Giving power to Sudan’s Beja people through music

A rare album of music typical of this isolated and neglected community sheds light on their traditions and what they hold dear, and invites the world to get to know them.

In the city of Port Sudan along the Red Sea coast, the Beja people, whose ancestry stretches back to the ancient kingdoms of Kush, continue their marginalised lives surrounded by mountains of gold-rich soil. For decades, their calls for political representation and social development have gone unheard by Sudan’s different governments. Now a new album, Beja Power! Electric Soul & Brass from Sudan’s Red Sea Coast by Noori & His Dorpa Band, gives a voice to their struggles. 

As one of the first international releases of Beja music, the album is rare. “Their music is for them, it’s not outside of the Beja region,” says Khartoum-based events organiser Omer Alghali, who co-produced the record. “They play their music for weddings and ceremonies, but nothing has been released to the world.” 

Being isolated from the city and the political scene, “this album is a reflection of all the years that they have been suffering with basic things like electricity and healthcare”, he says. 

Many Sudanese know little about the Beja – nomads who move between the deserts of eastern Sudan and the chain of mountains known as the Red Sea Hills. They speak Arabic but also their own languages, such as Hadendoa. 

5 October 2021: Women from the eastern Beja region in Sudan walk near Port Sudan. (Photograph by Ashraf Shazly/ AFP)

A chance encounter led Ostinato records founder Vik Sohonie to their music. He travelled to Sudan in November 2021, just as the military coup had begun. Having visited previously, he was startled by the burst of creativity and the amount of music and bands emerging from around  the country. “Under Omar al-Bashir, there was an active campaign to suppress a lot of the cultures in Sudan, which is one of the most diverse countries. It’s an absolute wonderland of music,” says Sohonie.

While scrolling through TikTok videos from Sudan, he came across one by an artist he didn’t recognise. “When I heard it, I thought this is astonishing music!” Sohonie says. The ancient history of the music was instantly evident, the melodies sweet and nostalgic. “You can hear and feel that this is Sudan’s experience with sound over thousands of years to become what it is – so hypnotic, beautiful, graceful and just elite.” 

Sohonie immediately sent the video to Alghali, who recognised the artist as Noureddine Atta Al-Mawla Jabar, or Noori. Alghali made the connections for the label, they were sent more videos that blew them away, and then they planned a meeting.

30 March 2022: From left, Danash, Fox, Noori, Gaido, Tariq and Naji performing at the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum. (Photograph by Yasir Elhassan)

Continuing a tradition

Noori’s father was a renowned musician who played a vintage tambour, a traditional four-string guitar popular in the region. “My father, may God have mercy on him, was a port worker in Port Sudan, a place of stress. He was from a poor family. He used to play the tambour at home and we used to listen to him. He made me play,” Noori says.

“Music entered my soul when I was young,” he adds. “I would play my father’s tambour whenever I had the chance. I sat and rehearsed the Beja music as it was imbued with our heritage. Over time, I was able to compose my own music.”

When he was 18 years old, Noori went to Port Sudan’s scrapyards and found a well-preserved guitar neck. He was later gifted his father’s tambour and, using a special technique of welding and tuning, fused the two and created an electrified tambo-guitar. It is one of the only hybrid instruments of its kind.

“Familiar but different” is how Sohonie describes Beja music, referring specifically to the track Qwal, which first grabbed his attention. He was struck by how the melodies conveyed emotions and history. “Qwal transports you right back to the Pharaonic courts of the kingdom of Kush in ancient Egypt,” he explains.

With limited time in Sudan, they had to record swiftly. Time was set aside to rehearse and record, with five days in a studio booked at the musicians’ union in Omdurman. The political situation meant delays because of the threat of bridge closures and internet and phone cuts, and some days they were unable to work.

Noori assembled a diverse band from all over Sudan. They are Naji on tenor saxophone, Gaido on bass, Tariq on guitar, Fox on congas and Danash on tabla. Noori, the bandleader, is the only Beja member.

The idea was to record six diverse tracks, and Sohonie and Alghali undertook a process of listening to many songs and picking certain parts. What they were presented with was chiselled down, arranged and crafted into songs. The last day’s recordings are what ended up on the album.  

7 April 2022: Noori playing his unique tambo-guitar, which he made himself. (Photograph by Janto Djassi)

Reflecting Beja life

The compositions have roots that stretch back hundreds of years, but they have never been interpreted in this way. Each track has a distinct melody, feel, structure and arrangement, and speaks to different aspects of Beja life. For example, coffee ceremonies are important in welcoming guests to their villages, and the track Jabana refers to coffee and their pride in serving it. “For me, it’s not music that I’m listening to but it’s like I smell coffee on it, so it takes you through the feeling of having a cosy setup with someone who’s serving you,” Alghali says.

For Noori, the album is an act of resistance. “The political situation in Sudan has been very bad for a long time. The Beja people have been struggling with poverty and a lack of education and for the past several years we don’t see any progress. We are aiming for peace for all Sudanese.”

The military ousted former president Omar al-Bashir on 11 April 2019, after 26 years of authoritarian power and following months of protests and civil uprisings owing to the economic crisis. The civilian-military power-sharing administration ushered in continues to be unstable, as the 2021 coup proved. 

31 December 2018: A Beja village lies against the backdrop of the mountains of Port Sudan. (Photograph by Eric Lafforgue/ Art in All of Us/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Alghali says “everything exploded and the people raised their voices” after the 2019 coup, but there were no solutions. “What options do you have in the aftermath of the revolution? It was without any strategic planning on who’s going to rule and fix things.”

The new government did not deliver what was promised and conditions worsened through the pandemic. “The Sudanese revolution has happened because of repeated gold looting, injustice, racism, obliteration of identity, hunger, dark governments,” says Noori. “Revolution is the only way for us to have what we dreamt about for many decades.” 

For him, it is important that the world has access to Beja music. “The heritage of eastern Sudan is one of the most beautiful [but] it is marginalised.”

13 March 2013: Beja men dance in front of the Khatmiya mosque at the base of the Taka Mountains in Kassala, Sudan. (Photograph by Eric Lafforgue/ Art in All of Us/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Telling their story

Sohonie says the story of “this incredible community by the Red Sea has just never been told. The world hasn’t really heard about them. There’s an interest in the governments of Sudan to ensure that the Beja people do not have a voice.” 

Successive governments have ignored their calls for access to the mined wealth of their soil. There’s been a systematic effort to marginalise, neglect and silence them, which makes the album “more powerful and the music even sweeter”, says Sohonie. 

Their sound made sense to him because of their location. “All roads didn’t lead to Rome, they led to the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region. I really believe that this region of Africa has been a very, very important centre of the world for a lot longer than Europe has been the centre of the world,” he says.

31 December 2018: Swords form an important part of Beja culture and are often used in traditional ceremonies such as dances at weddings. (Photograph by Eric Lafforgue/ Art in All of Us/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Born in India to a family with strong anti-colonial politics, Sohonie noticed the negative coverage of countries in the Global South while working as a journalist. He founded Ostinato in 2016 as a way to combine his great love of storytelling and music. “I wanted to use music as a way to tell much more truthful stories about countries,” he says. 

The label has released music from Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Cape Verde and Senegal. Its philosophy is about reorienting an understanding of history and deconstructing mainstream narratives about countries previously observed through the lens of war, poverty, famine and disaster, and instead replacing it with beauty and richness through sound.

Sounding like music from another time, Beja Power! is exquisite. Its hypnotic grooves are layered with beautiful sax melodies and electric tambo-guitar. Noori is extremely happy with the album and says he believes it will spread joy among Beja musicians and the people of his village. He only wishes that his mother was alive to hear it. 

The music on the album “symbolises the Beja coastal region, the joy and the folk dances, and it tells about bravery, history and cultural heritage”, he says. 

Ostinato Records releases Beja Power! Electric Soul & Brass from Sudan’s Red Sea Coast on 3 June. 

5 October 2021: Men from the Beja region block the main road of Port Sudan in an act of protest. (Photograph by Ashraf Shazly/ AFP)
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