Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 August 2004
Issue No. 703
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sharhabeel Ahmed: Sudan's king of jazz

Nimble fingers and a velvety voice

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"Napata my love ... I wish I could stop the sandstorm from enveloping you."

So sang Sharhabeel Ahmed in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The words might have seemed prophetic, though Napata -- the ancient Nubian kingdom which in its heyday rivaled Egypt -- is a euphemism for Sudan. It survived as an independent kingdom for many centuries at a time when Egypt was reduced to the status of a distant province of first Rome and then Byzantium.

With a militant Islamist regime in power in Khartoum the glittering, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas of the past are now no more than a memory. The deteriorating economy has simply served to compound the problems faced by performing artists in Sudan.

"There is something about music that brings out the best in people. It touches their hearts and stirs their innermost feelings," Sudan's king of jazz muses. "Yet musicians are often among the least appreciated and most maligned, especially so when their music has a political message, no matter how subtle."

Sharhabeel AhmedSharhabeel Ahmed generates a degree of excitement when he speaks.

"Sudan is synonymous with war and want these days. But not all is gloom and doom," he explains.

War, economic recession and the repressive, anti-art policies of the regime in Sudan have taken their toll on the country's artistic outpouring. But, Sharhabeel insists, Sudan's cultural traditions ensure that music and art, however small the niche that remains open to them, cannot be altogether eradicated. Indeed, he is himself about to dash back to Khartoum to jazz up a wedding party following an electrifying performance of tweeting guitars, throbbing bass and racing falsettos at the Open Air Theatre of the Cairo Opera House.

Band leaders, like Sharhabeel, still find steady work in Sudan, but they face a new set of problems -- a less favourable economic climate and the rise of religious zealotry which frowns on music, dance and the arts in general.

Once upon a time Sharhabeel spent much of his professional career traveling Sudan with his band, going from one performance to the next, living out of suitcases. Now he takes his music to Sudanese audiences scattered around the world. At 70 he maintains a punishing schedule -- composing, performing, recording and traveling.

Sudanese music has over the millennia absorbed many streams and tributaries, fed by musical strands from both east and west. The most important of them, however, emanate from the heart of Africa.

Like other musical traditions in the Horn of Africa, the pentatonic scale of Sudanese music contrasts sharply with the septatonic scale of Arabic music.

Contemporary Sudanese music might be a potpourri of diverse traditions, but it has emerged as a unique blend, with a character all of its own. It is rooted in the madeeh (praising the Prophet Mohamed in song). The genre filled out into something quite irreverent in the 1930s and 1940s when haqiba music, the madeeh 's secular successor, caught on.

Haqiba, a predominantly vocal art in which the musicians accompanying the lead singer use few instruments, spread like wildfire in the urban centres of Sudan. It was the music of weddings, family gatherings and wild impromptu parties.

Haqiba drew inspiration from indigenous Sudanese and other African musical traditions in which backing singers clapped along rhythmically and the audience joined in both song and dance. The lead singer's incantations induced a trance-like experience in which spectators swayed along to the rhythm of the beat.

Sharhabeel Ahmed's music has the quality of a dream, of not quite knowing where you are. His is one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged out of Sudan. His repertoire includes a motley collection of arias, ballads, reggae, jazz and traditional Sudanese songs. Above all, he produces tunes that he feels are fun to play.

"We know we have to keep our audience entertained. We make sure we keep the night fresh, full of surprises and fun," he says.

Composer, band leader, singer, story-teller, painter and illustrator, Sharhabeel Ahmed is many things. But above all he is an entertainer, and that's all he ever wanted to be.

His father was a stern and religious man, but the family did have a phonograph at home. Even though music was frowned upon in the religious household, the family enjoyed the madeeh and even haqiba music.

Sharhabeel says he was influenced as a youngster by Abdul-Karim Karouma, perhaps the most celebrated Sudanese singer of the 1950s. "He had a unique and melodious singing voice," Sharhabeel remembers.

Abdullah Al-Magi was the first Sudanese singer to record his music in Egypt. Others like Karouma and Sarour followed. Omar Al-Banna, too, was one of Sharhabeel's all-time favourites. These musicians traveled regularly to Egypt to record, returning to Sudan with new musical instruments.

It is ironic, he muses, that in the 21st century there is not a single recording studio in Sudan. It is a sad testament to the country's sorry state of affairs.

The situation Sudan finds itself in contrasts sharply with the exuberance and optimism of the 1950s, immediately preceding Sudan's independence from Britain in 1956, a period Sharhabeel remembers as one of artistic and cultural renaissance. He was an impressionable teenager when, at a family wedding, he saw Karouma perform. "He sat on a settee and he promptly produced his riq, or tambourine, which he had bought in Egypt, and performed the new songs he had just recorded in Egypt."

The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s saw the introduction of tonal instruments such as the piano and qanun into Sudanese music. Other percussion and string instruments soon followed -- the violin, accordion, tabla, bongo and oud.

Sharhabeel learned how to play the oud before the guitar. The instrument was incorporated into Sudanese music at a much later date than in other Arab countries.

Sharhabeel mastered the oud and accompanied himself singing Egyptian, Sudanese and even Indian songs. He was good at learning the words of songs, even in languages he did not fully comprehend.

The guitar and brass instruments were introduced into the Sudanese musical repertoire somewhat later. Curiously enough the guitar was introduced from the south. Southern Sudanese musicians learned about the guitar from the neighbouring Congolese. Congolese music, itself heavily influenced by South American and Caribbean sounds, especially Cuban rumbas, left an indelible mark on southern Sudanese music.

Sharhabeel remembers the first time he saw a guitar. It was in Al-Obeid in 1947, and he stood transfixed for 20 minutes as a man, a southern Sudanese, played it. Years later, in Khartoum, he had the opportunity to "touch and feel" the magical instrument.

"I had seen the guitar in Westerns -- cowboys on horses playing the guitar -- but I had never seen the instrument until I met some southern Sudanese musicians who played it. I was fascinated. I wanted to try, and they taught me how to play the guitar. At first I thought it was like the oud, but it isn't."

He received a couple of informal guitar lessons, but it wasn't until several years later that he seriously took up the guitar, along with a host of other instruments -- the saxophone, trombone and trumpet. But it was the electric guitar which touched his heart and hit a nerve.

Born in Omdurman in 1935, Sharhabeel entered the kuttab (Quranic school) at the age of four. He was later sent to Babiker Badri, the first public school in Sudan, and matriculated from Al- Madrassa Al- Abbasiya, another distinguished colonial school.

His father was a truck driver and the family frequently moved from one part of Sudan to another. He grew up in Al- Obeid, capital of Kordofan Province, western Sudan, and eventually enrolled at Khartoum College of Fine Arts where he studied graphic design. After graduation he joined the Ministry of Education as an illustrator of textbooks, a job that gave him ample opportunity to explore his musical capabilities.

Sharhabeel grew up in a tight-knit extended family -- uncles, aunts and cousins galore. His grandfather was born in northern Nigeria and moved to Sudan as a child, but Sharhabeel's father was born in Sudan. The nomadic Fulani people have roamed the savannas of West Africa for millennia though many eventually settled in western Sudan, in Darfur and Kordofan.

"Isn't it amazing how the leader of the band is always the worst musician in it," Zakia Abul- Gassim Abu Bakr, Sharhabeel's wife, chips in. She winks at me, teasing her husband. She was the first woman guitarist in Sudan. An accomplished artist in her own right, Zakia is the daughter of Sharhabeel's maternal uncle. Her mother was also Sharhabeel's paternal aunt. They were family.

"She knows everything about me. She knows me inside out, even more than I know myself," says her husband.

From the start of Sharhabeel's musical journey, says Zakia, the sense of exhilaration was palpable. "He was always inspiring and he encouraged both me and the children to join in his musical life."

Zakia was a kindergarten teacher who became very interested in music. "She sang and played the flute and the oud, but then, like me she became obsessed with the guitar. Indeed, she became the first woman in Sudan to play the guitar professionally," Sharhabeel tells me.

The couple have seven children -- four sons and three daughters, all of them interested in music. Nahed, his eldest daughter, was a professional acrobat and dancer. She has three daughters of her own, whom Sharhabeel fondly calls Al-Balabel, the Nightingales, after the 1960s sister band.

His eldest son, Sherif, works with Sudanese Sounds and his twin passions are the drums and guitar. He has two sons of his own and lives in Khartoum. His second son, Shehab, studied engineering and worked for a while at Khartoum International Airport. However, he abandoned his career for music, moved to the Netherlands and now plays the bass and organ. Sharhabeel's daughter, Shahira often sings with her father's band. Married to a Sudanese of Fulani extraction, she has chosen to live in Egypt with her mother who spends most of the year in Egypt, in the family's Sixth of October apartment.

Ahmed, Mohamed and Noha are also very musical. Noha sings while Ahmed plays the bass and dreams of emigrating to the United States, while Mohamed is studying television production, cinematography and photography.

Economic ruin and political repression have driven many of Sudan's performing artists into exile as the regime in Khartoum created a climate in which artistic talent and creativity are of little, if any, value.

The first time any of his children played with him on stage was when Sherif, playing drums, and Shehab on organ, joined him in Baghdad for a theatre festival in 1988. Sharhabeel and his sons were part of the cast of the musical play Napata My Love, adapted from a novel by Gamal Mohamed Ahmed.

The play has long been banned in Sudan, initially by president Jaafar Al-Numeiri. It revolves around the power struggles and intrigues that surround a weak Napatan king. The high priests for long hold sway, though the play ends with the triumphant breaking of the stranglehold the high priests maintained over political life in the ancient kingdom. The play also contains a love story between a princess and a courtier, the king's praise-singer -- played by Sharhabeel -- who marries the beautiful princess and is crowned king after the demise of the high priests.

Today Sharhabeel sings for the cause of Sudan and for the plight of the people of Sudan. Whether it is in the Roman Theatre, Alexandria, in Asmara to celebrate Eritrean Independence Day or at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Sharhabeel lights up the stage. He has a genius for instrumental combinations and for improvisation. He has a voice capable of conveying deep feeling. He pours out his heart in a stream of gorgeous sounds.

So how did his musical career take off?

Reda Mohamed Othman, the editor of As- Sibyan (The Youngsters), encouraged Sharhabeel to sing professionally. "I remembered him from As-Sibyan days. He always encouraged me to embrace the arts and music. His younger brother was my best friend. They felt that I was talented and they wanted me to sing professionally. 'The Sudanese Broadcasting Corporation is looking for new voices, for new talent,' Reda Mohamed Othman said. 'Why don't you enter the competition?'

"My biggest worry was how not to upset my father, who was interested in Sufism, and was fond of madeeh but felt that music and art distracted me from my studies."

"Reda Mohamed Othman wrote a beautiful poem about our hometown, Al-Obeid, Arous Al- Remal (The Bride of the Sands). I composed the music to his lyrics. It was my first attempt," recalls Sharhabeel.

He drummed up the necessary courage and braced himself for an ordeal. There were 15 judges and they were determined to put Sharhabeel and the other budding artists through the hoops.

"It was a very intimidating experience at first. The judges scrutinised everything, commented on every sound and every word I uttered. Some were academics and musicologists, others were professional singers, poets and composers. Every critic had something to say, a question, a remark. It was very frustrating," he now laughs.

But in the end they selected only eight competitors, and Sharhabeel was among them. There was no looking back. He had a gift of playing by ear and could improvise on traditional themes.

"My father heard me on the radio and said, 'So you've made it.' He didn't say anything more, but I breathed a sigh of relief."

"It was a huge turning point for me," Sharhabeel remembers.

An Italian entrepreneur then "discovered" Sharhabeel. In those days there were two dance halls in Khartoum: St James' and the Gordon Music Hall.

"My best friend at the time was Mario, whose father was Greek and mother southern Sudanese. Mario was a bundle of energy and was talented musically. He liked Farid El-Atrash, and I was very fond of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab," Sharhabeel remembers. Together they frequented the cinema halls of Khartoum and watched Egyptian, Indian and Western films.

One evening, they were introduced to the enigmatic Italian who was looking for new talent. "The Italian wondered if I could sing Island in the Sun. I knew all Harry Bellafonte's songs by heart.

"He said, 'Sing Banana Boat.' I did. His face went bright red with excitement as I sang. 'Very good, excellent.' Then the Italian inquired if I could sing River of No Return. I did. He wanted to know what musical instrument I played. I said that I never played the drums, only congas. The khawaga (white man) was very impressed with my music and singing ability."

It was the enterprising Italian who taught Sharhabeel how to read music. "I trained with the khawaga. He gave me money, shiny ivory trousers, white shoes and socks to match and a red bow tie."

It was the beginning of a very busy period.

"I was still working at the Ministry of Education. In the morning I went to the ministry and clocked out and went straight to the radio station and then I rushed home to have a shower and something to eat, before slipping out again. At 8pm sharp I was at the Gordon Music Hall."

This was a hectic time for Sharhabeel but he remained convinced that music was he way forward, and after a decade of musical apprenticeship Sharhabeel began to find his own voice.

Helwat Al-Ainein (The Girl with the Beautiful Eyes), the first jazz song he composed, was an instant hit in Sudan. Other hits followed: Betgool Moshtag (You Say You're Longing for Me); Haram ya Galbi (What a Pity My Heart); Al-Gammar, (The Full Moon); Lau Taaraf Al- Shoug (If You Only Knew the Meaning of Desire); Al-Bahja (Joy); and Al-Lail Al-Hadi (Peaceful Night), which took Cairo by storm in 1973. His synthesiser-driven renditions of traditional songs brought further success and recognition.

Sharhabeel launched a new genre of Sudanese song, melding jazz vocals with a big band sound, and Sharhabeel and his band became Khartoum's most sought after ensemble. It was a popularity that mushroomed.

"We went to Ethiopia to sing before Emperor Haile Sellasie After Ethiopia we toured East Africa, stopping in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and then on to Tunisia and North Africa."

He has performed in Germany, Chad, Somalia, and Ethiopia "countless times", and in the Arabian Gulf where large communities of Sudanese exiles reside.

It is time to leave, even though he has a zillion other stories to tell. A firm handshake and a smile, and the septuagenarian says good-bye.

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