Music

'Two Niles to Sing a Melody' Shines a Light on Sudan's Vibrant Musical Past

The compilation, whose title refers to the Blue and White Nile rivers that bracket Khartoum, collects 16 tracks from 15 artists and offers an eclectic slice of the sounds of a bygone Sudan.

Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan
Various Artists

Ostinato

14 September 2018

Sudan is a country rich with culture, but also sociopolitical strife. A coup in 1989 brought a great deal of violent persecution to artists at the hands of a hardline religious government and ended a period in the country's postcolonial era that was rife with music and poetry. The '70s and '80s were a time when music was all around; bands, orchestras, and roving sound systems were ubiquitous in the capital city of Khartoum. It was a golden era popular not just in Sudan but neighboring African countries as well, combining traditional native melodies with echoes of Western soul and Caribbean reggae.

Fortunately, Ostinato Records – determined to bring this music to a global audience – sent a team to Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Egypt to unearth recordings of this vital era. The result is Two Niles to Sing a Melody: the Violins & Synths of Sudan, and it's a fascinating listen. The compilation, whose title refers to the Blue and White Nile rivers that bracket Khartoum, collects 16 tracks from 15 artists and offers an eclectic slice of the sounds of a bygone Sudan.

Much of the music is heavily rhythmic and while the melodies are sharp, the arrangements are loose with a variety of unique instrumentation. Emad Youssef's "Al Bareedo Ana (The One I Love)" lumbers along with jagged horns and accordion accompanying Youssef's vocals. The conflation of east-meets-west musicality is evident on tracks like Kamal Tarbas' "Min Ozzalna Seebak Seeb (Forget Those That Divide Us)", where thumping percussion provides a soulful backbeat and saxophone and violin-like synths climb Eastern scales. It's a curious, irresistible stew.

The 20,000-word booklet that accompanies Two Niles is exhaustive and befits the subject matter. Besides the cultural and political backstory, there's a wealth of priceless photos, notes from the compilation team, and a series of revealing interviews from surviving artists of the era as well as relatives of those who have passed away. For example, the story of Mohammed Wardi, the famed Sudanese singer/songwriter who died in 2012 (and the only artist on this compilation to get more than one track) is told by his son Abdulwahab in glowing terms. "He was representative of the people," Abdulwahab says of his late father. "He was their voice; their civilization. He summarizes the spirit of the Sudanese people when he sings." Wardi's two songs on the compilation include "Al Sourah (The Photo)", a catchy slice of primitive funk adorned by complex, intertwined strings, and the epic "Al Mursal (The Messenger)", which captures both the exotic spirit of Wardi's homeland and the musical touchstones of the '70s with jazzy saxophone and lightly effects-laden electric guitar.

The sound quality is certainly indicative of the difficulty in acquiring clean master recordings. As stated in the liner notes: "The management and security for the National Radio and its archive of master reels is today outsourced to national security services — the equivalent of having the CIA guard the doors of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. It is entirely off limits." As a result, most of these recordings are from cassettes – the preferred format of the Sudanese music fan. Consequently, much of what you hear on Two Niles has a bit of a gritty flavor, but it lends to the authenticity. Madjzoub Ounsa's "Arraid Arraid Ya Ahal (Love, Love Family)", with its jittery beats and plaintive string synth patches, sounds like it's coming out of a transistor radio in a Khartoum outdoor market. What "Ma Kunta Aarif Yarait (I Wish I Had Known)" by Abdel El Aziz Mubarak may lack in sonic fidelity more than makes up for in terms of pure emotion, with its languid strings and deeply felt vocalizing.

In the liner notes, Two Niles co-compiler Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel – a Sudanese actress who immigrated to the United States in the early '90s – stresses the importance of this music to her country, despite the eventual government crackdown. "Sudanese music is part of the daily life of the Sudanese people," she says. "That's how I lived it. It's just what we did every minute." That music, lovingly captured here, is as vibrant as the people who created it.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.