Last week Ali, the director of the Sudanese band I play with, said that we would be playing at a wedding this Saturday. He went on to say something about an American, which I didn’t understand. He asked me to arrive at our rehearsal room at 9am. I have put this into full sentences, but in fact Ali and I have a massive language barrier which is broken almost entirely by music. Bear in mind that the last time he told me about a band engagement, he casually said we were going to a ‘dance’ which turned out to be a full-on wedding dance. On that occasion, there was no notice and I had turned up expecting our normal rehearsal.
At 11am the rest of the band appeared and we all piled into Mohammed 's bus. We stopped en route for ‘breakfast’ which the men ate in a cafe, while the women sat in the bus to eat (men and women almost always eat separately here). Afterwards we drove to a large building which turned out to be a centre for disabled people. We were welcomed by two gentlemen who spoke very good English. They told us that Ali teaches the children music there. The mystery of Ali’s unintelligible comment about an American was also solved: we were introduced to an American who is based with a charity in Juba (the capital of South Sudan) and is visiting the centre.
We sat in a veranda facing rows of children and teenagers who clearly had learning difficulties of various kinds. There were many women helpers who watched over them and were constantly on the look-out, ready to help them in one way or another. It was lovely to watch children and helpers interact. As we played, our audience came into the space in front of us, clicking their fingers in Sudanese style and beaming with pleasure. As the concert progressed, this happened more and more. Then towards the end, members of the band started to get up and circulate among the children, playing as they went. It was a lovely experience, and much more fun than a wedding. As an ex-special needs administrator, I had wondered about provision for children with serious special needs in Sudan. Now I know that, at least in the Atbara area, it is well taken care of.
On the way back, the bus dropped off a lot of the instruments at Ali's house. Up until then I hadn't realised that many band-members don't own their own instruments and rely on being able to borrow. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the instruments are all in a very battered state. Jonathan tells me that some of the keys on his borrowed saxophone need elastic bands to make them playable. Reeds are made to last for many months, and sometimes repaired. I have seen a violin g-string, which had been knotted where it had broken previously. The nearest musical supply shop is in Khartoum, four hours away, which causes 'make do and mend' to be an essential skill for musicians here, even if they have the money.
The photos in this post are from one of our rehearsals, not today's event.