Digging up lost music from Africa's war-torn eastern coast--brilliant sounds from Sudan and Somalia

Dur Dur Band

Dur Dur Band

More than two decades ago I became deeply curious about the music of Sudan after picking up a copy of Mohammed Wardi Live in Addis Ababa--1984 (Rags), a riveting, soulful album by the man who arguably ranks as the greatest modern singer to emerge from the consistently troubled East African nation. The arrangements and his singing reminded me a bit of Ethiopian music, but it was more silken and elegant, it's funky undertones gilded gorgeously by strings, woozy accordion, and saxophones. I was hooked in a big way. I tried in vain to track down earlier music by Wardi, who died in February of 2012. I had heard and adored music by various other Sudanese musicians including Abdel Aziz El Mubarak and Abdel Gadir Salim, who both have cut well-recorded studio album released by labels like Globestyle and World Circuit, but nothing touched the lighter-than-air grace of Wardi. Eventually I was able to track down some vintage sounds on a pair of releases on a tiny America imprint called Blue Nile--whose website is so old it's hosted by Tripod--that, among a handful other titles, issued Wardi's Greatest Hits Vol. 1 1988 and an anthology titled The Golden Era of Sudanese Music Vol. 1, that still seems to be available via CD Baby.

Both of those albums are great, but as I recall their liner notes were scant, if they existed at all (they're currently boxed up in my Chicago storage unit, so I can't check at the moment). But they only sharpened by appetite for more. Alas, little more of that music had surfaced until quite recently. Access to music from Somalia, another war-torn country in East Africa, has been even more confined. As I detailed in a Chicago Reader post in 2012, my first encounter with Somali music came through various mp3 blogs like Likembe and Voice of Africa, but the first group I heard more than a few tunes by was Dur Dur Band. The great Awesome Tapes From Africa label reissued the group's 1987 album Volume 5 six years ago. But last year the fascinating New York imprint Ostinato released a watershed collection of Somali music called Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa, and earlier this year it released a fantastic album of vintage recordings by Sudanese singer Abu Obaida Hassan. In the last month two dazzling releases have made large contributions toward generating new appreciation for pop music from both Sudan and Somalia.

Next week Analog Africa drops a release collecting the first two albums by Dur Dur Band in a single package called Dur Dur of Somalia--Volume 1, Volume 2 & Previously Unreleased Tracks. I wouldn't call Dur Dur my favorite Somali band, but its mixture of funk, reggae, and traditional styles is hard to resist. The liner notes by label boss Samy Reb Redjeb are typically compelling, detailing his difficulties in tracking down the musicians behind a set of tunes he first encountered in the Likembe blog, and then the tapes made by that group, Dur Dur. In the Somali music industry of the early 80s there were routinely about five or six master cassettes produced of an album, which would be source dubs for commercial dubs--which explains why the recordings are a tad murky, with occasional dropouts. Redjeb provides a vivid history of the band that thrived in the years before the country descended into chaos fueled by Islamic fundamentalists. When he finally visited Mogadishu in November of 2016 he was required to shadowed by a security guard armed with a borrowed AK-47. He found several members of the band, who helped him piece together the group's foundations.

Dur Dur was formed by members of other popular Somali groups, including the nation's most successful combo, Waaberi Band, and in 1979 they coalesced with a steady gig at a ritzy hotel, mixing covers of western music with funk. Eventually the group began incorporating regional rhythms. When they finally got around to recording they focused on the groove-heavy sounds featured on this new compilation, with funk stoked by a funk guitars, fat organ, and well-deployed synthesizer licks. The vocals were handled by four different male and female singers--Dur Dur worked with even more vocalists, including the wildly popular and highly skilled Mukhtar Ramadan Idii, but he wasn't featured on these recordings since he specialized in foreign material.

Below you can check out a song from Dur Dur's first album called "Yabaal," a tough funk ripper, sung by Sahra Dawo--it was the record's biggest hit. The label plans two additional volumes of Dur Dur's music in the near future.

As terrific as the Dur Dur reissue is, I've been even more knocked out by Ostinato's Two Niles to Sing a Melody: the Violins & Synths of Sudan. The "synth" in the title gets some misleading prominence, as most of these sixteen knock-out tracks--96 minutes of music spread over two CDs or three lps--revolve around shimmering arrangements dominated by strings, accordion, and horns, situated within seductively percolating Nubian grooves. The set includes exhaustive notes detailing the monstrous political difficulties visited upon post-colonial Sudan, which like so many African nations witnessed a period of hope and national pride turn acrid through corruption and stifling clampdowns by leader's desperate to maintain their grip on power. That initial era, overseen by Gafaar Muhammad Nimeiry beginning in 1969, offered hope amid a surge of patriotism. The army colonel attracted a wealthy, progressive block of supporters and following models like Ghana's Authenticité movement, Nimeiry channeled the influx of foreign investment into the arts to highlight national culture. At the start of the decade the music scene experience an explosion of creativity and visibility, with many singers and bands reinventing the songs and sound of the Haqiba period, which began in Khartoum, in the northern part of the country, during the 1920. Originally the music was built around a lead singer, a vocal choir, and rhythms played on the riq frame drum, with songs focusing on lyrical content more than melody, but in the next decade the instrumentation expanded dramatically, with sophisticated arrangements.

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New theaters opened, the recording industry thrived, and Wardi became a huge star across the entire continent. Yet by the mid-80s optimism for the future soured amid corruption and increasing Islamic fundamentalism. By 1994 one of the country's most popular singers, Khojali Osman, was brazenly knifed to death in the midst of a group of fellow musicians by an extremist named Suleiman Adam Musa. Osman wasn't an opponent of the then-current regime led by Omar Al Bashir, who still rules the country to this day, but the killing was seen as a blunt message that the critical stance of many other musicians would not be brooked.

The notes also include a scholarly assessment of modern Sudanese culture, analysis of the creative environment of the 70s and 80s, and multiple artist profiles. But even without information--meticulously researched and transcribed by producer Vik Sohonie--the music itself proves infectiously dazzling. A cursory introduction spells out similarities between the pentatonic pop of neighboring Ethiopia, but the clopping rhythmic drive is purely of Sudan, as is the soulful call-and-response singing. The anthology features music made between 1970 and the mid-90s--when the titular synths had often replaced the grand orchestras of the earlier era--with selections by most of the country's important artists, including Wardi, Aziz Al Mubarak, Osman, Kamal Tarbas, Hanan Bulu Bulu, and Saeid Kalifa. I can only hope that the label continues this invaluable work to uncover more vintage Sudanese music. I can't help but share two selections, here. "Malo Law Safeetna Inta (What If You Resolve What's Between Us)" by Osman showcases his irresistibly raspy, imploring vocal style over a taut groove that pushes towards funk more than anything else on the compilation, while Wardi's "Al Sourah (The Photo)" glides over a huge, loping groove coated by swooning strings and a needling guitar, and accented by flute and violin filigree--all setting the stage for the singer's otherworldly voice: agile, melismatic, serpentine, and effortlessly soulful.

Today's playlist:

Borusan Quartet, Company (Onyx)

Derek Bailey & Min Xiao-Fen, Flying Dragons (Incus)

Baird Sisters, Until You Find Your Green (Ba Da Bing)

Steve Lacy Quintet, Esteem (Unheard Music Series)

Aki Onda, South of the Border (Important)