When Noori and his Dorpa band released their profound album, Beja Power, in June 2022 via the internationally acclaimed Ostinato Records, I was an instant fan. I played the album over and over, mesmerized by the hypnotic melodies, so clearly of eastern Sudanese origin, rooted in the traditional Beja scales. And yet, it sounded so modern and dreamy in its delivery and interpretations: pentatonic in structure, these scales can be found under different names and manifestations along the Red Sea area. In the track “Jabana,” we can hear an improvisation on a traditional Beja scale, clearly related to the Tiztah scale in Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as Sudan’s folkloric landscape. The ancient melodies became new again in the hands of Noori and his band, reminding the listener of the power of his nation that was absorbed into another through the course of history. I was struck by how rarely I am allowed to hear this part of Sudan represented, both locally and internationally, as a result of the hyper-monolithic nature of the sounds exported from the capital city of Khartoum to the rest of the planet—music falsely sold as the only and definitive sound of Sudan.
To best understand Noori’s legacy, you must first know about Sudan. Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has grappled with its identity in the world. Both historically and currently, Sudan is home to hundreds of different ethnic groups with just as many languages and cultures. First brought together by force in the Ottoman period and again under British Colonial rule, Sudan stayed unified with the desire to gain independence and a belief in the doctrine of nationalism sweeping across Africa at that time. Two weeks after its independence, Sudan joined the Arab league. At the same time, Egypt built its historical Aswan High Dam, and Halfa city (Wadi Halfa) in Northern Sudan was flooded, a tragedy in the name of modernization and creating a unified national identity. It was a significant move towards the deliberate Arabization of the region by its newly founded powers, both politically and economically geared towards creating alliances with the Arab world in this freshly independent region—alliances that could come together against the ousted colonial powers that were still fighting for economic control in their former territories.
The echoes of this historical decision are felt most audibly in the tension around cultural representation and “Sudanese authenticity.” In 1969, the school for Music and Drama was established in Khartoum with the goal of formulating Sudanese music into something polished and uniform, while also establishing a TV, radio, and dramatic theater culture. The school’s students graduated to run most public performance centers, as well as most radio and TV stations. A great deal of their programming was geared towards establishing a national identity for Sudan that would unify the whole country under a single umbrella. The standard model adopted for learning, not only for music and drama but for all elementary to high school education, was the Egyptian one. That meant a large orchestra format for musical presentation. This would be “respectable high art,” and everything else would be deemed “folk,” “uneducated,” and “against the movement towards national modernity”—thus by de-facto: "lowbrow" art. The professional musicians union wouldn't accept any traditional or folk instruments or players amongst its ranks, creating a very clear musical hierarchy. The result was a unique orchestral sound that belonged to Khartoum’s middle-class elites, often referred to as a mixolydian sound by local musicians. Radio and TV was presented in standardized Arabic, prohibiting the use of any local languages. At the same time, all development and resources for the country became centralized in Khartoum, creating deep structural imbalances fueled by tribalism and corruption, eventually leading to decades of civil war.
All of that, however, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a diverse array of musical expression in Khartoum all along. Folks poured into Khartoum from every region of the country to gain access to those centralized resources, and brought their music with them, while a newly founded middle class began looking outside of Sudan for more inspiration. Jazz and rock bands began to appear at all the local clubs by the 1970s in Khartoum, and eventually made their way to some of the local radio stations. Wedding singers showcasing their arsenal of traditional songs became local superstars.
By 1989, the national agenda to make Sudan Arab and Muslim took on a violent approach with the arrival of the former dictator Omar El Bashir and his regime. Wars raged in every section of the country outside Khartoum. The arts sector (music, TV, radio, theater, etc.) was heavily censored and even brought to a full stop at certain points. Anything deemed against the values of the regime was banned, and its practitioners had to flee the country for their own safety. The wars continued to rage, and Sudan became isolated from the rest of the world through a series of sanctions enforced by the U.S. in the 1990s.
Currently residing in Khartoum, Noori spoke to me via Whatsapp one late night after he returned home from a gig. We chatted for a few hours as he walked me through his life story. I was extremely curious to learn how he embraced music as a career; an unusual choice for most people, but especially in Sudan during these times.
Born to a Beja family in the late ‘70s, Noori grew up in the eastern city of Port Sudan and loved music from a very young age. His father played the tambor, a five-stringed instrument with a small round belly and triangle shaped neck, at home in the traditional Beja style. Noori learned his first song at the age of 12 by watching his neighbor giving someone a lesson on the oud, a fretless stringed instrument, similar to the lute, that is widely played all around the MENA and East-Africa regions.
“I remember watching through the window as the man went through the song ‘wayn ya nas habib alrouh’ by the composer Ahmed Almustafa…for some reason I don’t remember, they both got up at a certain point to go somewhere and left the oud behind,” Noori told CREEM. “I quickly snuck into the house and started to try and mimic the motions before they returned.” He was hooked after that.
By the age of 14, Noori had begun to design instruments for himself at home, and built a makeshift guitar out of a pot. It looked closer to a mandolin. Refining those designs over the years led him to his current unique instrument of his own design, the “tambo-guitar,” as he dubbed it. Like many of his peers, he didn’t see his home culture reflected in any of his surroundings. It was most apparent to him musically: his father played the tambor in the traditional Beja style in their home; but others didn’t understand his melodic approach. “My neighbors kept saying to me that it was the instrument of the Northern tribes, like the Shawayga and Nubians, so that’s the only way it is played,” Noori explains. “But I said, ‘We play it different.’” By the end of his high school years, Noori had already established himself in the local scene as a distinguished guitar player with a very unique sound. In the early 2000s, he moved to Khartoum and joined the band of the popular singer Faisal Alja’ali, who performed a more typical repertoire now associated with the sound of the center of Sudan, beginning his professional career as a musician.
In 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the government of Sudan and South Sudan People's Defence Forces, then known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (the SPLA), which brought a brief halt to the civil war between the north and the south. Hope was in the air and it finally seemed like Sudan was going to open up to the world again. In that same year, Noori moved to Cairo to play music, and it was his migration there that brought him back to his roots.
“I went to Cairo to play music with a play, and when I got there, a bunch of musicians I knew convinced me to stay and even helped me get a work permit from the musicians union there. I was impressed by the existence of a real infrastructure for music which we didn’t have in Sudan,” he explains. “There were so many venues and artists would come to play from all around the world. I was most impressed by the bands that would come from around Africa…they had all their traditional instruments with them, and they would showcase them on these big stages in these beautiful, well-practiced performances. I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we do that in Sudan? Do we even know enough about ourselves to be able to do that?’"
He returned to his tambo-guitar with a new sense of intention. “I wanted to present our authentic traditions as well as original music.”
However, by 2011, Sudan’s government having failed to meet any of its promises in the agreement, the South of Sudan seceded and became the independent nation of South Sudan. Noori returned home to Khartoum, where a vibrant local music scene with musicians from all over Sudan had emerged. He quickly established himself as one of the most sought-after guitarists. Having his pick, he joined the band of the iconic singer Nada Algalaa, who had secured herself a place as Sudan’s number-one diva. Despite this return to the sounds of central Sudan, Noori never forgot what he wanted to do and started his own project on the side, featuring his self-designed tambo-guitar.
By April 2019, a massive revolt that began outside of Khartoum in protest against the unlivable conditions of daily life swept across the nation, leading to one of the most powerful revolutions in Sudan’s modern history. Noori eagerly lent his art to the revolt and the sit-ins. He used his instrument and music to reflect the voice of the Beja people, alongside other artists and musicians from different parts of the country. His admiration for the youth, especially the hip-hop artists and the visual artists, is palpable through the phone as he described the moment to me: “I would bring my tambo-guitar and an amp and I would plug in and play all day at the sit-ins waiting for the fall of the regime alongside all my country people,” he said. “The youth are so aware, they are better than the generation before them…not afraid to question the system or themselves…not afraid to admit and own their mistakes and make changes…I’m proud I was out there with them.”
A few months later, in July 2019, an agreement was reached to put a transitional government in charge, leading to a fair election. However, that agreement was broken in October of 2021 in a coup d’etat by members of Al Bashir's (Sudan’s dictator from 1989-2019 who was brought down by the revolution) former cabinet, leading to continued protests by the public until today. (Follow the hashtags #keepeyesonsudan #sudancoup for more.)
To better understand Khartoum’s music scene, I spoke to Ahmed Hikmat, founder of Radio Maryud 103FM, an independent and privately funded radio station in Khartoum. Founded in 2021, Hikmat wanted to reflect the diversity of the Sudanese listener and their taste. He described a modern-day “disoriented identity.” (That’s something Noori echoed in our conversations about the representation of Sudanese music and culture at the moment: “The sound of central Khartoum is not an authentic representation of Sudan,” Noori said. “It’s a made up, Arabized version they call our culture.”)
I asked Hikmat about his take on the local scene, and he was excited by its diversity while lamenting its limitations. Despite all the attempts at suppressing music over the past few decades, the local musicians and youth have taken matters into their own hands, creating many varied subcultures of music from rap to Zanig to Hamas songs. He talked of how they are not bothered with approval from the ever-figurative presence of the professional musicians union, which at this point was fully under control of the Sudanese government; many stars of the local Sudanese scenes don’t have any allegiance to the school for Music and Drama that it extends from.
Hikmat described this form of rebellion as part of the life force of these scenes, adding that diverse representation is necessary in order to celebrate all the micro-identities in Sudan’s culture, if we are ever to ensure a healthy national identity that makes room for all of us. In 2022, in Khartoum, there are only a handful of TV and radio stations, and all of them are trying to create work under extreme duress: fiscally, technologically, and the looming presence of censorship. They also try to limit their work to their idea of what the appropriate Sudanese listener would or should want to receive. Radio Maryud stands alone as a station playing a wide and diverse array of music, from Haqiba to rap, with no commercials or political programming.
This spirit of independence and perseverance is a common thread in all the artists coming out of the Sudanese scene, whether inside or outside the nation. Technology has helped bridge many gaps, and has enabled so many musicians and sonic historians to get their message across to the world. That’s how Vik Sohoni of New York’s Ostinato Records stumbled on the works of Noori in the first place. It was in December of 2021, during his third visit to Sudan. “I was on Sudanese TikTok which as you know is a whole other algorithm and predominantly filled with music,” he says. “You learn after years of working on the ground to recognize when something is special immediately, and that’s how I felt about Noori’s band.”
Ostinato Records is no stranger to the sounds of the Red Sea region in general, from Djibouti to Sudan, they have gathered material and worked with local artists for many years. However, for Sohoni, Sudan has always held a special depth of diversity unlike anything else. He’s passionate when he describes the depth and rawness of musicianship in the country, especially the sounds coming from outside of Khartoum, saying he would need to start a whole other label to be able to do justice to the amount of music there.
The success of bands like Noori leaves one hoping that this is perhaps only the beginning of more to come from Sudan’s rich and diverse music scene, a community that has missed its rightful place in the international music world for too long. And it is musicians like him, who, in his words, “hope to try and complete the picture of Sudan’s music.” He continues: “And I don’t just want to represent music of the East, I want to bring our music from the West and the North with me, too.” He’s on the right path.
Alsarah is a Sudanese singer/songwriter/producer/ethnomusicologist based in Brooklyn. She was voted most likely to get caught smoking with your grandma. You can find out more about her here.