Sudan's grandad of funk still defiant after exile

Mohammed Wardi, the popular Sudanese singer whose soaring “golden throat” voice has come to embody the spirit of an entire nation and who recently made a triumphant return from years in exile, is in a defiant mood these days.

The 70-year-old Wardi, billed on world music stations as Sudan’s “grandfather of funk,” returned home last month from an exile he imposed on himself 13 years ago after realizing he was dangerously at odds with the regime.

After a meeting with President Omar al-Beshir at the weekend, he said he would not retreat from his leftist views often heard in his moving songs.

“I am a human being, and every human being is against dictatorship and I will continue to denounce it,” said the imposing singer, dressed in his customary flowing white “djellaba” robe and a matching turban.

“The atmosphere does not encourage creation. Freedom is essential to the blossoming of art,” he told AFP in the living room of his large villa in Khartoum’s Safia neighbourhood.

Wardi was giving a series of concerts in Libya in 1990 when he realised that if he returned he would likely be arrested by Beshir’s government, which seized power in a coup backed by the Islamists the year before.

He set up a home in Egypt in 1991, but eventually moved on to Los Angeles to receive medical treatment for kidney trouble.

When he finally returned home in late May, he was greeted by tens of thousands of fans in a wild welcome at the capital’s airport.

“What was most touching was that 85% of the people (at the airport) were young people who were five, seven-years-old when I left and who have never seen me sing,” he said, a hint of melancholy in his smile.

“I was torn between the joy of coming back to my country and the sadness of having stayed away so long.”

But Wardi, who sings patriotic as well as romantic songs about the Nile River and everyday Sudanese life in Arabic and his native Nubian dialect Halfawi, said he does not necessarily believe officials who say a wind of freedom has blown over the northern African country.

The country’s leading Islamic figure, Hassan al-Turabi, whose movement helped Beshir gain power but violently opposed traditional songs and culture, was arrested in February of last year after losing a power struggle.

“They say that there is a margin of freedom, but I don’t see any. Sudanese music has not developed.
It has not even stayed frozen, it has gone backwards,” Wardi said.

Wardi was born in 1932 on the island of Sawarda in northern Sudan. He began singing at the age of five, had his first hit in 1960, and still has an extraordinary effect on Sudanese audiences.

In 1990 he stood on a wooden platform at Itang, temporary home to 250 000 war-displaced southern Sudanese in Ethiopia, and sang to a captivated audience at the dusty refugee camp.

Wardi says he has no fear of confronting authorities again.

“No, I am not afraid of being imprisoned again and I do not regret the years in detention,” he said, but adding he has not decided if he will stay permanently in Sudan.

He was notably jailed for 18 months for applauding a communist coup by Hashem al-Ata in 1971. The power grab was smashed three days later by former president Gaafar Nimeiry, who jailed artists who had backed his rival.

The singer, whose withered hands are covered with bandages from kidney dialysis sessions, also said he had received thousands of offers for kidney donations.

His wife, Elweya Rashidi, who joined him for his years in exile and who is mother to his 29-year-old daughter Julia and 26-year-old son Mozafar, who accompanies his father on the organ, complains their house has not been quiet since they got back. - AFP

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