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Revolution and music: women singing out in Sudan by Katarzyna Grabska and Azza Ahmed A. Aziz

With the attention to Sudanese women musicians actively participating in the current uprising in Sudan, this article reflects on the history of women’s involvement in music and how their performances have acquired political claims over time.

Music in times of revolution

The ongoing revolution in Sudan started with mass protests in December 2018 (see last week’s BLISS blog), led to the overthrow of Omar El Bashir in April 2019, and to a massacre orchestrated by the Transitional Military Council on the 3rd of June, 2019. These unprecedented peaceful protests had opened up a space for the amalgamation of creative productivity in Sudan and across the diaspora, including music. Young people and women have been portrayed as being at the forefront of the resistance. The images of women demonstrating on the streets, singing, drawing and making art on the streets have flooded the social media.  However, this is a hyperbolic depiction of their actual number supported by the fact that this level of participation by them was unanticipated. The revolution has been seized by diverse women as a space to make claims for greater freedoms and liberties, including contributions to nation-building projects. Yet, these acts of citizenship (see Isin and Nielsen 2008) are highly gendered and take place within the constraints of patriarchal norms (Azza Ahmed. A. Aziz).

Music has always occupied a significant role in the multiple cultural expressions of the Sudanese nation. In the current uprising, it created a space to enact resistance and  narratives of belonging. Women amateur singers as well as professional musicians in the diaspora and in Sudan have become key voices in the message of the revolution from the streets and visibilising the political claims that are being made.

In Sudan, since the coming to power of Omar El Bashir and the Islamists in 1989, the music scene has been deeply affected. Many musicians were curtailed, went into exile, and the once popular music spots in Khartoum where Sudanese jazz and popular music could be heard were banned. It was also combined with the demise of once famous music institutions in the capital. The Sudanese government’s centralisation of power under the banner of an Islamised identity was established, and this ultimately  imposed  specific  gender codes that were legally consolidated  through The Public Order Law of 1996 that established strict rules for women’s dress code and public appearance. This measure limited the public spaces where women artists could perform both in Khartoum and throughout Sudan. Despite this, women’s political and patriotic claims within songs were not silenced.

For example, an all-female music group Salute Yal Banoot, who since its foundation in 2014, has been contributing to dismantling some of the obstacles (other examples include female members of the mixed Igd Al Jalad group, Nancy Ajaj, Al Balabil, etc). These women had to navigate arbitrary refusals by the government to allow them to perform in public on stage. Salute Yal Banoot have also been actively involved in the uprising. They dedicated their performance in Kuwait in March 2019 to those who had  lost their lives in the protests. On their facebook website, they stated that resistance could take different forms, one being music, and the need to embrace the collective of being Sudanese. They use the slogan of John Garang, the late leader of South Sudan, quoting him: ‘SUDANISM embraces all that is African, Arabian, Islamic and Christian. It encompasses religion, race and culture and expresses them as a unique identity. Thus, it is inherently irreconcilable with sectarianism of any kind.’ Here, their music and creative practice merge with the political potentialities of the nation that they enact through the diversity of the composition of their own music group.

To understand the musical role of women visible on the Sudanese scene in the current context, we need to situate it within the wider history of women as the producers of music in general and their performance of political songs in particular.

Historical take on women and music

Historically, women have had a significant place in musical production in Sudan according to different genres that have existed: hamassah (encouraging men to go to war: for example, Mihaira bint Aboud who encouraged the Sudanese to fight against the Turko- Egyptian occupation and who is evoked during the current revolution as a voice for women to emulate), sirah (songs for men at their weddings en route to the bride’s home, manaha (bereavement songs)  and as hakamats’ songs (existing in Western Sudan encouraging men to go to war). Hence, there has been a continuum of women using music to enact gendered citizenship and the current uprising is another expression of such political actions.

The history of women’s eruption onto the Sudanese music scene was not always smooth. The first public rhythms used by women were characterized by 3 beats on the daluka (a clay drum with a leather covering) and they were known as the tumtum.  They were the province of ex-slave females working in local alcohol haunts that were deemed disreputable. Eventually they became a source of emancipation for ex-slave women (ghanaya) within the urban centres of Sudan. They came to express the life experiences of working class women during the 1930s and 1940s. These rhythms became part of female wedding universes and they were equally sung by free-born female artists.

Given the popularity of the genre it was gradually appropriated by men and modified. The establishment of Radio Omdurman in 1941 made this genre intrinsic to Sudanese popular music (see also Saadia I. Malik 2003). A notable singer of this genre was Asha Al Falatiya. Asha managed to access a men’s world by shifting to the use of an orchestra. Part of her credibility as an artist was contained in the fact that she penetrated men’s world’s through her recordings that were diffused on Radio/TV Omdurman. Her political stand was well visible in a nationalistic song about defending the nation against heavy artillery external attacks where she enjoins Mussolini to  wage war in Sudan’s defense in order to circumvent  the duplicity of Hitler. This was a time when women’s feminism was still subject to penetrating mens’ political and economic worlds.

In the 1970s, certain forms of women’s singing were institutionalized and the penetration of women on the music scene was the product of liberalization and market forces. Eventually women started singing on television and the approbation of the official media elevated the profession of women singers. Their access to public stage, however, dwindled with sharia law and 1996 public order law.

The political momentum of the current uprising gave women musicians more opportunities to take risks and  re-enter more visibly the public stage in Sudan. This gives us a sense of the ongoing transformations of gender norms and gender relations more widely.

This article is part of a series on Creative Development. The first part dealing with art in the Sudanese revolution can be found here.

Image Credit: Salute Yal Bannot

PHOTO-2019-08-08-11-57-49Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz lives between Khartoum and London.  She holds a Ph.D in Social Anthropology, with a special focus on Medical Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research focuses on cultural understandings of health and well-being. She has been following the unfolding upraising in Khartoum since December 2018 and has been documenting the everyday protest practices, focusing specifically on the artistic expressions. She is also a co-researcher with Kasia Grabska in the ISS-funded project on creative practice, mobilities and in development in Sudan. 

Kasia Grabska_

Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.