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uvres musicales soudanaises
Sudanese musical works

The cultural basis of Sudanese Music
A critical perspective

Mohamed Abusabib(1)

In the 1920s three events of historical significance occurred within the literary, musical, and political domains: In 1923 al-Amin Ali Madani launched his seminal literary criticism against the traditional poets of the time who had adopted the classical Arabic form. In May 1922 the nationalist movement was ignited by Ali Abd al-Latif's challenging political article Demands of the Nation, which stunned both the colonial power and the Sudanese leading class and culminated in the 1924 revolution. And in 1926 Mohamed-Ahmad Saroar introduced a new form of song that ushered in a new era in Sudanese music. These three events were clear evidence that the old social structure of the time was giving way to a new social order, and they were symptomatic of a new phase of fundamental cultural change. They also revealed that this change would be both comprehensive and interactive, involving political as well as cultural activities.

From this point in time the elements of modern Sudanese music have developed within the new social, political and intellectual milieux that began to take shape within the urban society of the three towns, Omdurman, Khartoum North, and Khartoum, that together constitute the capital Khartoum.

Historical Overview

With the exception of the Zandi in Southern Sudan and a few other tribes, Sudanese cultures, unlike many in Western Africa, have no long traditions of wood sculpture or mask carving. But the Sudan embraces within its enormous landmass a variety of musical types and styles matched by few countries(2). Nevertheless, there is a pitiful absence of what otherwise should be a rich body of scholarly works on aspects of classification, aesthetic theory, art history, and criticism concerning Sudanese music, including song and dance.

There is an abundance of writings, mostly in journalistic form, that touch on these issues with varying degrees of rigor(3). But there are only two pioneering Sudanese musicologists, al-Fatih al-Tahir and the late Juma Jabir, who have tackled the history of modern Sudanese music in a serious manner and attempted to define its cultural identity(4). In addition to providing valuable documentary material, their two major publications offer important theoretical formulations. Since their perspectives provide the most elaborate discourse on the issue of identity in respect to music, they provide us with the main points of discussion in this essay. An examination of the positions they maintain properly begins with a summary of their shared points of view.

Juma Jabir and al-Fatih al-Tahir agree that both modern and traditional Sudanese music are based on the pentatonic scale. Jabir refers to the views of Mahmoud Ahmed al-Hifni and Subhi Anwar Rashid, Egyptian and Iraqi musical historians respectively, in his discussion of the usage of this scale in Sudan. While al-Hifni traces the harp, which was based on a pentatonic scale, back to the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1600 B.C.), Rashid instead believes that it originated in ancient Babylonian Iraq, and that Greeks and Romans later brought it to Egypt(5). Regardless of which of these two theses is true, Jabir accepts the view that the harp entered Sudan from Egypt, insofar as Sudanese civilisation was then Pharaonic in a Sudanese form, and came to be called either al-tambur or kissar (a Nubian name)(6). Jabir adds that the Sudanese tonal system has ever since been limited to the pentatonic scale even though the music of the Egyptian New Kingdom began to develop upon the diactonic scale(7). Al-Tahir also agrees that the Sudanese pentatonic scale originated in Egypt. He accepts the view of Ivan Mikhailov, a Russian musicologist, that Nubia was culturally Egyptianized during the the period of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, and that this provided the basis for the evolution of the pentatonic system in Nubian music(8).

Jabir and al-Tahir also provide identical accounts of the historical stages that led to the emergence of the first types of modern Sudanese song and music. They both view a major early development to be contact with Arabic-Islamic influence. Al-Tahir maintains that the Arabic language is associated with types of melodies thousands of years old, particularly religious melodies(9). Contact with this tradition led to what Jabir describes as the moderate influences of Arabic-Islamic civilisation.(10) The next major step was the emergence of the dobeit type of song at the end of the nineteenth century. This is a genre for individual male singers that depends primarily on the voice(11). This was followed around 1917 by the appearance of al-tambur song, or tambara, in Omdurman, the largest of the three towns of the capital and the home of many cultural and political movements. This song genre, whose name is not to be confused with al-tambur instrument (both are also pronounced with an n in many dialects), is composed of a particular type of guttural voice sung in chorus and accompanied by clapping. The chorus repeatedly sings these sounds and claps after each vocal by the main singer. Many groups in central and western Sudan have used al-tambara, including the Jammu'iyya (the indigenous inhabitants of Omdurman), the Bederiyya and the Jawama of Kordofan, and the Shaiqiyya. The latter employ it only during the arda dance.

The mid-1920s witnessed the birth of the haqiba song type, which marked the real beginning of modern Sudanese urban song(12). Singers such as Mohamed-Ahmed Saroar and Abd-al-Karim Abdalla (Karoama), the singer and poet Khalil Farah, and the songwriter al-Abbadi were leading figures in its emergence. Two sisters from Kosti town were the first to play the tumtum rhythm in the mid-1930s. The musician Ismail Abdalmuin and the singer Abd al-Mawla Zinqar further developed the tumtum and incorporated it into the mainstream music of the capital(13). As the lute, violin, and other instruments began gaining popularity in the mid-1930s, a growing number of bands came to be formed, particularly after the establishment of Sudan Radio in 1940. This was the next major development in modern urban music, and singers and bands emulating Omdurman song appeared in other large towns(14). The first generation of modern singers, such as Ibrahim al-Kashif, Ahmad al-Mustafa, al-Taj Mustafa, and Osman Husein, laid the foundations of today's popular song types in the 1940s. Al-Kashif is thought to have been the first to organise a band using modern instruments. He is also credited with introducing a style of song in which the refrain is different from the vocal, something that marks a major departure from the simple haqiba form.

Arabic and Afro-Arabic Identities

Jabir and al-Tahir clearly stated what they believed to be the cultural identity of Northern Sudan and, consequently, the cultural basis of Northern Sudanese music. This point is of major significance for our further discussion, in which we will first turn our attention to Jabir.

Musical studies in Sudan will be indebted to Jabir for many years to come for his unprecedented documentary efforts and theoretical formulations(15). Jabir is a straightforward advocate of African-Arabic dualism in respect to Northern Sudanese music. Although he is concerned with technical musical analysis, as well as comparative studies of various musical traditions based on the pentatonic and diactonic scales in Sudan and elsewhere, he defines Sudanese music as Afro-Arabic in nature by virtue of his acceptance of the Arabization thesis that has been presented in Sudanese historiography. He explains his viewpoint as follows:

Sudanese music is characterised by the pentatonic scale and by its Arabic-African particularity. It is of a unique type by virtue of this dualistic identity, being neither Arabic nor African but a combination of both.... Arabic culture in its Sudanese form remains dominant in this combination because Arabism, according to the Prophetic Tradition, is not the race but the language. This dominance is explained by the fact that the vast majority of Sudanese use Arabic as both the official and colloquial language. Their Arabic song is blended with pentatonic music, which is a common factor with songs in languages other than Arabic, particularly among those relatively few Sudanese tribes compared with the majority who speak Arabic. (16)

In regard to the global distribution of the pentatonic scale, Jabir places Sudan within what he terms the general cultural framework of Oriental pentatonic music. This includes the Far East, especially China and Japan, South-East Asia, India, Iran, and the Arabic countries(17). Insofar as he assumes that Arabic culture in Sudan has acquired a Sudanese form, he relates Sudanese music to Arabic culture through the factor of language. He offers this explanation:

The fact that Arabic culture is dominant in its Sudanese form is reflected in Sudanese urban as well as folk music, where intermediate Arabic [a mix of standard and colloquial] prevails in urban song, and colloquial and non-Arabic prevail in traditional song. The general framework of Oriental music is evident in the dominance of vocalization, the richness of melody, and the warmth of rhythms. In pure Sudanese music, both urban and folk, we observe the density of the pentatonic scale alongside the lesser presence of Arabic maqamat [keys], such as al-Bayyati maqam, which is performed under clear pentatonic influence.(18)

Jabir tells us some pages later that the impact of the golden age of Arabic-Islamic music during the Middle Ages did not reach Sudan.... [T]he impact of Arabic music in Sudan is thus felt in Islamic Sufism, where it is blended with African and Arabic rhythms and with Sufi melodies. The latter have been, and still are, pentatonic. (19)

Jabir believes in the notion that Arab migration changed the old African Sudan into an Arabic-African country.(20) He therefore defends his position concerning Arabic-African dualism in Sudanese music by referring to similar positions in respect to literature. For example, Jabir accepts the view of the Sudanese literary critic Abd al-Hadi Siddiq that cultural dualism emerged in Sudan as a result of the country's location between West Africa and the Arabian peninsula. He also agrees with statements of the poet Salah Ahmad Ibrahim that the Sudanese are a mixture of cultures, but no doubt Arabic culture in its Sudanese form is predominant.(21)

Jabir then draws a number of conclusions, three of which clearly summarise his theoretical framework. First, he rejects the description of Sudanese music as purely African in nature because of what he views as the influence of the Arabic language and Islam. He maintains that these two factors are predominant in the Arabic-African dualism since language is the basis of culture and Islam is the basis for the majority of Sudanese traditions.(22) Second, this dualistic Arabic-African pentatonic music is an integral part of Sudanese culture. The Arabic language and the overriding influence of monotheism in religion, literature, and thought jointly determine the identity of this culture. These factors have come together in a natural mixture of Nubian Christian civilization with its old Pharaonic characteristics and Arabic-Islamic civilization. Third, he states that our concern with Arabic music is justified by common musical characteristics that correspond to a common history and traditions based on the co-existence of Islam and Christianity. The Arabic maqamat are not preconditions for this concern. Our concern with African music is also justified by a common history and traditions based on the co-existence of Islam and Christianity, both of which have the objective of eliminating African paganism.(23)

But Jabir's general theoretical orientation is perhaps best revealed through his wholesale acceptance of the foreign, Iraqi origins of al-tambur and in the manner whereby he develops his own assumptions concerning its migration into Sudan. Although he describes al-tambur as the most common and authentic of traditional Sudanese instruments, he accepts the view that it originated in Babylonian Iraq around 2700 B.C., as was mentioned above. He then suggests that the instrument came to Sudan from Iraq either through Egypt and ancient Nubia, or through western Asia, Somalia, and Ethiopia.(24)

Al-Tahir also sought to establish a theoretical framework involving history and culture for his views. However, he chose to build it solely upon a simplistic and Orientalist interpretation of Sudanese history by the Egyptian scholar Abd al-Majid Abdin, whose classification he considers to be the most objective(25). Abdin divides Sudan's history into two general periods. The first, which he describes as a pre-Islamic era of jahiliyya (ignorance), includes the Old and Middle Egyptian Kingdoms, the Napatan, the Meroitic, and the Nubian Christian periods. The second, which he regards as Islamic, includes the Funj, Turkish, Mahdist, Condominium, and independence periods.(26)

Al-Tahir maintains that Sudanese music was Arabized in step with the gradual cultural Arabization of Sudan, which took place under the impact of the Arabic language and the Islamic Sufi Brotherhoods,(27) who employed the local musical traditions of various tribes, particularly those of the towns, in their religious practices. He maintains that this impact is best shown in the haqiba, the first modern song type, insofar as the formal structure and style of the ramya (a brief recited introduction) originate from Sufi religious chants(28). Al-Tahir further examines the mutual influences between the various musical traditions in the region, such as the Arabic, those of nations within the Arabic Khaliphate, and those of Sudanese music and dance, which include both the Nubian pentatonic scale as well as West African traditions carried along by the pilgrimage caravans that crossed Sudan on their way to Arabia. He then arrives at two general conclusions. First, an Arabized music emerged under the influence of the Sufi Brotherhoods, particularly among the agricultural population and the nomads, and also under the influence of the Arabization process, which prevailed in the towns due to the Arab dominance of commercial, administrative, and artisan activities. Second, there are three main categories of Sudanese music, namely, the pure African music of the South, the Arabic music of the Baggara in Western Sudan, and the music of central Sudan.(29)

But al-Tahir reaches a contradictory conclusion only a few pages later. As he discusses the conservative and Orthodox Islamic opposition in the towns to haqiba love songs, he affirms that the latter nevertheless consolidated its musical base in the country. Moreover, he maintains that this is a testimony to the ethnic and cultural mix in the country. Al-Tahir then states that Sudan, despite the Arabic language and Islam, remains an African country and therefore the spread of Islam has been limited in the field of music.(30)

The Identity of Sudanese Music: A Critique

Music is often regarded as a more scientific form of art due to the nature of its medium and the quantitative element in its composition. But as a cultural product it very much has a role in the general discourse and is open to critical judgement. It is thus clearly legitimate to question and critique the positions of both Jabir and al-Tahir. The following points serve to summarize such criticism:

First, their main theses rest on a simple equation that arises from what appears to be a commonsense premise, namely, Northern Sudanese music is Arabic and/or Arabic-African in character because the Northern Sudanese are of Arab and African-Arab stock. They should then have to demonstrate only how each term of this equation supports and reinforces the others. However, both Jabir and al-Tahir soon fell victim to the vagueness of the Arabization thesis that they had so hastily adopted as their master theory. Although they had hypothesized that the presence of Arabic musical elements in traditional and modern Sudanese music is evidence of the ethnic and cultural Arabization of the Northern Sudanese, they were able to advance no further. The reason for their failure is simple: Given the realities of Sudanese music, they were not able to demonstrate that it can be accurately characterized as Arabic music. They thus could not establish a clear link between an Arabized culture or group and an Arabic or Arabized music. Al-Tahir instead leaves us with a confused vacillation between Arabic and Afro-Arabic origins concerning Sudanese music, while Jabir presents us with an unjustified insistence on an Afro-Arabic musical duality.

An irresolvable dilemma is inherent in any attempt to define a Sudanese artistic product under the guidance of a preconceived Arabocentric or Afro-Arabocentric attitude. It simply is not possible to draw correlations with any consistency between given Arabic-Islamic cultural elements and particular artistic qualities either when one delves into greater detail, or when one confronts related elements in the aesthetic and social values and practices of the various Sudanese peoples. Jabir is even led astray by technical analysis of a given piece of Sudanese music, for it is indeed very difficult to say with any real degree of confidence that some particular musical element identifies the work as Arabic or Afro-Arabic in character. Both Jabir and al-Tahir thus fail completely in their efforts to syncretize the supposedly analytic concept of African-Arabic-Islamic and the term unique in order to describe Sudanese music as a development that is neither Arabic nor African in the strict sense. Indeed, the Bayyati maqam, which they say is used by some of the Baqqara tribes, is the only Arabic musical trait that either can identify in Sudanese music. But Jabir technically undermines even this Arabic feature by his assertion that it is used under a pentatonic influence. Al-Tahir also culturally undermines it by his affirmation that Sudan, despite the Arabic language and Islam, remains an African country. It is impossible to support a serious attempt to define Sudan's music as being Arabized or Afro-Arabic in nature upon such unfounded evidence.

Second, al-Tahir puts forward a critical remark in the concluding lines of his book that could make a case for the text as a whole. He writes, if we view things from another angle, we will observe that Sudanese song has depended on the Arabic language and has not been appreciated throughout the country. It is coldly received in the South and is not popular in certain parts of Kordofan, Darfur, and the North.(31) What is usually referred to as modern Sudanese song is a product of the new urban culture, and it can safely be called Omdurman song, which is precisely what many in fact do. This is the urban song of the core culture of the central Nile Valley, which Arabic-speaking Sudanese in towns and urban centres more or less appreciate. But although it is dominated by an Arabocentric attitude by virtue of the composition of the dominant class, it cannot be described as Arabic or even Afro-Arabic. One would have to first turn a blind eye to the cultural, political, and aesthetic dynamics behind the development of this song and rely entirely on the unfounded thesis of Arabization in order to even attempt to characterise this type of song as Arabic or Afro-Arabic.

Third, the immediately preceding methodological point leads us to a promising approach we find in al-Tahir that does not bear directly upon his main thesis. In his historical narrative he occasionally delineates individual incidences and certain social and cultural events that vividly illuminate the circumstances surrounding a particular musical development and give a good picture of the socio-cultural backdrop. This facilitates efforts to reveal the internal dynamics within the emergence of modern Sudanese music in its urban form and provides us with a kind of social history concerning it. If al-Tahir had attentively pursued this approach, he would have given us deep insight into the Sudanese roots of Omdurman song.

Fourth, both al-Tahir and Jabir seem to believe that the Sudanese pentatonic tradition, which is the African term in the identity equation, is relatively dormant whereas the Arabic-Islamic term provides the dynamic impulse for development. Apparently the ethnic and cultural aspects of the immigration theory have insidiously influenced both of them, along with many other Sudanese writers. It is useful to keep in mind that the progress of any culture cannot be sustained without the people's ability to adapt to changing conditions and renew their material and mental resources. And since the continuity of Nubian culture, including its pentatonic traditions, has now been demonstrated, there is support for the position that today's musical traditions in Sudan, which are based on the pentatonic scale, comprise the most recent period in a long historical continuum in which many foreign musical elements and traditions, including any possible Arabic-Islamic influences, have been assimilated.

Fifth, African views are conspicuously absent from al-Tahir's and Jabir's discourses, even though a great amount of literature and sound scholarship are available in regard to African music in general that would certainly have shed light on Sudanese music in particular. Alan Lomax' cantometric studies are a good example of such scholarship. They divide Africa into broad song-style areas within which Sudan is well-placed with a remarkable degree of homogeneity. And discoveries in the social sciences in respect to Sudanese history and culture are simply not taken into consideration in much of what has been written about the cultural basis of Sudanese music and art as a whole. Unfortunately, this seriously undermines many views on the subject, including those of al-Tahir and Jabir, and deprives them of scientific credibility. For example, it is not possible to properly approach topics pertaining to Sudanese history and culture without consulting Sudanese archaeological research, which has contributed the majority of reliable material.

The following statement by Adams illustrates a new way of thinking as well as new perspectives concerning how one should view the cultural history and artistic heritages of Sudan:

Fifty years ago it was popularly believed that many components of native African civilization were of ancient Egyptian origin, and had diffused to the rest of the continent by way of the upper Nile. Kush would of course have been a vital intermediary in this process of cultural transfer. Sayce's famous characterization of Meroe as the Birmingham of Africa' and the centre from which iron working spread to the Nilotic and Bantu peoples is one example of this kind of thinking. Divine kingship, brick architecture and various specific material traits have likewise been attributed to an Egyptian origin, spreading southward and westward by way of Kush and the upper Nile. While these theories find continued expression in some popular works on African history, they have generally been discredited in the recent studies of anthropologists. Current theory holds that such generalized traits as iron working, brick architecture, and divine kingship are much too widely distributed throughout the world to be traced back to any one historical origin.(32)

In the creative act, foreign elements borrowed by the artist are transformed into new entities and acquire new meanings by virtue of being cast into an already established body of artistic traditions. The very fact that a given foreign element, be it Arabic, West African, Islamic, Western, Ethiopian, or Christian in origin, appears in a Sudanese work of art indicates that it has already acquired a degree of aesthetic affinity to the existing fabric of artistic relations in Sudan, and that the artist has consciously selected that element and incorporated it into his own construction. But Arabocentric writers and critics for the most part do not interpret things in this way. When they detect foreign elements and trace them back to their origins, they do not judge them in respect to the new values they have acquired in their new artistic context. On the contrary, such writers have always exhibited a strong tendency to jump to the conclusion that the mere presence of foreign elements must imply some significant degree of ethnic and/or cultural linkage.

Moreover, Arabocentric critics always take the notion of migration for granted, regardless of the fact that they could have selected from many theories in order to identify the genesis of a particular cultural phenomenon. Borrowing, diffusion, migration, invasion, colonization, and what is known as parallel invention are but some of the ways in which cultures come into contact with and cross-fertilise each other. What is perhaps most important is not the ability to export or impose one's own cultural goods, but rather the ability to absorb and digest others' to one's own benefit. This is one important lesson that Sudanese critics should draw from Sudanese history and from the enormous contributions that both archaeological and historical investigations have made, some of which we have already discussed above. For instance, the Nubians repulsed the invading Arabic-Islamic armies in the seventh century, but they gradually adopted the Arabic language and Islam to their own benefit in response to vital spiritual, cultural, and economic needs. In an earlier period the Nubians had come to embrace Christianity instead of their own Meroitic religion. Similar processes have characterised the history and development of Sudanese arts until the present day.

The development of European avant-garde art at the beginning of the last century and its experience of African sculpture helps to illustrate this point. Picasso, to take an easy example, discovered African sculpture and adopted its techniques and styles. Although he almost literally copied certain African sculptures in many of his pieces, Europeans still regard the latter as his own creative work. Such works were in fact deemed, along with those of his colleagues, to constitute new discoveries in modern European painting. They were simply judged to be modern European art, and the African visual elements and techniques they contain were given a modernist aesthetic value. The incorporation of African influences was thus explained in reference to internal developments within European art and culture.

Concerning Sudanese music, it is said that the umkiki, the one-stringed Sudanese fiddle, resembles the Arabic rabab. But is it not possible to look at the matter from another point of view and observe that the Arabic rabab resembles the umkiki, particularly since the latter is so common throughout much of Africa? Is it not plausible that this instrument, and perhaps many others, immigrated to Arabia centuries ago given the continuous contact between Africa and the Arabian peninsula and the presence there of an African element since ancient times?

A useful initial step in properly addressing the enormously rich musical and artistic heritages in Sudan would be to map and index the types and styles of instrumental and vocal music as well as the usage of various instruments in respect to both location and cultural context. This would also be of great value in addressing important cultural questions, including the pivotal question of identity. Also needed are a series of microcosmic studies of certain aspects of the political and social histories of Sudanese music, such as a study of what is referred to as the hoash (courtyard). This is the compound in Omdurman where Sudan Radio, Sudan Television, and the National Theatre are located. It comprises the centre of Sudan's government-controlled mass media, and as such is a major focus of political manipulation by virtue of its role in the projection and consolidation of political power. Such research would promote the application of social science contributions in Sudanese studies to comparative studies of Sudanese music.

1- Dr. Mohamed Abusabib is a Sudanese practising artist and aesthetician. He has taught at the College of Fine and Applied Art, Sudan University of Sciences and Technology, Khartoum, and is currently teaching at the Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University in Sweden. This essay is an extract from the fourth chapter in his study, Art, Politics, and Cultural Identification in Sudan, published last year by Uppsala University.
2- Although hastily organized and limited to easily accessible areas of the country, a good collection of musical instruments was assembled and exhibited during a music and song festival in 1975 in Abujinzeer Exhibition Hall, which no longer exists. This collection was dispersed soon afterwards. The Institute of African and Asian Studies of Khartoum University houses a few samples of musical instruments and recordings of traditional music.
3- The weekly Huna Omdurman (This is Omdurman), established in 1943 and later renamed Majalat al-Idhaa wal-Tilfizyoan (The Journal of Radio & Television), was an important journal specialized on current affairs in music that regularly carried critical comments concerning Sudanese song.
4- Juma Jabir 1988. Al-Musiqa al-Sudaniyya: Tarikh, Turath, Hawiyya, Naqd. Khartoum: Sharikat al-Farabi.; Al-Fatih Al-Tahir 1993. Ana Omdurman: Tarikh al-Musiqa fi al-Sudan. Khartoum: al-Nashir al-Maktabi.
5- Jabir 1988: 238.
6- Ibid.
7- Ibid.: 257.
8- Al-Tahir 1993: 14.
9- Ibid.: 17.
10- Jabir 1988: 240.
11- Al-Tahir 1993: 18.
12- Jabir 1988: 28 29. The name haqiba was coined in the 1950s when Ahmed Mohamed Salih designed a special radio program to broadcast songs of this type.
13- See chapter four in al-Tahir.
14- See Ibid., chapter five.
15- Jabir was Secretary General of the National Sudanese Council of Music as well as Deputy Chairman of the Arabic Council of Music at the Arab League from 1983 to 1987.
16- Jabir 1988: 253.
17- Ibid.: 235 7.
18- Ibid.: 241.
19- Ibid.: 247.
20- Ibid.: 240.
21- Ibid.: 241.
22- Ibid.: 339 340.
23- Ibid.: 341 3.
24- Ibid.: 238, 311 312.
25- Al-Tahir 1993: 13.
26- Ibid.: 13 14.
27- Ibid.: 16 17.
28- Ibid.: 17, 24.
29- Ibid.: 16 17.
30- Ibid.: 35.
31- Ibid.: 122.
32- William Adams 1979. Kush and People of Northeast Africa. In Fritz Hintz (ed.), Africa in Antiquity, The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, p. 10. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.


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