Disproportionate to its status as Africa’s largest country, Sudan has seemingly not yet been musically mined to the same extent as smaller countries like Mali, Senegal, or Ethiopia. Perhaps because Sudanese music, as presented on this new Rough Guide sampler, doesn’t share the easy rhythms, bluesy affinities or star power of the aforementioned countries, but the spirit and passion of the music on the album show that there’s no reason for the nation’s relative musical obscurity to continue.
That the music is given an opportunity to shine is a credit to the label that released it. Kudos to Rough Guide for doing something that other world music samplers often fail to do: presenting the music in an even-handed and empathetic manner. The liner notes include a brief but informative overview of Sudan’s musical history up to the present as well as helpful bios for each of the featured musicians that aid the listener in understanding the context and creation of the music presented here. The clear sense that the people at Rough Guide are interested in the music on its own terms is in stark contrast to less culturally conscientious labels like Putumayo, who seem intent on reducing world culture to the status of coffee shop soundtracks.
Lucky for the listener, the stand-alone quality of much of the music is strong enough to transcend any would-be attempts at marketing dilution. A single track like the otherworldly and utterly beautiful chanting of the Omdurman Women’s Ensemble on Daloka Bet El Mal (which sounds like a prayer but is about drinkin’ hooch and smokin’ herb), especially in the soft memory of a post Live 8 world, serves to remind western listeners that Africa’s afflicted countries deserve to be thought of as more than just charity cases and instead acknowledged as being the home of vibrant populations creating equally vibrant culture.
All cultural implications aside, much of the music on Desert Rhythms & Savannah Harmonies just plain cooks. Tarig Abubakar’s & the Afro-Nubians makes like a suave Saharan James Brown on Tour to Africa where, backed by a cool groove, he runs through African nations like a funky conductor. A sense of cool sophistication is also evidenced in the sensuous intertwining of Arabic strings and a smoky saxophone on Abdel Azziz El Mubarak’s Na-Nu Na-Nu.
As the result of their lack of traditional western musical training, there may be an unfortunate tendency to regard African musicians as naturals take their estimable skill for granted. Don’t. Even on a musically sparse tracks like Muhamed El Amin’s Habibi, which features just vocals and oud, the ability to the flowing virtuosity needed to casually render complex picking patterns while singing is nothing short of astonishing.
When placed alongside such refined brilliance, certain tracks that attempt to weld traditional and modern sounds somewhat suffer in comparison. The thin-sounding drum machine and synthesizer on Emmanuel Jal’s Gua mars what is an otherwise interesting convergence between traditional Sudanese music and hip-hop. On other songs, the keyboards sound like they’d be more at home in Toto’s Africa than today’s Sudan. The delicate balance between old and new is best managed on Mohammed Wardi’s Azibbni, where accordion and fuzz guitar come together to build something new on top of old foundations.
Apart from those few slight missteps, there’s plenty here to enjoy. While Sudanese music may not yet have the cultural cache of some of its geographic neighbors, don’t wait for the cultural cognoscenti to check your passport. The border’s open.