Sep 27, 2018

Sampler: Two Niles to Sing a Melody

Ostinato presents "Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan", a superb Afro compilation released on 3xLP Gatefold with 20-page booklet & 2xCD Bookcase with 32-page booklet ... In Sudan, the political and cultural are inseparable.

In 1989, a coup brought a hardline religious government to power. Music was violently condemned. Many musicians and artists were persecuted, tortured, forced to flee into exile — and even murdered, ending one of the most beloved music eras in all of Africa and largely denying Sudan's gifted instrumentalists, singers, and poets, from strutting their creative heritage on the global stage.

What came before in a special era that protected and promoted the arts was one of the richest music scenes anywhere in the world. Although Sudanese styles are endlessly diverse, this compilation celebrates the golden sound of the capital, Khartoum. Each chapter of the cosmopolitan city's tumultuous musical story is covered through 16 tracks: from the hypnotic violin and accordion-driven orchestral music of the 1970s that captured the ears and hearts of Africa and the Arabic-speaking world, to the synthesizer and drum machine music of the 1980s, and the music produced in exile in the 1990s. The deep kicks of tum tum and Nubian rhythms keep the sound infectious.

Sudan of old had music everywhere: roving sound systems and ubiquitous bands and orchestras kept Khartoum's sharply dressed youth on their feet. Live music was integral to cultural life, producing a catalog of concert recordings. In small arenas and large outdoor venues, musical royalty of the day built Khartoum's reputation as ground zero for innovation and technique that inspired a continent.

Musicians in Ethiopia and Somalia frequently point to Sudan's biggest golden era stars as idols. Mention Mohammed Wardi — a legendary Sudanese singer and activist akin to Fela Kuti in stature and impact in his music and politics — and they often look to the heavens. A popular story is of one man from Mali who walked for three months across the Sahel to Sudan because the father of the woman he wanted to marry would only allow it if he got him a signed cassette from Wardi himself. Saied Khalifa is said to be the one of the few singers to make Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie smile.

Such is the stature of Sudanese singers and the reputation of Sudanese music, particularly in the "Sudanic Belt," a cultural zone that stretches from Djibouti all the way west to Mauritania, covering much of the Sahara and the Sahel, lands where Sudanese artists are household names and Sudanese poems are regularly used as lyrics until today to produce the latest hits. Sudanese cassettes often sold more in Cameroon and Nigeria than at home.

But years of anti-music sentiment have made recordings in Sudan difficult to source. Ostinato's team traveled to Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Egypt in search of the timeless cultural artifacts that hold the story of one of Africa's most mesmerizing cultures. That these cassette tape and vinyl recordings were mainly found in Sudan's neighbors is a testament to Sudanese music's widespread appeal.

With our Sudanese partner and co-compiler Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel, a once famous poet and actress in '70s Khartoum, Ostinato's fifth album, following our Grammy-nominated "Sweet As Broken Dates," revives the enchanting harmonies, haunting melodies, and relentless rhythms of Sudan's brightest years, fully restored, remastered and packaged luxuriously in a triple LP gatefold and double CD bookcase to match the regal repute of Sudanese music. A 20,000-word liner note booklet gives voice to the singers silenced by an oppressive regime.

Take a sail down the Blue and White Nile as they pass through Khartoum, carrying with them an ancient history and a never-ending stream of poems and songs. It takes two Niles to sing a melody.


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Ostinato Recordsʹ latest release, "Two Niles to Sing a Melody", is not only a collection of sixteen songs from the peak period of the country’s popular music era, the 1970s, it also contains fascinating first-hand accounts from a variety of musicians who survived the purges during the subsequent clampdown on popular culture.

The contemporary history of Sudan is as fraught and complicated as any other post-colonial African nation, if not more so for having had three colonial masters before independence: the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and finally the British. This chaotic background has left a permanent mark on the social and cultural structure of the country and arguably caused the split into North and South Sudan. It also laid the groundwork for the country’s first coup in 1969 led by Colonel Gafaar Muhammad an-Nimeiry.

Charismatic and smart Nimeiry understood he had to win the hearts of his people to hold onto power. He actively encouraged the development of a popular music scene that would appeal to the masses. With the assistance of the Chinese and North Korean governments, theatres were built and musicians trained.

The music these new performers were creating didn’t just grow out of thin air. Sudan had a tradition of popular music dating back to the 1930s. However, the period under the rule of Nimeiry was when the music of the country flourished, especially in the new capital of Khartoum. According to accounts by people who lived there at the time, music was all-pervasive.

Political Islam gains the upper hand

Unfortunately this period of cultural activity was short-lived. With the emergence of extremist militant groups in the Islamic world, Nimeiry began catering increasingly to their intolerant views. In the end even the introduction of legislation censoring music lyrics was not enough to keep him in power. He was overthrown in a coup in 1986 that ultimately resulted in Sudan’s current leader, Omar Al Bashir, coming to power in 1989.

Musicians had begun to leave the country during the early 80s when Nimeiry was trying to hold onto power by appeasing hard-line elements. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the government began aggressively targeting music and musicians.

While restrictions during the 80s had been bad, limiting what they could sing about and where they could perform, the new laws were even more restrictive. Unless songs glorified the new regime or demonised the people of South Sudan, they were banned. Musicians were arrested and tortured for daring to step out of line and the trickle of exiles turned into a flood.

Documenting a legacy

Listening to Two Niles to Sing A Melody released by Ostinato Records, youʹll find yourself transported back into Sudanʹs music heyday. Most of the 16 songs were taken from recordings originally made in the 1970s in Khartoum. Unfortunately even the best restoration programmes in the world can’t make up for deficiencies in recordings from fifty years ago. However, the occasional wince at a distorted voice doesn’t prevent us from appreciating the quality and diversity of the sound these amazing musicians produced.

As the title of the album suggests, strings and synthesizers played major roles in the music, creating lush melodies for a singer’s voice to rise above. The percussion and rhythms of the songs are probably the first thing you’ll notice, however. Take the song which opens the recording. "Al Bareedo Ana" (The One I Love) by Emad Eldin Youssef. It opens with an infectious drum beat of such throbbing intensity, you can just imagine people throwing themselves onto the dancefloor.

Then the melody starts to play over the top, with strings and electric instruments creating their own waves of invigorating sound. With Youssef’s voice soaring above it all the cornucopia of music is almost overwhelming in its intensity. If you imagine yourself jammed into a hall with others, however, celebrating a wedding or simply enjoying the moment, youʹll find yourself beginning to revel in the song.

A celebration of resilience
Listening to the music on the album, youʹll pick up on influences ranging from Bollywood inflections to traditional sounds from the Arab world.

The former is especially noticeable in female singers like Hanan Bulubulu’s "Alamy Wa Shagiya" (My Pain and Suffering) and Samira Dunia’s "Galbi La Tahwa Tani" (My Heart, Don’t Fall in Love Again) whose voices soar over their accompanying music like birds in flight.

Two Niles to Sing A Melody (the title refers to the two Nile rivers, The Blue and the White, which surround Khartoum) is a valuable historical record of a vital musical scene whose influence spread across Africa and the Arab world.

To this day recordings of the musicians on this album are still some of the most sought after in the Gulf states. As music begins to make a comeback in Sudan, this compilation represents more than merely an historical document.

The nights in Khartoum are starting to come alive again with the sounds of musicians. Full bands, like those heard on this album are playing at weddings again – music wafts onto the streets from various events. Some of the music is being performed by voices from the 70s, but a new generation has taken up the torch as well. Let this album introduce you to the joys of Sudanese music and celebrate its resiliency.

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While the output of Ostinato Records is still small, through the guiding hand of founder Vik Sohonie the Grammy-nominated label has already unveiled a deeply researched wealth of enlightenment succinctly described by the endeavor’s mission statement: “Afrophone stories from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean.” Previously, they’ve delved into the sounds of Haiti, Cape Verde and Somalia, and in 2018 have continued to travel, with the excellent new compilation Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan Ostinato’s second release to focus on the country of the title. Available as a 3LP gatefold on 140-gram wax with a 20-page booklet and as a 2CD bookcase with 36-page booklet, it’s out now.

Ostinato isn’t one of those late-arriving cash-in-hand labels poised to simply scoop up and platter the results of others’ diligence while reclining back as the modest profits and larger plaudits roll in. No, the label’s driving force Vik Sohonie is a true world traveler holding the passion of a fan, the curiosity of an archivist, and the desire to share what he’s uncovered. To an extent, Ostinato reminds me of a cross between John Storm Roberts’ Original Music label and the info-rich approach of Smithsonian-Folkways, or more appropriate to the current moment, Atlanta GA’s Dust-to-Digital.

If you want to not just hear the music of various global cultures but understand its context, Ostinato is a still young but reliably solid resource, and Two Niles to Sing a Melody only deepens this circumstance. It documents the era in Sudan prior to the violent coup of 1989, a fertile period described by the collection’s co-compiler, Sudanese poet and actress Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel as “a time for culture, writers, artists, sculptors, fine arts, the musicians, and the people in the theater.”

It was time under the rule of Gafaar Muhammad Nimeiry, who seized power in 1969. He instigated a long period of support for the arts, though it was a political maneuver that as hardline Islamists established a foothold in the mainstream, was also ended by Nimeiry; in 1983 he imposed Sharia Law in Sudan with matters only worsening after Omar Al Bashir took power in 1989 (a coup removed Nimeiry three years before).

The compilation begins with “Al Bareedo Ana (The One I Love)” by Emad Youssef (as with prior Ostinato releases, the titles are helpfully translated into English, which can, though obviously only partially, offer insight into the emotional thrust of the music’s power). While the name of this compilation highlights violins and synths, the focus here is on rhythm, guitar, accordions (or accordion-like instrumentation), and Youssef’s sturdy, expressive vocals.

It’s in Abdel El Aziz Al Mubarak’s “Ma Kunta Aarif Yarait (I Wish I Had Known)” that the strings emerge in a big way, and with a tangible Asian influence, specifically of North Korea, as the country’s investment in Sudan during this period was substantial. This doesn’t diminish the vitality of the sounds heard in this track and across the comp, to the contrary broadening it, as one won’t likely mistake the contents for any other archival release, African or otherwise.

Kamal Tarbas’s “Min Ozzalna Seebak Seeb (Forget Those that Divide Us)” combines the strings and accordions with wind instrumentation and a palpable groove (the bass is a treat), though it’s worth noting that Two Niles to Sing a Melody’s wares aren’t especially funky (or jazzy a la neighboring Ethiopia). Instead, the orchestral string lilt of Madjzoub Ounsa’s “Arraid Arraid Ya Ahal (Love, Love Family)” offers an atmosphere reminiscent of pop, though in the (shared) inclination to stretch out, another groove does take hold.

Fluid and up-tempo rhythmic intensity increases in Khojali Osman’s wah-guitar-tinged “Malo Law Safeetna Inta (What if You Resolve What’s Between Us?)” as the crisp strings and robust vocalizing remain. But as the selections unwind there is crucial diversity, with Zaidan Ibrahim’s singing in the live track “Ma Hammak Azabna (You Don’t Care About My Suffering)” somewhat smoother than his contemporaries, and Saied Khalifa’s “Igd Allooli (The Pearl Necklace)” offering enjoyable exchanges with backup vocalists plus an abundance of handclaps (always a good thing).

Taj Makki’s “Ma Aarfeen Nagool Shino! (We Don’t Know What to Say!)” kicks up some hand-drumming dust as the strings swirl (with more of that Asian flavor) and a sweet muted trumpet enters the scene late. With Hunan Bulu Bulu’s live cut “Alamy Wa Shagiya (My Pain and Suffering)” a strong female lead voice enters the comp’s portraiture, and it’s easily one of Two Niles’s standouts.
If one is wondering where the synths are in the equation, they emerge in Abdelmoniem Ekhaldi’s “Droob A Shoag (Paths to Love),” though it’s important to relate that the electronic keyboard-ish textures don’t bring a transition as much as added flavor to the overall scheme. It’s also not a constant element; with Samira Dunia’s “Galbi La Tahwa Tani (My Heart, Don’t Fall in Love Again)” the spotlight lands on another superb woman singer as the synths subside (but those violins, they do stick around).

The only artist to land two tracks on this release is Mohammed Wardi, and with good reason, as he’s cited as attaining a level of popularity comparable to Fela Kuti, though he doesn’t sound like the wizard of Afrobeat. No, Wardi’s “Al Sourah (The Photo)” and the set’s finale “Al Mursal (The Messenger)” are very much in league with what precedes it here, but with the string-sections a bit more full-bodied, the drumming a little deeper in the pocket, and the assured vocals backing up his stature as the tracks’ durations are the longest of the collection, nearing and eclipsing ten minutes respectively.

With Mustafa Modawi & Ibrahim El Hassan’s “Al Wilaid Al Daif (The Youth Who Came as a Guest)” the synths return in a big way, and then enlarge their presence in Ibrahim El Kashif’s composition “Elhabeeb Wain? (Where is My Sweetheart?).” It’s the only non-vocal entry on the set and at under two minutes in length, in comparison to the longer tracks it kinda impacts the ear like a fragment.

But it’s a damn fine short take that’s unlike anything else on Two Niles to Sing a Melody, and it helps to elevate the whole into another unreserved success for Ostinato. The notes in the booklet are exquisite, including numerous interviews with the surviving participants, and for anyone with an interest in the historical retrieval and highlighting of global sounds, this one’s pretty much mandatory.

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