SUDAN: Ya Dunya - Sharhabil Ahmed
The beloved Sudanese icon gives a masterclass in musical expression with an album that combines soulful vocals and musical fusion
Known affectionately as the King of Sudanese Jazz, Sharhabil Ahmed’s profile in his homeland of Sudan has been high ever since the 1960s, where Ahmed was one of the chief proponents of Western pop, rock, and jazz styles, mixing it successfully with poetic and soulful lyrics. While his albums, of which he has recorded many, are readily available in Sudan, outside the record shops of Khartoum, his work has been much harder to find. Though he has built a reputation for himself across the globe on the world music circuit, especially in places with a large Sudanese diaspora, it was not until relatively recently was his work accessible in the West. Though some readers may be more familiar with German DJ Habibi Funk’s rerelease of his classic 60s and 70s work in a compilation album named after his aforementioned honorific title, it is not the classic songs like Argos Farfish and Zulum Aldunya, as wonderful as they are, that I will be discussing today. Instead, we will be looking at one of the few (perhaps only) studio albums that Ahmed has recorded that is easily accessible for people around the world, his 2017 release Ya Dunya on the New York based record label Noba. Released when Ahmed was 82, the album is a much softer, gentler collection of songs when compared with the ones on the Habibi Funk compilation, but nonetheless it still packs a mighty punch.
“Within his voice you hear the pain and joy, the glories and failures, the regrets and disappointments, as well as the successes that come with having lived a long life, and its that near-indescribable quality within his music on this album that I have come to truly love.”
Ahmed might have ended up as a pioneering fusion musician, but it did not always seem so pre-destined. His father introduced him to both religious Islamic madeeh music, as well as haqeeba music, which was a mainly a cappella genre with some rhythmic drumming accompaniment, though his father was worried that pursuing music might distract a young Ahmed from his studies. However, as a young man, Ahmed went to music institute of Khartoum University to study classical oud music as well as traditional Sudanese music. It was there where he began to fall in love with the guitar, especially as he realised the scales of a guitar could approximate reasonably well the scales used in Sudanese folk music. This is what led him to initial success, and fast forward five decades later it is still where Ahmed remains on safest and most effective ground. The opening track, Jannat Elhub, is a great example of this, with a catchy rhythm and an upbeat tempo, but more than that, it sounds completely joyous. It sounds like someone expressing themselves in a way perfectly suited to them. One of my favourite representations of this is on the title track, Ya Dunya. At about one minute and 10 seconds in, there is an oud lick that seamlessly gets mixed in with a guitar lick, and while I don’t know for sure, it sounds like they’re playing the same notes in harmony, mixing together Ahmed’s two musical loves.
It is also worth noting that, while Ahmed’s voice has mellowed somewhat since his energetic heyday, where his singing on songs like Argos Farfish is, at times reminiscent of singers like James Brown and Chuck Berry, it has nonetheless not deteriorated one bit (unlike some English pop stars I could mention), and he still sings as sweetly as ever. Sure, his voice has changed, but like a fine wine it has only improved in my view, with the rasps and strains audible on some of the more exertive notes adding to the handmade feel of the album, and its these human touches on albums such as this by great musicians that I love. Instead of recording and rerecording to get the vocals perfect on paper, Ahmed is content to leave us with a vocal performance that feels all the more honest due to its cracks and imperfections. Within his voice you hear the pain and joy, the glories and failures, the regrets and disappointments, as well as the successes that come with having lived a long life, and its that near-indescribable quality within his music on this album that I have come to truly love.
He also returns to his roots on this album, featuring two songs that are entirely oud based, named Bulbultain and Hirman, that hark back to the music of Ahmed’s youth, and they’re both utterly fantastic pieces of music. With the inclusion of these songs, here is possibly an element of an old man reflecting back on his youth, but also perhaps a desire to represent a more traditional aspect to Sudanese music to audiences outside of Sudan. It is on these acoustic tracks, with just oud accompaniment that we get to hear Ahmed at his most vulnerable, and though I love the more bombastic tracks with full band accompaniment, its his ability to convey that sincerity through the tone of his voice alone that makes me come back again and again, even though I do not know what he is saying in the lyrics.
This is not a ground-breaking album – the ground was broken long ago by a younger Ahmed and his fellow band members, and Sudanese music has moved on. It is not an album that will make you rethink the way you felt about a particular genre or style. What it is, in fact, is a supremely fun album yet moving album by a grand old master of his craft. Listening to this you can easily envisage in one’s mind’s eye sitting in a shisha bar in Khartoum watching this unassuming elderly gentleman pick up an oud or a guitar and slowly but surely gaining the attention of everyone in the room. On first reflection I found this album to be an exuberant celebration of the Sudanese jazz and rock of the 1960s, but once I listened even deeper, Ahmed’s vocal quality, with its lilting resonance and gentle but forceful power that is rich with expressive emotion is what keeps me hooked.