than in recent decades.

Back in the 1960s, a Southern Sudanese musician and folklorist – Dr William Remzy – was working at the University of Khartoum. In the 1970s and 80s, while there was peace, the southern capital Juba had nightlife: groups like the Skylarks and Rejaf Jazz, and venues like DeeDee’s Disco, taking their inspiration from Kampala and Nairobi. All are long gone, dispersed by war…

Nowadays the best chance to hear Southern Sudanese music may be in church, possibly in the refugee camps in northern Uganda, or among the rebel soldiers. There’s an ever-growing repertoire of new songs about war and liberation – defiance and yearning for peace.

‘New Sudan Sings’, a recording from 1997, is an essential dose of reality – songs from the war zone. Sudan’s imbalance of power is highlighted by the fact that these stirring and poignant field recordings by Maggie Hamilton are about the only musical material from Southern Sudan available at present. Among the group chants and hymns – Dinka, Zande, Nuer, Didinga and other languages – are some extraordinarily beautiful unaccompanied women’s songs. Words like ‘[peace] agreement’ and ‘Killington [Clinton]’ stand out in an otherwise unfamiliar tongue.


The Nuba are caught on the dividing line between the warring cultures of north and south Sudan. The government has bombed them and deprived them of aid, but they are fighting its programme of ‘ethnocide’ with their own reawakening identity. Under the squeeze of the government’s crude ‘Islamisation’ campaign, the diverse, multi-religious Nuba communities are uniting in resistance, defending their own culture as much as their land. The Kambala, or harvest festival, is still celebrated, and there is a proliferation of new songs and artists. The vibrant Black Stars are part of a special ‘cultural advocacy and performance’ unit of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the Nuba Mountains. Their most famous vocalist is Ismael Koinyi, an accomplished guitar player who sings in Arabic and in several Nuba languages.

When journalists were flown in to the Nuba Mountains for an anniversary celebration in 1998 by the charismatic Nuba SPLA leader Yousif Kuwa, they were treated to an amplified concert in the remote mountain retreat courtesy of solar power. Electricity is a rare luxury, however, so with stringed rababas, a clay-pot bass drum, tin bongos and shakers, Nuba bands usually play their form of ‘Je-luo’ – a catch-all term for Kenyan or Congolese guitar styles – unplugged. The lyrics of Nuba bands like the Black Stars dwell on the battles – military and psychological – through which the Nuba continue to struggle, and the dancing often goes on till daybreak.

Don’t confuse the Nuba of south-west Sudan with the Nubians, like Wardi and Hamza al-Din, who are from Nubia in the far north of the country – between Dongola and the Egyptian border at Wadi Halfa (and beyond). Both groups are indigenous Sudanese, rather than of ‘Arab’ origin, but any link is ancient history.

Northern Sudan – a crisis of identity

The rest of the country is more divided – to the point of split personality, sometimes. Few Northern Sudanese wholeheartedly support the government’s obsessive division of the sexes, lots are repressed dancers, and many older ones look back nostalgically to the era before 1983 and Sharia law. That was when President Nimeiri, with NIF support, closed the bars in Khartoum and chucked the alcohol in the Nile. Two years later, the Sudanese people chucked Nimeiri out. (I remember a soldier of the Presidential Guard breakdancing on our veranda, overjoyed at being out of a job.) But in 1989, the NIF came back, seizing total power in a military coup. The drinking, and the dancing, still go on behind closed doors. But in a totalitarian, informer society, who dares admit to such sins?

Attitudes towards music within Islamic societies are certainly problematic. The Quran does not itself clearly prohibit music, and music has always been very important in Arab culture. Some Quranic verses have been interpreted as approving, others as condemning it. Choosing only the latter, the ‘fundamentalist’ stance is that music is linked with illicit sex and drinking, dangerous diversions from religious duty. Dancing is likewise equated with immorality. Not much difference from ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity, in other words. (And a small proportion of today’s missionaries in South Sudan enforce equally daunting views.)

The Sufi teachers who brought Islam to Sudan were by no means ‘fundamentalists’, however, and happily made use of music and dance. Quranic recitation, which is sung, is not regarded by Muslims as music, but the influence of this technique on the secular art is unmistakable – and the devotional chanting of the Sufi Zikr must be somewhere between the two.

Early days

Modern urban music in Northern Sudan began taking shape between the 1920s and 1940s. Regarded by some as the father of contemporary Sudanese music, singer Khalil Farah was also prominent in the independence movement.

The Sudanese Graduates’ Congress used a song entitled ‘Sahi ya Kanaru’ (‘Wake Up, Canary’) to spread resistance to British rule. Since then, many others have used the image of a beautiful creature, woman, or lover to refer obliquely to their country, and have stirred feelings sufficiently powerful to get the author jailed, sometimes. Translations, of course, rarely capture these allusions.

As early as the 1920s Egyptian producers brought Sudanese singers to record in Cairo, and instruments of the orchestra began to replace the chorus in call-and-response.

Southerners, Nuba and other non-Arab communities were well represented in the police and armed forces across the country. For impoverished young conscripts in post-independence Sudan, the police and army ‘jazz-bands’ offered the best access to equipment, and what started out as British military brass band styles often metamorphosed in the 1960s and 70s to become ‘jazz’ in the East African sense. This imitates the intersecting guitars of Kenya’s Shirati Jazz and the myriad Luo language bands around Lake Victoria – although any soukous, rhumba or benga gets called ‘Je-luo’ in Sudan. (By the time their music reached as far north as Khartoum, even African stars like Franco and Tabu Ley were frequently rendered anonymous in this way. Few knew their names, they just recognised the style. Is this loss of identity symbolic of a wider process?).

Foreign artists
During the 1960s, Ray Charles (‘Hit the Road, Jack’) and Harry Belafonte made a big impression on urban Sudanese musicians such as Osman Alamu, and Ibrahim Awad – who became the first Sudanese singer to dance on stage. (1985: Sherhabeel Ahmed, a quietly progressive musician and illustrator whose wife used to play bass guitar, sings ‘Kingston Town’ at a famine concert echoing Live Aid. Harry Belafonte is in the audience, representing the charity USA for Africa, and is openly moved to tears.)

In the 1970s it was the turn of James Brown and Jimmy Cliff. Kamal Kayla modelled his style on the hugely popular JB. The 1980s made Bob Marley and Michael Jackson household names. Marley was recognised by some as the spiritual kinsman of Sudan’s own Sufi dervishes, and an inspiration to thousands of ghetto children.


The Sufi Muslim dervishes, or darawiish, brought the first wave of Islamic influence to Sudan several hundred years ago. Their often wild and colourful appearance, some with dreadlocks and elaborate patchwork clothes, and the spectacular manner of their religious devotions, made a lasting impression on the British rulers of the ‘Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’ in the late nineteenth century.

But the Victorian caricature of the ‘whirling dervish’ misses the point. Within the religious tradition of zikr – ‘remembrance’ – the dervishes use music and dance to work themselves into a mystical trance. Undulating lines of male Sufi dancers bop their way to ecstasy with a physical grace that confounds ageism. Their tolerant spirit has profoundly influenced the easy-going approach that characterised Sudan until relatively recently.

The most spirited rhythms – in every sense – are mainly for women, in the psychotherapeutic zar cult. Zar sessions combine mesmeric drumming with incense, massage and a licence to release deep frustration. Under the guidance of the sheikha az-zar, gatherings last either four or seven days, drumming from dawn to dusk for different spirits that plague people and have to be brought out and pacified.

These are occasions outside the bounds of life’s ordinary rules, when women can smoke and drink and act out rebellious fantasies without having their religious piety or social respectability called into question. The zar cult is older than Islam and works around and through it rather than compete against it. But like everything else that challenges the ruling National Islamic Front’s social programme, zar is suffering a government clampdown under the pretext that it is anti-Islamic.

Mohamed el Amin
song lyric: Al-Jarida – The Newspaper

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 me, what are you reading … talk to me‘ Is it really that important? Do you have to read an entire article, even a whole story? How many months of separation did we endure, nothing between us but distance? Our eyes, filled with tears, are crying … our hearts, filled with longing, are still hoping, each thought that crossed my mind .. each story or piece of news. I have important things to tell you, things that reflect the longing in me Spare me just one moment and listen to me … don’t be so obstinate. Should I tell you … or would it be better to leave you to your newspaper?

– Mohammed el Amin Mohammed el Amin is a Sudanese folk-hero for his majestic voice and superb oud playing, and a brilliant composer and arranger. Born in Wad Medani, central Sudan, in 1943, he began learning the oud at the age of 11, taught by the well-known professor Mohammed Fadl. He wrote his first compositions aged 20, and went on to become honorary president of the Sudanese Artists’ and Composers’ Society. Frequently in trouble for provoking one military dictatorship – he was jailed by Nimeiri’s regime in the 1970s – he moved to Cairo after 1989 to avoid similar run-ins with the National Islamic Front, but returned to Khartoum in 1994 and kept a low profile.

Mohammed Wardi
‘Art is like water: you can’t seal off its source. It will trickle inexorably through the rock to emerge in a new spring somewhere else’ – said Mohammed Wardi, exiled leader of the Musician’s Union, speaking in London at the Memorial Concert for Khojali Osman, the singer who was murdered at the Musician’s Club, Omdurman, November 1994.

The soaring voice of ‘golden throat’ Mohammed Wardi has won acclaim right across the African Sahel and the Arab world. Although this singer from Nubia – born in 1932 near old Wadi Halfa – is now in exile, his music always stirs emotion for many Sudanese. His first hit was in 1960, and he still has the most extraordinary effect on a Sudanese audience, having come to embody the collective memories and aspirations of an entire nation. Mohammed Wardi sings not only in Arabic but also in his native Nubian – drawing on 7,000 years of culture.

Sometimes he sings with directly political allusion – to the October 1964 popular uprising, for example – and sometimes more obliquely, but always with powerful resonance. He’s had spells in jail which only confirmed his popularity; at a human rights demonstration outside the Sudan Embassy, his unaccompanied voice galvanised the spirit of an otherwise sombre gathering.

But the most compelling occasion of all must be his 1990 concert at Itang, temporary home to 250,000 war-displaced southern Sudanese in Ethiopia, performing from a makeshift wooden platform in the dusty wastes of a refugee camp. The healing power of music was never more convincingly displayed, and for a while the prospect of reconciliation in this torn country seemed a little less forlorn.


The contemporary poet and teacher Mahjoub Sherif often writes in colloquial Arabic, mixing observations on everyday life and politics with love songs and poems for children. He has also been detained for long periods under Sudan’s military dictators. Even in the remote western desert prison at Shalla he continued writing lyrics that became songs of resistance. Many have been set to music by Mohammed Wardi.

Hey, buffoon’ Cling tightly’ Beware falling apart’ Beware and be alert’ Bend your ears to every sign of movement Keep watch on your own shadow and, when the leaves rustle, Shut yourself off and keep still’ Life is so dangerous, buffoon.

Open fire’ Bullets aimed at everything every word uttered every breeze passing without your permission My lord buffoon.

Instruct the sparrows, the village lanterns, the towns’ windows, every whispering blade of grass to report to you.

As police, let the ants infiltrate and build the security state Ask the raindrops to write their reports, Buffoon…

(credit translation: Africa Watch 1991)

Abu Araki al-Bakheit
The songs of Abu Araki al-Bakheit, like Wardi, were banned from the airwaves by the NIF. In the early 1990s he was arrested and told by the authorities not to sing his political songs at public gatherings. He responded by saying he would prefer silence, and would no longer play. The public outcry at this news eventually prompted him to sing again, in defiance of the authorities, but at the cost of repeated harassment and threats. His friends say he is walking a tightrope, and his popularity is his only protection.

Igd el Djilad
The multi-vocalist band Igd el Djilad was formed in the mid-1980s by a dozen young music students with progressive aims. Their song lyrics reflect these concerns, and their music strives to be both forward-looking and reflective of the country’s roots, using rhythms and chants from right across the country. To an outsider this seems innocuous enough, but it’s an approach that takes courage. Members of Iqd al-Jalad have been arrested on several occasions, questioned by security police and threatened. Rather than being stopped from playing altogether they were forced to give written assurances that they would not provoke the authorities with songs about poverty and famine.


The fact that you can still find plenty of music in northern Sudan might give the impression of freedom, but it’s a system that Kafka would recognise for its arbitrariness, in which repression can descend at any moment. It is still possible to find, for example, cassettes of Mohammed Wardi on open sale despite the probability that the singer himself would be imprisoned if he returned because of his outspoken role in opposition to the National Islamic Front. In this split-personality atmosphere, nothing is straightforward.

The NIF both fears and seeks to manipulate music and musicians. Any references to past freedoms in Sudan prior to the 1989 coup are unacceptable. Periods of repression are alternated with periods of coercion; officials differ in their interpretation and application of the 1990 Public Order Acts which regulate performances.

Hostile to art that it cannot control, the NIF has introduced an ‘Islamisation of Art’ programme in an attempt to dictate the terms of the discourse. All performers and works of theatre, cinema and music are supposed to be approved by religious jurists. Songs in praise of the para-military Popular Defence Force and jihad are broadcast all the time. Sporadic prohibition is enforced on ‘low grade’ Western music. More important, the diverse range of folk music and dance within Sudan itself often fails to meet the criteria, or is relegated to condescending ‘ethnological’ broadcasts.


In 1996 the Cairo-based Sudanese media workers association reported to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, Dr Gaspar Biro, on harassment of musicians in Sudan by the NIF.

The Morality Monitoring Unit of the shadow ‘police force’ known as the General Administration of Public Order extends its remit to musical performances at wedding parties – the most frequent venue for music. Weddings are regular targets for raids on the grounds of Public Order Act offences, mixed dancing, or ‘unapproved’ songs or singers. Seven singers were arrested in one week at the beginning of 1993.

Broadcasting editor Salma al-Sheikh was interrogated for hours after allowing a student at the Institute of Music and Drama to use a radio tape of Sudanese songs banned by the regime. She played music by Mohammed Wardi, Mohammed al-Amin, Abu-Araki, Mustafa SidAhmed and Yousif al-Mousli on her daily radio programme ‘Good Morning My Country’ until it was taken off the air in 1992.

In the early 1980s, song lyrics referring to women’s bodies were among those banned. The official decree remained on the books after Nimeiri’s overthrow, but was ignored by broadcasters. The NIF coup in 1989 was followed by a decree in which the Director-General of Radio Omdurman prohibited the broadcast of any song other than those glorifying religion or the jihad of the National Islamic Front.

Video and music cassettes of songs mentioning kisses or wine, or with political allusions, have been erased and pro-NIF speeches and religious sermons recorded over them. Large amounts of irreplaceable studio archive material have been lost in this way.

In 1995 singer Sayyid Khalifa declared that all songs in the archives of the national radio station, Radio Omdurman, were being reviewed and revised. New ‘moral’ versions would be made, excising all unacceptable references.


When Sudan’s Institute of Music and Drama was begun by the civilian government in 1969, dedicated teachers like El-Mahi Ismail, its first director, helped provide college-level practical instruction and research in music, drama and folklore for the first time in Sudan. Despite funding and status wrangles, the Institute survived until 1989, when the National Islamic Front regime took power and it became a target for political demolition. A new director began ‘Islamization’ of the Institute: new, ideologically-approved lecturers were brought in, and the talent test for admission was replaced with an interview on religious attitudes.

Half a century ago, urban women singers such as Mihera bint Abboud and Um el Hassan el Shaygiya began carving individual styles from the rich oral heritage of traditional women’s songs. The most famous woman from this era was the accomplished Aisha el Fellatiya, who made her name as a singer during the Second World War when she toured the camps of the Sudan Defence Force across North Africa to boost the troops’ morale.

Demurely echoing the rise of the 1960s girl groups in the west, a few female duos rose to local popularity including Sunai Kordofani, Sunai el Nagam and Sunai el Samar. In the early 1980s three gifted teenage Nubian sisters with a supportive father formed the group Balabil . Trained by oud player and songwriter Bashir Abbas, who also found lyricists and musicians for them, they found an avid audience around the Horn of Africa. In the uncertain climate of Sudan’s ‘sharia’ law, however, they were sometimes banned from television.

The fortunes of women singers mirror the social trends of recent years. Consider an extreme case, Hanan Bulu-bulu, the pouting provocative Madonna (or Marie Lloyd) of 1980s Sudanese pop. After the popular uprising that overthrew President Nimeiri and ended his despised version of Islamic sharia law, Hanan Bulu-bulu reflected a new mood at the 1986 Khartoum International Fair. Her notoriety arose from her stage act, captured on video, which borrowed the sensuous bridal ‘dove-dance’ of Sudanese weddings and orchestrated the often saucy songs of the urban women’s daloka or tom-tom tradition.

But the backlash came soon after, as Islamist hardliners banned her concerts and beat her up for immoral behaviour. They insulted her ‘half-Ethiopian’ background, which for them was a euphemism for sexual licence. She was by no means the best singer, but a welcome antidote to the hollow pieties of the fundamentalists. (Apparently she’s still performing, somehow, somewhere.)

More credit should go to women such as Gisma and Nasra, from whom Hanan Bulu-bulu took much of her act. In the 1970s and 1980s they pioneered a performance version of the erotic kashif wedding display, coupled with torrential drumming and facetious, worldly-wise lyrics. They were popular at private gatherings and were frequently arrested for the irreverent and revealing nature of their songs.

Despised by the political elites of left and right, they were regarded as a much-needed source of dirty realism by the lower classes. Home truths such as ‘Hey Commissioner, we know your Toyota’s the pick-up for the groceries, and your Mercedes is the pick-up for the girls,’ and ‘This sharia is driving us to drink’ were never likely to endear them to the authorities. Most Sudanese women can drum and sing, and delighted in reproducing Nasra and Gisma’s salty treatment of the traditional daloka style.


This draft extract of a report for the Rough Guide to World Music (2nd edition, November 1999) was the basis for a talk at the 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, in Copenhagen, Denmark, 20-22 November 1998.

See also: ‘Does Allah like Music?’ by the editor of Sudan Update in Index on Censorship ‘Smashed Hits’ December 1998, and ‘Verfemt – Verbannt – Verboten: Muzik und Zensur – weltweit’ (Der Gruene Zweig 206, Werner Pieper Hg)


A good selection of cassettes is available from Natari in the UK and Africassette in the US. For information on field recordings, including Zar and women’s music, contact Sudan Update, (see e-mail address below).

•CD: MOHAMMED WARDI ‘Live in Addis Ababa 1994’ (Rags Music, UK)
• Cassette: ‘New Sudan Sings’ (Cassette – Counterpoint, Christian Aid, Birmingham, UK, 1997)
• CD: ‘The Rough Guide to the Music of North Africa’ (World Music Network, UK)

Peter Verney, Editor, Sudan Update


Sudan Update
is an independent, non-profit information and referral service which aims to encourage informed dialogue towards peace and reconstruction in Sudan. It publishes a media review twice monthly, available by post and by e-mail.


1st Freemuse World Conference On Music and Censorship

The 1st Freemuse World Conference on Music and Censorship was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in November 1998. Among the participants were musicians, reseachers, human rights activists and journalists from all over the world.

Read the speeches as PDF
Read the speeches (98 pages)

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