When I call Sufyan Ali, it’s 10 p.m. in Texas and Friday morning in Sudan. Ali lives in Khartoum, where—in addition to being an acclaimed beatmaker—he’s a professional dentist. The weekend means one thing for Ali, who produces under the name Sufyvn: “Just chilling and making music,” he tells me via Skype. With his new EP, Ascension, Sufyvn takes another step in his creative evolution. When his first album, Pseudarhythm Vol. 1, popped up on Bandcamp in 2013, the Kuwait-born musician gained notoriety—earning nods from OkayAfrica and VICE’s dance music site THUMP for his unique blend of American hip-hop and traditional Sudanese music, presented through intricate and subtle sampling.
While the Ascension EP is Sufyvn’s fifth release, he says it’s the first where he’s truly felt comfortable creating the music he wants. Ascension feels boundless, from the Ali-created oud sample on “Dusted,” to the airy, Madlib-inspired haze of “Whispers.” When I ask Ali about the promotion of his music, Donald Trump’s Muslim ban arises. The producer says he isn’t fazed—Sudan has been under similar sanctions for 20 years. The difference is that the tone is more explicit now.
We spoke with Ali about the Sudanese music scene, growing up in Kuwait as an MTV fan, and how he balances dentistry and music composition.
You’ve put out a few records already, but I feel this is the first one that people in the U.S. are actively anticipating.
Yes, I think so. Especially after my last EP, Pseudarhythm Vol. 2, received some good attention from around the world. People were actively anticipating new music for the past year.
Does that affect the way you approach songwriting at all?
No, not at all. It just makes me more careful. This new EP reflects the type of sound I’ve been trying to make for at least the past three years. I’m finally getting comfortable with it.
What was missing before? What sort of thing eluded you before that you’re now able to capture?
I have no idea. I don’t think it’s any technical aspect of the music making. Rather, it’s a general feel. Before this, I was so concerned about the tracks sounding a certain way, and sometimes I would have an idea about a song, but I would fail to put it on paper. Or, I would make something too simple. It was frustrating at times. I was afraid of experimenting with it, and I was afraid of embracing the sounds I could naturally come up with. But for the past six months, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with my sound. I sat down with a local percussionist and tried to learn from him, just so I could understand the basics of Sudanese drumming, and then apply it to the music.
I have to avoid approaching it like I’m making music that is both Sudanese and modern. If I do that, my mind automatically assumes one sort of idea, and I don’t want that. The generic first thing I come up with, I don’t want to do that. I want to hit it from a certain angle so I can justify the two genres together in my own way, and keep it interesting. And that’s how you develop a signature sound.
Part of the reason your music is gaining traction in America—at least part of it—is because it’s such “new”-sounding music. Is anyone else in Sudan or in neighboring areas creating music like this?
There are a lot of musicians here, and Sudanese-sampled music was always there, but in very small numbers. I’m not the first to do it at all, I’m just the first to put out projects fully dedicated to sampling Sudanese [traditional music]. But as far as neighboring countries, there are a lot of musicians doing that. Ethiopia has a good electronic scene and very good musicians.
Is there a big music scene in Sudan?
If we’re talking about music in general, the music scene here is just like any other scene. But if we are talking about hip-hop or electronic, then the scene is still relatively small—because of many factors, like hip-hop’s unpopularity among the average listener here, or how music that’s labeled ‘western’ will never be taken seriously when it’s performed by a local musician. It’s very confusing at times. When it comes to clubs and live shows, the scene is more acoustic-oriented. There’s a lot of reggae and jazz, but it’s not big. When I do live shows here, it’s either me just deejaying, or me just playing a half-hour set focused on the Sudanese side of the beats so people can relate to it. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.
You were born in Kuwait before moving to Sudan for school. When you were growing up, how much access did you have to the music that currently inspires you?
Access to hip-hop back in the day was only through TV. Back in high school, I only had dial-up internet. I didn’t know any hip-hop musicians other than the mainstream rappers. The likes of OutKast and Eminem, really. At the same time, I was listening to every genre. I didn’t limit myself. I’d see a video from a certain band, and I would go to the store that sold cassettes. I went there every weekend and would ask the clerk, ‘Do you have so and so record?’ He would ask me, ‘How do you know these guys? These are some weird names!’ It’s just MTV and music magazines, man. That’s how I found out about everything. My friends and I would trade CDs and cassettes.
When did you start writing songs and making beats?
The beat making is very recent; I started around 2010. Before that, I always played instruments. I had a Casio keyboard at home and I played the accordion. I used to play for the sake of playing.
What producers did you look up to when you first started?
It was mostly Dr. Dre and J Dilla. It’s important to note that I didn’t know much about underground hip-hop. People like J Dilla and RZA, DJ Premier, I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t know who made the beats. I didn’t even know that sampling was a thing! I thought people would bring in bands to play the beats [laughs]. Later, I learned about the MPC and was like, ‘A-ha!’ After that I started getting exposed to more musicians.
When you first started making beats, how long did it take before you started incorporating traditional Sudanese music into your sound?
It was a natural thing, really. If you make music—if you sample—you’re going to automatically want to take music from your home country. It’s inevitable. What really encouraged me is the producer Onra. He’s French, but he basically samples Asian music. He released two volumes and is about to release the third. He’s so good at it. I heard it and was like, ‘Okay, I have to do this.’ I released my first record four years ago. It’s just a seven-track EP. So far, all of my releases have been EPs. I haven’t done any albums yet.
The album you’re releasing later this year is a full-length, yes?
Yeah, that will be a full-length.
Are you at all surprised by the way people have responded to your music? You seem to have a pretty big following.
I’m not really surprised, because it was a very slow process—baby steps for the past five or six years. It didn’t happen overnight. When I released my first record, Pseudarhythm Vol. 1, there wasn’t much attention at all. Locally and in the Middle East it was successful, and it spread because it was new—people were like, ‘What the hell is this?’ But after Volume 1, I released an electronic hip-hop project titled K E R M A and it doesn’t have a lot of Sudanese influence in it. It’s mostly just electronic beats influenced by the L.A. beat scene, and I started gaining momentum after that. When I put out Pseudarhythm Vol. 2 last year, it really brought me some attention.
Were you still in dental school when that came out?
No, I graduated from dental school in 2011. That was before I released anything.
You were working at a dental office, right?
I still do. I work at a private clinic.
Are you planning on continuing down that path or would you like to focus full-time on music?
I really want to do both. But I’m slowly learning that it will be impossible to do both at the same time. It’s already started getting tougher. At first, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem—being a dentist and a musician. But even now—and I’m not even touring or traveling—the responsibility is too much. I can feel it. I need to spend more time with my music. Five to six hours a day won’t cut it anymore. And the more I grow musically, the more demanding the music-making process will get, so I think I will have to decide at some point. But who knows.
How did you get into dentistry?
I was always a science kid. When I finished high school, I did well and had a good GPA. I actually wanted to study medicine. Over here, you study in a STEM field—medicine, engineering, otherwise you won’t even find a job or make any income. And even that is questionable at times. These are the only trades from which you can make a living. Even then, the salaries aren’t enough to support yourself, even for doctors. There was no way around it. At first, I wanted to study medicine. But when I first came to Sudan, I thought about it again, and I decided medicine might not be the way for me. So I went with dentistry, which isn’t any easier, but it’s been cool so far. And less demanding than medicine.
What sort of new music are you into these days?
A lot of electronic music and hip-hop. ScHoolboy Q’s last record was amazing. Of course there’s Flying Lotus. I’m really hoping for a new release this year. There’s Thundercat’s latest project. Generally, anything Brainfeeder-related I’m about. Even the new musicians, a guy liked Iglooghost, he’s a crazy—just crazy—electronic beat maker. He released an EP called Chinese Nu Year a year or so ago, so I’m really looking forward to his full album. Also, Sinkane just released a new project. It’s called Life & Livin’ It. amazing project. I highly recommend it.
He’s the best. How do you know him?
I came into contact with him a few years ago online. I haven’t met him in person but we’ve been talking a lot online—Facebook and stuff. We want to collaborate in the future, for sure. Maybe a few tracks here and there.
Does living in Sudan affect the way you make music?
Not at all, but there are subtle things that can affect me. I travel to Kuwait a lot, by the way. I move back and forth between Kuwait and Sudan. Every time I’m in Kuwait I can’t make music if my life depended on it. I would make music, of course, but it’s just not as good. It’s probably because I’m used to making music in my home in Sudan. Living in Sudan doesn’t affect my music making, or the music itself, but it does affect the technical side of music promotion, for example. Like not being able to sell my music online. Because of the American sanctions—the political shit—I can’t open a Paypal account or a credit card. I can’t press vinyl because shipping would be very tricky.
The ban is really horrifying to millions of people living here.
The ban is unfortunate, but to be honest, nothing is new. The sanctions have been going for the past 20 years. When the [immigration] ban happened, people weren’t surprised. When we heard Trump banned Sudan, we were all like, ‘Oh yeah, of course.’ It’s nothing new. They can’t hit us with anything that’s surprising at this point. The whole political thing has already affected the average Sudanese person. And to be honest, it isn’t a big deal to me at this point. Nothing really changes. But I’m concerned about my friends who are green card holders and Sudanese-Americans. I have a friend who applied to a university in the United States and got accepted. But his student visa was rejected because of the ban.
What do people in Sudan think of our president?
We just look at him like the rest of the world does. We already have our own version of a meme for a government, so it’s kind of sad, in a funny way, to see other countries have the same struggle we’re going through [laughs]. I hope it turns out to be better in the long run for you and your fellow American citizens and you survive this nightmare. I hope it only lasts four years and it just ends there. At least you have the option—it’s four years or eight years maximum. Over here, we had to put up with this guy for the past 21 years and we can’t do anything about it.
You seem to deal with it with a sense of humor.
Because it is ironic if you ask me. Like I said, as far as the policies around the world, people like me in places like Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, or even Egypt, nothing is surprising. You can’t hit me with something I haven’t seen as far as foreign policies. The Muslim ban is unfortunate and I feel awful about it, but I’m not surprised.
What do you hope people understand about you and your music after listening to the Ascension EP?
The most important thing is for people to avoid putting a label on it. I don’t want people to put it in a box or think about genre. I mean you can do that, but take it easy. As you may have noticed, there are a lot of different BPMs, rhythms, and genres on the record. So I’m not trying to think of that. I just want people to listen to the music. I don’t want to use this word, but it’s experimental. So listen and have your own interpretation.