The Tanabra have made a comeback after 100 years. A decline in Sudanese taste in music?


Beaded Stringed Instrument, played throughout Sudan. Public Domain, Photo: credit: ksblack99. Wikimedia commons. Fair use.

This piece was first published by Raseef22, an Arabic media platform, on January 5, 2023, and was written by Mughira Harbiyeh. An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

When Omdurman opened a new vista towards modernity and civilization in 1919, the founders of contemporary Sudanese music, composer and singer Hajj Sorour and poet Ibrahim Al-Abadi, took an action that would permanently alter the map of Sudanese music and its destiny.

They banished the Tanabra, an ethnic group with iconic music, from Omdurman when the Tanabra revolted against them. The group came from the countryside and deserts and dominated the traditional music scene.  

A century after this historic exile, in the aftermath of the December Revolution, and at a confusing time when Sudanese yearned for the restoration of civil life in all of its refined and cultural expressions, such as nights at the theatre, movies, poetry readings, and singing, the Tanabra reappeared, capturing the capital from every angle while wearing typical Bedouin garb: a Levantine turban and a waistcoat over multicolored clothing.

This time, they returned with a modest 5-string rababa and a restrained dry rhythm.

Their melodies capture the anguish of love, deprivation, and nostalgia, as well as Bedouin and equestrian traditions. Conveyed by a poetic lyrical text that only has one weeping dimension, is closed to all other dimensions, and forbids alternative interpretative readings, in contrast to Sudanese music, which profoundly nourished the consciousness from the revolution to new realism, the romantic era, up until the age of coding. 

The Tanabra are presently in high demand for musical events in and around the city, such as weddings and graduations. Both public transportation and cellphones play their music. This coincides with a noticeable scarcity of contemporary artists and serious music creation to fill the void left by the departure of Sudan's renowned musicians, as well as tribal mobilisation in the aftermath of the army coup.

A musical craze driven by nostalgia

Musician Walid Youssef told Raseef 22 that this phenomenon is driven by a disparity between the productive desert and consuming cities, a severe lack of infrastructure and essential services, and the displacement of desert dwellers to urban areas.

This results in the inflation and swelling of the cities, as well as the rise of shantytowns, poverty belts, and haphazard building on the outskirts of cities and possibly in their centres, in return for the decline and fading of deserted rural communities.

“Rural migration resulted in poor integration of rural immigrants into their new urban surroundings, retention of their authentic rural customs, the rise of outrageous social behaviors and expressions, and the proliferation of traditional rural festivities in the city centre,” Youssef continues.

He highlights the revival of the once dying Albutan tradition, which resurfaced dramatically with the return of rababa music. It is a tradition in which naked young men beat each other with whips during celebrations amidst the ululation of women, to demonstrate the Bedouin virtues of masculinity, patience, stamina, and courage.

“What transpired is closer to nostalgia,” art critic Siraj El-Din Mustafa told Raseef22, “with the return of the Haqibi style followed by rababa singing.” He adds: “The return to the old style can be interpreted in many ways, the most important being that modern Sudanese music, or what is known as the ‘Omdurman’ style, failed to provide a lyrical discourse that flirts with all moods and meets all tastes, and was confined only to the people of the city and ignored the margins.”

Mostafa believes that technological advancements have resulted in a revolution against modern music, and that the current popularity of rababa music may be viewed as a clash between the margins and the centre. “It is an old and recurring battle,” he claims, “that demonstrates all governing regimes’ lack of interest in the margins, in terms of life services or even at the level of media organisations operating in a constrained region.”

He feels that rababa music has found a vast and boundless platform to reach everyone and establish itself as a lyrical style worthy of consideration as a result of the social media revolution, which infiltrated and disrupted traditional ideas, causing a change in attitudes.

Tanbara music is not used in the tribal mobilisation taking place in Sudan, according to Mustafa, since “these young men only sing to their beloved.”

However, author Muhammad Dahab Tablo confirms that the popularity of rababa music is a political phenomenon deliberately designed to attract music producers to this genre. Most of this musical style's simplistic supporters see no political wrong in the actions of Khartoum's revolutionaries, who are looking for a political incubator after committing apostasy.

These common people were, in Tablo's opinion, the first victims of systematic marginalisation carried out by the Khartoum administration for more than 50 years. “The coup's architects are working hard to appeal to racial bonds [the tribe] and pique rural communities’ enthusiasm in order to foster an alternative and favorable perception of military tyranny. They generously support the creation of rababa music so that it might be promoted in the streets,” he continues. Tablo contends that, if this expenditure took place under the umbrella of a civil state, it would be a ray of hope for the prosperity of regional cultures that make up a multicultural country under the protection of equal citizenship.

Latent lives

“I am delighted that country songs have infiltrated Khartoum,” says modernist poet Abd Al-latif Hassan, confirming his preference for Tanbara music. “Sudan is a large country with many great cultures and arts. It also includes whole and authentic lives that were born and died in silence with no one paying attention to them,” he told Raseef22.

“Great talents have gone unnoticed, haven't been given enough space to express their creativity, and haven't even had their work acknowledged because it didn't satisfy the criteria set by city dwellers, who have different ideas about what constitutes art, who deserves it, and who doesn't,” he said.

Hassan argues that those who live in rural areas and the desert have long been forced by authority to conduct their lives according to specific expectations and models and are unable to rebel against, reject, or transcend them.

“Only a few people were aware of the magnificent songs and poems that arose in the meadows. They passed them around to express their passion for life and to warm their souls. The songs bear the anguish of their beguiled hearts and the loss of their beloved; this music is normally kept between them, with no one knowing,” he added.

Hassan continues: “Now, everyone is aware of it. Only a few people become offended by it because they don't enjoy having the ground torn out from under them or having their rigid, arbitrary standards of knowledge and taste in art undermined.”

Enjoy some of the sounds that Sudanese music has to offer.


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