Noureddine Jaber, a musician with a unique half-guitar half-drum instrument, gives voice to long-marginalized eastern communities in Sudan through a new album.
Originally from the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea, Jaber belongs to the Beja people, a group of nomadic herders and herders with unique languages, culture, food and music.
They have borne the brunt of disenfranchisement, especially under President Omar al-Bashir who was ousted in 2019.
But the title of his debut album, which will be released later in June, conveys a different message: “Beja Power”.
During Bashir’s three decades of rule, non-Arab groups complained that his government allowed Arab culture to dominate, giving little representation to the country’s many ethnic minorities.
Also known as ‘Noori’, Jaber grew up devouring the rich heritage of distinct melodies of the Beja people whose roots go back millennia.
Although he first formed his group in 2006, it was only in recent months that he was able to record his first album, at the age of 47.
“Beja music is the window to the struggles of its people,” said Jaber, who called his six-member band “Dorpa,” which means “the mountain band” in Bedawit, a Beja language.
“The Beja have long been marginalized and we try to convey their voice through music.”
Although their region is a maritime trade hub known for its lush fertile fields and rich gold mines, it is also one of the poorest regions in Sudan, itself one of the most poor of the world.
In a studio in Omdurman, the capital’s twin city Khartoum, Jaber leads his band during rehearsals, producing a smooth, tapping sound somewhat akin to jazz.
“Let’s play ‘Saagama’,” Jaber told his bandmates: a bassist, saxophonist, rhythm guitarist, bongo player and conga drummer.
In his hand he holds his unique “tambo guitar”, an instrument he fashioned from a guitar neck and his father’s vintage tamboura, a type of lyre played in East Africa.
Jaber’s invention is engraved with small seashells and a map of Africa.
“Very Special Rhythm”
“Saagama”, which means migration in Bedawit, is one of the most evocative tracks on the album, inspired by the ancient melodies of eastern Sudan.
Unlike him, the rest of the group hails from different parts of the ethnically diverse Sudan.
They say it took them years to learn the scales and keys of Beja music, traditionally played on drums and tamboura.
“I never went to eastern Sudan. I only learned music from Noori,” conga player Mohamed Abdelazim told AFP.
“The way they play drums in the east is different, very distinct. It has its own very special rhythm.”
According to Jaber, the under-representation of the Beja in Sudanese culture partly explains why many do not recognize their music.
Under Bashir, he told AFP, “the rule was that Arab culture prevailed while other African ethnicities faded”.
Beja musicians regularly faced restrictions, with authorities often interrupting their performances.
“It could be for anything, lack of permits or because the audience was mixed groups” of men and women together, unlike those of the Arab performers, Jaber said.
Abdelhalim Adam, the band’s bassist, is from the Folani ethnic group in the Darfur region, at the other end of the country in western Sudan.
For him, joining the group was particularly meaningful.
“The struggle of the Beja is similar to that of our tribes in North Darfur,” Adam said. “They are also marginalized.”
Darfur has been wracked by civil war that began in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against Bashir’s Arab-dominated government, which freed Janjawid militia accused of atrocities.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have since been displaced.
The Beja also rebelled against Bashir’s government for over a decade. Communities in the east then joined nationwide calls for his ouster during protests that began in 2018.
A glimmer of hope has shone after the overthrow of Bashir and the installation of a fragile transition to civilian rule that is committed to ending marginalization in Sudan.
But even then, the Beja tribes complained of marginalization.
Last year, they blockaded the main seaport of Port Sudan shortly before a military coup led by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan upended Sudan’s transition.
As the Beja tribes continue to call for broader representation, Jaber has focused on music as a way to highlight the struggles of his people.
“It’s an effective way for our story to travel and get the world’s attention,” he says. And it is also a way of “preserving our heritage”.