I have always played music and knew that it was the thing I would miss most in Sudan if I didn’t bring an instrument with me. A friend in the UK kindly lent me an instrument ‘that didn’t matter’ in case of problems with climate, air cargo damage or any other problems in Sudan. I brought some solo viola music with me because I thought it unlikely that I would find anyone to play with. However, I also had a small hope that I might find people who could teach me Sudanese music. Up until three weeks ago, this seemed to be a wish too far. Then Jonathan, a fellow volunteer based in Atbara, told me about a local band he has joined. Jonathan is a keen amateur jazz player.
Sudanese music is pentatonic-based and has an Arabic flavour, although it is definitely its own genre. There is usually a solo singer, male or female. The songs (like many folk songs around the world) are generally about unhappy love. Sudanese bands tend to consist of an assortment of western instruments, usually rather battered and broken looking. In the Atbara band there are saxophones, electric keyboards, electric guitars, accordions, violins, a flute, clarinet and several drums. Now they have a viola too. The band uses the sol fa system which is vaguely familiar for me, but worse for Jonathan who hasn’t experienced it before as it isn’t used in the US.Only a few members of the band speak any English at all, but music is the most international language of all, so we get on fine without a common spoken language. The players are local people including rickshaw drivers, a bus driver and a tea lady. We have two singers, both excellent. I frequently want to stop just to listen to them. The male singer is a very dignified looking elderly man who wears prayer cap and jelabia (traditional white tunic). He looks so incongruous in the middle of the band, who are mainly quite young. The female singer is a young woman.
We play by ear on the whole although the band leader (Ali) teaches them to use standard notation. Playing by ear is easy for the rest of the band, who have grown up listening to Sudanese folk music, but very difficult for me as the music is still very foreign to me. Sometimes Ali asks me to play something European for the band to improvise an accompaniment to. Trial and error has shown me that British folk music works best. The most successful so far has been the Foggy Foggy Dew. They are all very good at improvising.The band meets three times a week, although I am only able to attend twice a week. Yesterday evening I arrived early and there were only a few other players there. We started to play. Then the band leader arrived. He told me that we were going somewhere else ‘to a dance’. We all packed up and got into Mohammed (a saxophonist)’s bus. Some of the band sang and played the drums on our way. When we arrived, we found a stage and many seats for an audience. It turned out that the ‘dance’ was in fact a wedding celebration. We were shown to a room where we sat and watched Tom and Jerry on TV for a while. Then we went on stage.
To my horror as a complete Sudanese-music-novice, everyone had a microphone right beside their instrument so there was no chance of sinking into anonymity when things got difficult. I was very worried that I would let the band down badly. In fact I managed to keep reasonably well in with the band and made no glaring mistakes, although plenty of minor ‘coverable’ ones.As I have seen on previous similar occasions when I was in the audience, the men sat on one side of the stage, the women on the other. The men got up and came dancing towards our singer and stood swaying and clicking their fingers at him as he sang. Later the women did the same. Towards the end, both men and women were on the floor together. They seemed very happy with the band’s performance.
Afterwards, Mohammed gave me a bus ride all the way to my front door in Ed Damer. He lives locally to me, so he does this regularly after rehearsals too. It was particularly welcome on this occasion as it was so late, I was exhausted and I had an early start for work in the morning.