This article was written by Moses Abeka and originally published on the musicinafrica.net webpage under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialCC BY-NC licence on June 10th 2023.
Sudan’s musical traditions have largely been informed by Arabic and Muslim traditions. As a country that has always subscribed to stricter interpretations of Islamic law, music in Sudan has generally served religious purposes, meaning that women’s contribution or participation in the art form was and is still discouraged, if not restricted altogether .
Couple this with post-independence civil wars and authoritarian military regimes that generally frown upon artistic expression, and one can get a sense of the complicated relationship the country has had with its musicians, both men and women .
But despite well-documented religious and political censorship, female musicians’ voices in the country’s social, political and cultural spaces has never been completely silenced .
Women have actively contributed to Sudanese musical heritage even before the country’s modern history. Their contribution took various roles such as singing, dancing, playing instruments, composing, reciting verses, and more.
One of the earliest known female musicians was Mihera Bint Abboud, a 19th century poet said to have led the charge against the 1820-24 Turco-Egyptian invasion of Sudan with a rousing performance that fired up demoralised troops.
Later on, women like Aisha Musa Ahmad, better known as Aisha al-Falatiya, would develop their own styles based on traditional musical forms. Al-Falatiya is regarded as one of the first modern Sudanese female singers, whose career began in the 1940s. Despite facing huge resistance in the early stages of her career, she went on to record more than 150 songs and achieved popularity as far as Egypt.
She, too, played the role of wartime musician in 1942 during the Second World War when she sang to uplift the morale in the camps of the Sudan Defence Forces , which were working together with the British against the German and Italian armies . Al-Falatiya died on 24 February 1974 aged 69.
Perhaps one of the most fondly remembered female Sudanese musical trailblazers is Hawa Jah al-Rasoul Mohammed, popularly known as Hawa al-Tagtaga. The singer, who died in 2012, cemented her reputation as not only an iconic female Sudanese singer but also as musical rebel who spoke truth to power. She was repeatedly arrested by British officials for agitating for Sudanese independence, which was achieved in 1956. Al-Tagtaga was a patriot who performed dressed in the colours of the old Sudanese flag . The singer, born in 1926 in Ar Rahad, North Kordofan, was honoured by the state on more than one occasion. She was also a popular figure at weddings and social gatherings across all social classes and was regarded as a true voice of the people .
Stars of the Golden (and ‘dark’) Era
The period between the early 1960s and the late 1980s saw the rise of Sudan’s biggest female musicians in popular music. Though few and far between, these women performers proved Sudan was not a musical desert landscape. They did not just entertain but acted as social mirrors by pointing out uncomfortable social truths. However, given the environment they were operating in, many faced backlash from the ruling elite and religious leadership.
As Sudan entered the 1960s, a few all-female groups emerged onto the scene, notably Sunai Kordofani, Sunai el Nagam and Sunai el Samar who borrowed traits from their Western counterparts . But it was not until the 1970s that a female group took Sudan by storm. Al Balabil (The Nightingales) was formed in 1971 by three Nubian sisters – Amal Talsam, Hadia Talsam and Hayat Talsam – who became the faces of Sudanese popular music for almost two decades. Known as the ‘Sudanese Supremes’, the trio immigrated to the US in 1988 as strict Sharia laws we being imposed in Sudan.
Another famous ‘80s female singer was Hanan Bulu Bulu, who was sometimes referred to as ‘Madonna’ or even ‘Marie Lloyd’ for her provocative stage performances that got her in the bad books of the Islamic fundamentalists. Despite the Madonna references, Hanan Bulu Bulu owes her notoriety to two of her forbearers, Gisma and Nasra, who pioneered a popular sensual wedding performance in the ‘70s known as kashif, which was accompanied by fast drumming and direct lyrics for which they were frequently arrested over.
Meanwhile, Hanan Elneel, a blind singer who was also prominent in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, is best known for her delicate, wistful songs sung to an electronic keyboard. She is considered more mild-mannered than most of her contemporaries.
Contemporary female Sudanese singers have continued in the same vein as their predecessors, finding ways to entertain and educate in a restricted environment. A number of current artists have found it easier to pursue their musical dreams away from home but still remain true to their roots.
A highly regarded artists of the new generation is Rasha Sheikh Eldin whose rendition of Sudanese music has earned her a global following. Rasha was born in 1971 and grew up in the capital Khartoum. She left the country for Cairo, Egypt, in 1991 to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War, and later immigrated to Spain where she released the critically acclaimed debut album Sudaniyat – rated by British musician Ian Anderson as one of the 10 best albums of 1997. The album boasts of a rich diversity, ranging from Arabic poetry, sufi music and even a touch of reggae .
Yalla! Khartoum, a project incubated by Goethe-Institut Sudan as a platform for developing the skills of female musicians, gave birth to the 11-member all-girl band Salute Yal Bannot in 2015. In Sudanese Arabic, salute yal bannot means “respect to the girls”. The band consists of seven vocalists and four instrumentalists who play guitar, bass guitar, piano and percussion. The group aims to inspire women to speak up about the issues that affect them .
Also active on the international music scene is Alsarah, a singer, songwriter, bandleader and ethnomusicologist. Born in Khartoum, she relocated to Yemen with her family before moving to the US, finally settling in Brooklyn, New York, where she has been residing since 2004. Alsarah formed the group Alsarah & The Nubatones in 2010 with her sister Nahid and released two full-length albums titled Silt and Manara. In between albums, Alsarah has also worked with Sudanese artist collective Refugee Club Productions on a variety of projects, including the critically acclaimed 2014 Sudanese Civil War documentary Beats of the Antonov  .
Following the emergence of the popular female-led music genre zanig in Sudan’s urban areas in the 2010s, a new crop of female performers have become stars in their own right. Often criticised for being too raucous, zanig music employs zar chants, a ritual that summons the spirits, and involves drumming, dancing and giving offerings, with the performer sometimes entering a trance-like state.
Some of the genre’s biggest names are Aisha Aljabal and Marwa Alduwaliya. A collaboration between DJ Teddy Jam, a Sudanese rapper based in the UAE, and Aisha Al Jabal brought hip hop, Afrobeats and zanig together on the song ‘Malu’.
While zanig uses a range of instruments such as keyboards, saxophones, drums and those of a percussive variety, the more stripped-down version, featuring only vocals and percussion, is arguably the most popular. It is called aghani banat, aghani dalooka, which translates to ‘girls’ songs, drum songs’. Here, a catchy tumtum rhythm accompanies the singing. The dalooka is one of the main percussive instruments used in the genre but other instruments like the dinger (water calabash) and tar (single-headed frame drum) are sometimes also employed. The dalooka is a small goblet-shaped hand drum made from mud.
Aghani banat discusses topics such as marriage, beauty, love and flirtation. Most of the songs are from Sudan’s Golden Era and are often accompanied by a special bridal dance. New lyrics using old rhythms are constantly being recreated tackling current social issues. Regardless of the topic, they are a powerful expressive tool for many women across Sudan. Aghani banat is also played at weddings and during family gatherings and special ceremonies. For a long time, the genre was viewed as inconsequential due to its originators being women, but the songs have now gained popularity and male musicians have built entire careers out of them, such as singer Taha Suleiman. The most popular female singers in aghani banat include Insaf Madani, Nada Algalaa, Mahdiya, Sulafa Elyas and Hiba Elgizouli.
Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has experienced its fair share of civil wars and coups, with six leaders professing different political ideologies serving as heads of state . Amid political instability and the Islamic patriarchy, female artists have endured through instability to showcase Sudan’s rich modern and traditional music traditions.
In 1983, President Jaafar Nimeiry imposed hardline Sharia laws that greatly affected musicians, including female artists. Hanan Bulu Bulu, for example, was physically assaulted by the authorities and thrown out of the Khartoum International Fair in 1986, with her music banned for immoral behaviour. The Sharia law also frustrated Al Balabil, as their provocative undertones landed them in conflict with the authorities .
More recently, in 2018, Sudanese police arrested singer Mona Magdi Salim on charges of indecency after she wore tight trousers and a white, long-sleeved top during an event .
Not surprisingly, following the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Rasha and several musicians returned from exile to celebrate his ousting, and held a New Year’s Eve and Independence Day concert .
The collapse of al-Bashir’s hardline government had offered a glimmer of hope for a more free and vibrant music industry. But this was quickly quashed in October 2021 when army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a coup that removed the country’s transitional government .
On 15 April 2023, Sudan descended into another civil war in a conflict between rival factions of the military government, once more bringing the country’s cultural activities to a halt .
References and citations
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Editing by Peter Choge and Kalin Pashaliev