The Forgotten Sounds of Sudan

Kamal Keila and the music of Muslims and Christians

 

Muslims and Christians by Kamal Keila

Sudan is one of the oldest nations on earth, with a history that goes back to pre-Biblical times. Nubians, Muslims, Christians, Egyptians and the British dominated the area now known as Sudan over the centuries, giving the nation a rich, multicultural history.

After declaring its independence from England in 1956, Sudanese music took on an expansive, outward looking attitude. Jazz, blues, funk and rock came flooding in and were transformed by the nation’s long African and Arabic history into the sound now known as Sudanese Jazz. By the 60s, the nation’s nightlife had exploded, particularly in the capital city of Khartoum.

One of stars of this period of artistic freedom was Kamal Keila, a bandleader and songwriter who mixed the African rhythms of his home in Kassala with the American sounds he was discovering. He sang in English and Arabic, delivering songs that praised religious and personal freedom during some of his nation’s most perilous hours. His career lasted until the 90s, surviving the pressure of oppressive regimes that forced Sudanese music into an underground existence. During his career, Keila only recorded one cassette and one live session for a Sudanese radio station. Now, thanks to Jannis Stuertz and his Habibi Funk label, Keila’s music is finally seeing the light of day.   

Keila’s album is called Muslims and Christians, after the title track. The music has a relaxed pulse that combines the African rhythms of South Sudan with reggae, funk, Afro-beat and jazz. The horn section suggests early R&B and small combo jazz bands, while the electric guitar improvisations move from rippling Congolese excursions to twang heavy accents that borrow from the blues and spaghetti western soundtracks.

“Sudanese jazz is quite different from the Western idea of jazz,” Stuertz says. “It was developed through the integration of musical instruments coming from the West, such as electronic guitars and brass instruments, and the influence of James Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Fela Kuti and others. At its peak, there were around 50 bands playing in numerous clubs. As I investigated the music, Kamal Keila’s name came up.”

Stuertz made a trip to Sudan to track down Keila, spending time with him at his home in Khartoum. “He doesn’t know his exact age, but was born sometime in the early 1940s,” Stuertz says. “His age shows when he’s moving around his house, but he’s full of energy when reminiscing about his music. His career started in the 60s, but he never released a record, apart from one album, which we can’t find a copy of. He can’t remember if he made a cassette. He doesn’t record anymore and rarely performs. If he does, it’s usually as a guest on a song or two for other artists. I think he’s too old to play full shows by himself. 

“Since our interview, we learned he made an album on cassette in the late 1970s, recorded in Libya, but we still have to find a decent copy of it. A lot of Sudanese jazz bands didn’t leave behind any recordings. The number of labels back then was limited and they were not interested in Sudanese jazz. They focused on classic, upper Nile artists like Mohammed Wardi.”

After a brief period of artistic and political freedom, there was an Islamist revolution.

“Some artists could not perform anymore, some went into self-imposed exile and nightlife died down,” he recalls. “Kamal could still record – the sessions on the record are from 1992 – but his music and his clear African references, opposed the idea of Sudan as an majority Arabic culture, contradicting the regime’s core ideas. He was not jailed, but did not get the opportunities other Sudanese artists of the time received. But again, it’s not a black and white situation. The regime invited him to perform after the signing of the peace treaty ending the civil war with South Sudan but, after the show, some members of the Sudanese delegation came to him and told him he didn’t represent Sudan.”

The tapes that make up Muslims and Christians were made at a radio station in Khartoum. State controlled stations were forbidden from playing albums made by Sudanese labels, so they made their own recordings of popular bands. They never gave the bands a copy of the tapes, to keep them from putting it out their own. “Keila had tapes of two sessions and kept those studio reels all these years,” Stuertz says. “You can hear the influence of Ethiopia, references to Fela, American funk, soul and reggae. When I looked through his record collection, more then half of them were Jamaican records. His English lyrics are political, preaching for the unity of Sudan, peace between Muslims and Christians and singing about the fate of war orphans. We recorded them digitally, cleaned up the sound and re-mastered them. Keila’s memory is a bit blurry, so we don’t have anecdotes or detailed stories like we sometimes have for other releases.”

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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