A blog about arts and societies around the world

Mustafa al Sunni: Songs of the Sudan

Mustafa al Sunni is a Sudanese folk musician. In 1999 was released Songs of the Sudan, his only album to date. Let’s go back in time and revisit this unique gem.

One thing in life that I love, it’s chance encounters. Whether it’s with a person, a place or a piece of music.

I haven’t got the slightest idea of how I’ve come across Mustafa al Sunni. Just another chance encounter…

Sunni’s an oud player from the Blue Nile. He could be compared to other oud aficionados of the region such as Hamza el Din or Muhamed el Amin – two of my favourite musicians. These guys play the oud like no others. Their strumming technique is closer to that of the guitar – far from the lute’s Arabic origins.

sunni_photoThe same could actually be said about another of my personal favourites: the Tuareg maestro Baly Othmani (South Algeria) who handles the oud like, well, a Tuareg.

These musicians have borrowed techniques or instruments from other parts of the world. But make no mistake, these foreign elements don’t alter the true nature of their sound: it’s local without doubt.

This is something fascinating about music for that matter. Music travels but it keeps getting reshaped along the way, according to regional customs.

Oh and in case you didn’t know, the oud comes from Mesopotamia – currently Iraq. Its oldest pictorial representation dates back to over 5000 years ago. It was introduced to Europe in the 8th century AD following the Moors’ invasion of Spain. No cutting-edge technology here.

But let’s go back to the subject.

Songs of the Sudan is a pretty straightforward album. Sunni’s on the vocal and oud duties while Abd al Hafiz Karar provides triple-headed bongo drums.

The songs derive from three popular music traditions.

Songs_sudan_coverThe Sudanese folk (“turath”) are inherited songs that have been passed down from previous generations. They’re usually sung during rituals and ceremonies such as marriages.

“Aghani al banat” songs praise the courage and prowess of menfolk in hunting and battle. They traditionally belonged to the women repertoire but are nowadays performed by men and women alike – a proof of the recent change in musical forms.

Last but not least, so-called classical music of the Sudan (“hagiba”) represents the latest batch of music fashion. These songs were composed roughly from 1910-1950 and recorded for radio broadcast later on. Musicians and poets put words to traditional melodies, a practice still on-going today.

Sunni’s sweet voice is clearly the main asset of the album. His lyrical take on love and longing, common themes in Sudan and across the whole Sahara, gives a very emotional dimension to his singing. This also reflects the modern condition of many Sudanese exiles – including his.

His ability to perform various repertoires is admired in his country. Sunni stays faithful to a simple acoustic act though. He doesn’t give in to poppy electronics or complex arrangements that had become popular at the time of the recording.

Fans of Middle Eastern sound and East African folk, Songs of the Sudan should definitely find a place in your collection.

Not convinced yet? Turn up the volume and listen to Al Itshitit:

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