Kamal Keila’s “Muslims and Christians” Offers a Rare Glimpse Into 1990s Sudanese Jazz

Kemal Kelia

Had Jannis Stuertz listened to the moldy reels of audiotape just once before digitizing them, the recorded music of Kamal Keila—who is often referred to as Sudan’s James Brown, and one of the godfathers of a nearly forgotten strain of Sudanese jazz—might have been lost forever.

Though Stuertz didn’t know it when he first laid eyes on them, the tape reels contained Kamal Keila’s Muslims and Christians, one of the only recorded Sudanese jazz albums in existence. Built on the synthesis of early American rock ‘n’ roll and traditional Sudanese rhythms, instrumentation, and arrangements, Sudanese jazz is an entirely unique and unequivocally African musical innovation. Despite its name, the genre bears little sonic resemblance to what we typically call “jazz” in the West. Rather, the music that poured out of clubs in Omdurman and Khartoum throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s, was closer to what it might sound like if Fela Kuti covered a Bill Haley song for the soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino film. Timely blasts of horns are reminiscent of funk; guitar strings bent to their breaking point evoke the blues; familiar and foreign rhythms blur into a versatile groove that’s sometimes reggae, sometimes rock, and always addictive, drenched in the joie de vivre of earnest originality. And yet, in between the notes lies something that makes Sudanese jazz incomparable to any other genre of music: its content and very existence are evidence of the complex social and cultural history in Sudan.

Sudanese jazz captured not only a moment, but a movement—one whose art has remained missing from the Western musical record, and whose ethos has been largely exempted from Western representations of the country. Neither would have come to light had Stuertz not been extremely careful.

As the owner and operator of Habibi Funk Records—a German label that specializes in reissuing Arabic music from the ‘70s and ‘80s—Stuertz had seen his share of ancient and decaying recordings. But the tapes Kamal Keila gave him after he’d traveled to Sudan were in particularly bad shape. “They were literally the worst looking reels I’ve ever had,” Stuertz says. “You could see that they had gotten really wet. There were water stains. There was mold.”

The reels had been unceremoniously presented to Stuertz in a plastic bag, inside of a modest home on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum. Keila, now in his late 80s (or possibly 90s—no one, himself included, is entirely certain of his age), has lived there with his family for roughly four decades. Stuffed into the bag along with the reels were CDs and cassettes, denuded of their sleeves and showing the same scars of age and water damage as the precious tapes. In Keila’s yard, abandoned pigeon cages—once used for breeding and training the birds—told a story similar to the one contained in the bag in Stuertz’s hands: both were shadows of Keila’s past, separated from the present by a patina of desert dust.

Having been told by his Sudanese contacts that Kamal Keila was a key part of the country’s elusive musical history, Stuertz rushed back to Germany to digitize the tapes. Rather than giving the reels a curious listen before converting them, the first time he heard the recordings that would become Muslims and Christians was while they were being immortalized as ones and zeros.

This proved extremely lucky. During that initial listen, Stuertz was thrilled at the surprisingly high-quality sound of the moldy tapes. But when he tried to play the original reels a second time, they barely functioned at all. “That first play was the one good play we could get out of them,” he marvels. “So the reels still exist, but when you play them now they sound horrible. Due to the way they were kept, there must have already been some process going on in the tape material, and them being played once fully kicked it off.”

Stuertz narrowly succeeded in preserving a piece of Sudanese cultural history. Had the tapes been too damaged to play, an incredible album would have vanished; but even more importantly, a part of Sudan’s history—that stands in stark contrast to the bloody conflict that defines it in Western media—might have disappeared as well.

Kamal Kelia

After gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1956, the following decades marked a cultural explosion in Sudan. An influx of recorded music from all over the world coupled with the nationalistic afterglow of independence, resulting in an outpouring of music that was entirely Sudanese. It was during this brief period of creative exploration and freedom that Keila started to play music.

Keila was born in Kassala, a small city in the east close to the Eritrean border. In the 1960s, he left his hometown to attend college in Khartoum and it was there that he discovered the music of Sharhabeel Ahmed—arguably the first artist to play Sudanese jazz, and inarguably the most famous practitioner of the genre. Immediately, Keila was hooked. He found himself a band in the neighboring city of Omdurman and began to write and to perform, honing his skills on mandolin, guitar, bongos, camanja, and as a singer. After college, he left the band and Khartoum behind to complete law studies at Cairo University.

When Keila returned from Egypt, he brought a newfound appreciation for his Sudanese identity with him. He began to plumb the history of his country for musical influences, mixing the folk music of the Shilluk, Dinka, and Nuer peoples of southern Sudan with Ahmed’s groundbreaking aesthetic. He met musicians from all over the country, listening intently as they played out their Sudanese heritage on strings or skins, and resolved to blend these disparate influences into his music as well. He believed that if he didn’t, his music couldn’t holistically represent Sudan’s diversity; without the sounds of the country’s less visible cultures, the music wouldn’t be truly Sudanese.

During this formative period, Keila wasn’t living in Khartoum or Omdurman in the north; he was living in Juba, which today is the capital of South Sudan—a country that didn’t exist until this current decade. In 2011, a peace treaty was signed that cleaved Sudan in two: the Muslim north remained Sudan, and the Christian south became South Sudan. But the conflict that divided the country and had already claimed millions of lives wasn’t simply sectarian. Centuries-old cultural ties to the Middle East and to Sub-Saharan Africa, in the north and south respectively, had left Sudan with a bifurcated identity—one part Arab, one part African.

Even in the ’70s, when Keila was playing music with the band he assembled in Juba, the rift between north and south was perilously wide. A civil war that had raged for nearly two decades ended in 1972 when the government in the north agreed to give the south a degree of political autonomy. But the peace was a precarious one at best, and the cultural divide remained deep as ever. In the eyes of many in the northern government and in the Arabic majority, the country was more Middle Eastern than African. Therefore, popular culture in Sudan favored Egyptian or Egyptian-influenced music with lyrics in Arabic, with none of the tribal dancing or rhythms from which Keila drew inspiration. Due to its blend of African influences, Sudanese jazz was rarely played on the radio.

Perhaps as a result of his half-northern Sudanese and half-southern Sudanese ancestry, Keila felt that the popular music of the day represented only a piece of his, and of his country’s, complete identity. He began to write songs about unity, about Sudan as a single entity free of the conflicts that had plagued it for years. He continued to travel through the south, absorbing more and more of the less represented side of Sudan’s cultural heritage as he went.

This is the period during which most of Muslims and Christians was written. Keila’s perspective on the cultural divide is clear in his songs. He supports neither side, instead singing for an unbroken Sudan, one in which “Muslims and Christians / Christians and Muslims / …Sing the song of peace.” By doing this, he was actively pitting his ideals against those of a regime that grew increasingly intolerant of dissent.  

“Kamal Keila put himself in a political position where he was very much arguing in favor of a Sudanese identity that is not necessarily the dominant identity,” says Stuertz. “For someone like Kamal, it was much harder being heard in the established cultural realms. They were much more focused on the classical Arabic sounds.”

The lack of attention Keila received may have been less than ideal for his career, but in a way it allowed him to continue playing. His harmonious perspective was a dangerous stance to take under the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum. And insinuating that Sudan was an African country rather than a Middle Eastern one, even as subtly as by singing a song titled “African Unity,” could have repercussions. To express his message with a modicum of safety, Keila sang his more contentious songs in English so that it was less likely the lyrics would be understood by censors.  

Though his politics and the fact that he often sang in English are likely what kept him from attaining Sharhabeel Ahmed’s level of fame, Keila’s music was having an impact. His reputation spread as both a captivating musician and as a mesmerizing dancer, known for inflecting his performances with funky gyrations of his idol, James Brown. He began to play shows at larger venues, to draw larger crowds, and—like Ahmed before him—to electrify more Sudanese music lovers with a genre that finally felt like it belonged to them. His experiment in reconciling his Sudanese identity through his music was working. And then 1983 happened.

Kemal Kelia

“In ’83 everything was just pulled down,” remembers Yassir Awad, who grew up in Omdurman during the height of the Sudanese Jazz scene and is one of the genre’s rare aficionados. 1983 is the year the temporary autonomy granted to the south was revoked. In place of that autonomy, president Gaafar Nimeiry declared both halves of the country would be governed by Sharia law, under which many aspects of cultural life—for example, attending the bars and clubs in which Sudanese jazz thrived—were prohibited. In the words of Awad, “That was the heart attack of the music.”

The implementation of Sharia law by Nimeiry’s Islamist government was a death knell for the “Golden Age” of Sudanese music. The bars, clubs, and cultural centers that weren’t immediately closed in accordance with the new laws were shuttered six years later when Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power in a political coup and tightened the religious restrictions on Sudan’s culture even further.

“If there’s Sharia, there is no club, my friend…and if there is music, it will be very shy,” Awad explains. “There were some female dancers in Sudan during the ‘70s and ‘80s…But [after Sharia was implemented] these dancers were restricted.” 

The new public order laws made Keila’s position even more perilous. Strangely, it was during this period that he received official recognition from two Sudanese presidents. Both Nimery and al-Bashir took Keila on government-sponsored tours of the country and the continent. The tours were a boon for Keila’s career, and in neighboring African nations he received an even more positive response to his message than in his own conflicted country. But Awad believes that they were more an example of political theater than of a real appreciation for Keila and his message. “It was [done] with a purpose. It was [the government] trying to calm the people,” Awad says.

As political instability reigned, and as tensions between the north and south snowballed toward a second civil war and the partitioning of Sudan, the government in Khartoum attempted to present an image of itself as supporting the idea of a unified nation. “In Sudan, we use music to reflect the current mood of the regime,” says Awad. “[Keila] has many different songs about peace and encouraging people to live as one—no difference between northern and southern [Sudanese].”

Still, as much as the government wanted to appear to share these views, earnest proponents of Keila’s ethos were few and far between. After singing “African Unity,” at a peace rally, Keila was tersely reminded by some in attendance that Sudan is not an African nation, but an Arabic one. Despite the presidential endorsements—honest or not—the new public order laws strangled Keila’s opportunities to perform. And in a country where recorded music is both regulated and extremely rare, this meant a decline in his notoriety and the slow erosion of Sudanese jazz from the country’s musical record.

As the years have passed, and as Sudan and South Sudan continue to reel from internal strife, both the cultural identity presented in Sudanese jazz and the idealistic message of Kamal Keila have faded. “People hear about jazz music,” says Awad, “and [they say], ‘Oh, jazz! Just like Sharhabeel. And who else? Kamal Keila.’ But they don’t know what jazz music is in Sudan or how it came about. They know the names, but not the formation and the sound.”

There’s a possibility that with the release of Muslims and Christians, this will change. But Awad explains that few of the people Keila was singing to will hear his record when it’s finally released. “Here in Sudan, the percentage of people who buy music is not too high. In our culture, to buy music is not regular… people hear music either in ceremonies, or on the radio, or on the TV.” Considering that public order laws continue to restrict many forms of expression, it is unlikely that a radio station in Sudan would feel it was safe to broadcast music with a message like the one contained in Muslims and Christians. But for the Sudanese diaspora, and possibly for the people of South Sudan, having access to Keila’s music for the first time could prove a revelation.

It certainly will be for listeners in the West. Stuertz explains that one of his chief goals in reissuing records on Habibi Funk is to challenge and expand the Western perception of Arabic culture, to show that it’s far more nuanced and diverse than what makes it into mainstream media. “These releases we do,” says Stuertz, “are like a tiny piece of a larger puzzle that shows an alternative side, and that the region’s cultural output—in this case in terms of music—is much more versatile than people in the West typically think.”

Had this particular tiny puzzle piece been lost—as it so nearly was—the picture of Sudan’s musical golden age, of its citizens’ views on conflict, difference, and unity, would never have been complete. That Muslims and Christians survived feels like a small miracle, like desert winds blowing away a layer of dust to reveal some incredible treasure. And in a way it is. But the larger miracle lies in the uncountable albums created by artists the world over whose talent exceeded their notoriety, and in the cultural and historical narratives written into those records, collecting dust and mold and significance as they wait to be found.

-Ben Grenrock

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