Friday, February 24, 2012

Mohamed Wardi dies in Khartoum

In the modern history of Sudan, no musical figure stands as tall, or cuts as deep as singer/composer/bandleader and political activist Mohamed Wardi, who died in Khartoum on February 18, 2012. Wardi’s legacy is complex and multifaceted. He famously befriended Louis Armstrong, and helped to introduce jazz and other contemporary influences into Sudan’s national music. In effect, he took the brass bands left behind by British and Turkish interlopers and taught them to swing, but in a uniquely Sudanese way. Wardi composed over 300 songs, many of them classics, and many of them courageous for their social and political import. Sudanese historian Ahmad Sikainga called Wardi “the largest giant of Sudanese music,” noting that he was detained and jailed for his outspokenness numerous times during the 60s and 70s, and driven into an extended period of exile with the rise of a repressive, Islamist regime in the 1980s. Wardi later returned to Sudan, and news of his death riveted Sudanese everywhere, creating a moment of unity in a profoundly divided nation.

Wardi traces his heritage to the northern Sudanese (and southern Egyptian) kingdom of Nubia. A profound force in this region’s ancient politics and culture, this Nile River kingdom was substantially dispersed and flooded out by the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s. Since that time, Nubian melodies and rhythms have carried a particular poignancy—a nostalgic link to lost African greatness. Wardi sang the traditional melodies of Nubia, and played the oud (lute) and the tambour, a frame drum linked to his own Nubian family lineage. Another legend of Nubian music, the also-late Hamza el Din, once described Wardi as “a monumental composer and singer… a true fountain of inspiration.”

Wardi was born Mohamed Osman Wardi in 1932, on Sawarda, an island in the Nile in the Sudanese north. He began as a teacher, traveling extensively in northern and central Sudan, absorbing a rich variety of local traditions and musical idioms. He moved to Khartoum in 1957, and began singing and recording, quickly acquiring a reputation, in particular for his powerful and mellifluous voice.

Early on, Wardi used his art and fame to denounce oppression and tyranny in Sudan. He was first jailed in 1961, then again for two years in 1973. On the eve of another imprisonment in 1983, he was smuggled out of the country. But his fame only grew. At a 1990 concert at the Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia, Wardi enthralled a huge crowd of Sudanese refugees, estranged from their civil war-torn country. A 1994 concert in Addis Ababa had to be held in a football stadium to accommodate the massive audience.

Wardi’s stature and musical prowess gave him access to the very best Sudanese musicians, an expansive and brilliant ensemble he called The African Birds. In 1999, Wardi brought his musicians to Los Angeles and recorded 18 of his most essential songs under the direction of veteran producer Dawn Elder. This recording has yet to be commercially released, but hopefully, one result of Wardi’s sad passing will be a new impetus to bring this historic recording to the public.

Mourning Mohamed Wardi in Sudan
Describing his band during that 1999 recording session, Wardi said, “These Sudanese musicians and singers have been working in the struggle to bring democracy back to Sudan. They deserve to be shown and written about, because all of them are political refugees. I would like to show the American media, which displays all the wars and the famine and all the difficult things, that there is cultural life, too.”

Wardi finally returned to his beloved homeland in 2003 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Khartoum in 2005 in recognition of his 60-year career, and his status as an immortal of Sudanese art.

You can hear some of Wardi’s music, including a track from the unreleased 1999 session, on Afropop Worldwide’s program, Sudan a Musical History.

- Banning Eyre
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