For more than five months now, the news from Sudan has been dominated by the bloody conflict which broke out in April 2023, with at least 5,000 deaths so far, and millions displaced within the country and across the region.
Among those who fled Sudan are some of the country’s most accomplished artists who have found refuge in Kenya and are using their skills to raise awareness about the situation back home.
“Regardless of the dire situation, art always facilitates diplomacy. That is what connects people and has helped us to network and connect with other artists here, and people who want to support the cause for peace in Sudan,” says Niile Moawia Khalid.
Until the war broke out, the singer, rapper, guitarist and producer, was operating the Counter Studios and Niile Centre for Music & Arts in Khartoum. When the fighting started, he and his family fled the capital which was the epicentre of the war. “We travelled through numerous checkpoints mounted by military and police, and after three weeks made it to the border city of El-Gadarif, then crossed to Ethiopia,” recalls Niile.
From Addis, he flew to Nairobi where he found a community of visual artists and musicians from Sudan, some already resident here for many years, and others freshly arrived
Among those who had endured the trip from Khartoum was Mohamed Adam, a popular singer, originally from the Darfur region, which has been a theatre of conflict for the better part of two decades.
“It was a tough journey to get to Addis,” says Adam. “Nairobi was the perfect city because it vibrates with culture and I have quickly connected with the artistic community here,” he adds.
The musicians connected with Islam Elbeity, a bass player, who is based in Tanzania and is familiar with the music circles in Nairobi. Through her, the connection was made to other musicians in Nairobi like Nairobi Horns Project, and singer and guitarist Brian Sigu.
“We aim to bring together the different aspects of our togetherness as African, and as musicians, and how when we work together it sounds phenomenal,” says Elbeity about the collaboration. The group has performed three shows in Nairobi, including a concert at the Alliance Francaise last Friday night. “The sound is a fusion extravaganza,” says Niile.
“It is through music, that we celebrate and through music that we cry. Sometimes during rehearsals, I feel like crying because a song can be very emotional. Sudan is not just a Sudanese people issue, it is a Kenyan issue, Ethiopian issue, it an African issue,” says Elbeity.
A song that resonates with the current situation is Mashi, the Arabic word for ‘walking’ which is symbolic of the displacement of Sudanese families by the war.
Niile was inspired to write the song in solidarity with victims of the Darfur conflict but his own experience has given him a new connection to the lyrics.
Mohammed Adam sang movingly in Arabic about families on the run from the conflict.
“I describe how people are terrified by the sound of gunfire but for both sides to lay down their arms and negotiate for peace,” he explains.
Before the current conflict, Adam was involved in a project to document musical styles from Western Sudan as a way to bridge the religious, ethnic and generational barriers.
“After two decades of conflict, people are still living in IDP camps and are losing connection with their culture, so we have to preserve these traditions or they will be wiped out.”
“It is amazing how Brian Sigu and Adam have similar styles playing traditional with a contemporary edge, though they are from different countries,” observes Niile. “Sudanese music is based on the pentatonic scale and we are trying to give that sound a modern edge.”
Adam says working with Kenyan musicians has raised the bar for him. “I have been performing mostly acoustic sets with some accompaniment like flute in Sudan, but playing with the Nairobi Horns Project has taken my music to the next level. I will begin working on recording my next album here in Nairobi with them.”
Niile says curating the concert is the first step towards a sustainable project so he has developed an online platform called Kemet Art to exhibit artwork by Sudanese artists and promote their concerts.
“Hopefully we can take this show to the Sudanese community in Uganda, Egypt and help artists get their livelihood back, says Niile. “It is a strange feeling to be disconnected from what they have been doing and we are all trying to challenge that by reintegrating ourselves within a new community.”
“I would really be sad if this is the last time, we are together,” says Elbeity. “We must build this project, bring in more artists, then Kenyan musicians can learn about Sudanese musical heritage and they can explore that sound.”