As a young musician growing up in Port Sudan in the early 1990s, Noori Jaber stumbled upon the neck of a well-preserved guitar near a junkyard.
After being given a drum – a four-stringed lyre also known as a krar – by his father, 18-year-old Jaber forged it from the salvaged guitar using his own welding and tuning techniques to make a electrified tambo guitar.
It was an instrumental hybridization that would serve a greater purpose nearly three decades later, on Ostinato Records’ new album, Beja Power! Electric Soul & Brass from Sudan’s Red Sea Coast.
For Jaber – who is from the Beja community, which lives mainly along the eastern Red Sea coast of Sudan – the music expresses the struggle of his long marginalized people to keep their culture alive.
Across six spellbinding tracks, Jaber and his band Dorpa – who reunited in 2016 – seek to bring the Beja sound to a wider audience, in an album that the label says is the first-ever international release of Beja music.
“They were waiting for an opportunity to put Beja’s music on the map,” Ostinato Records founder Vik Sohonie told Al Jazeera.
Possessing a lineage that dates back to ancient Egypt, the nomadic Beja people were depicted in hieroglyphs and were believed to be employed as archers during the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush.
Throughout history, the Beja have fiercely defended their homeland against cultural and economic exploitation by forces such as the Arabs and British colonialists.
Since the advent of the modern Sudanese state in 1956, the Beja have suffered political and economic deprivation despite the blessing (or curse) of their lands with the largest gold deposits in the country, most of which have been sold to foreign companies.
The now deposed Sudanese autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who came to power following a military coup in 1989, led an Arabization campaign aimed at erasing the culture of the Bejas and their denying their rights, criminalizing attempts to speak their Cushitic language, write in their scripts or record their music.
For Jaber, the album is an act of resistance to erasure.
“Our language, Bidhaawyeet, has been challenged, our written script is dying, but the music survives and is the most common link between our past and our present,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Music that sounds old”
When Sohonie arrived in Sudan last November, just after a military coup upended a fragile democratic transition, he noticed a “burst of creativity” across the country.
“It marked a creative shift after al-Bashir. Now all of these eastern and southeastern cultures felt they could function more safely and were empowered to make music,” Sohonie said.
While browsing local TikTok videos, he came across people largely strumming the oud and playing at parties or weddings. But a video caught his eye: an unknown band playing what would later become the track Qwal on the album. Sohonie was immediately captivated by its deep, nostalgic melodies.
“It was familiar, but different,” he said. “It was as if you were transported back thousands of years to the pharaonic courts. It’s music that sounds ancient.
Sohonie sent the video to one of her contacts, Omer Alghali, a Khartoum-based event planner, who identified the artist as Jaber. Alghali then connected Sohonie with Noori and after an exchange of several videos, a meeting was scheduled and the seed to record an album was planted.
Due to ongoing political unrest, it has not been easy to find time to rehearse, with road closures and internet outages. “The government would just need to close three bridges to prevent everyone from entering the city,” Sohonie said. In the end, five days were booked at a studio in Khartoum and the final day session was what marked the album.
While Jaber is Beja, the rest of his bandmates come from different parts of Sudan. During the recording sessions, Jaber shared more about Beja’s songwriting history with Sohonie.
“They make tweaks here and there, but the basis for these compositions was written thousands of years ago and passed down,” Sohonie said.
Sohonie described how Jaber would return to Port Sudan to learn new melodies from the “Beja masters” who carry the repository of community history and knowledge, similar to West African griots who are responsible for keeping old tunes.
The tracks on the album feature hypnotic grooves layered over airy saxophone and tambo electric guitar melodies, each tied to the history of Beja. “These melodies are central to our story and contain our whole story,” Jaber said.
The Saagama track represents the millennial migration history of the Bejas, Jaber said. The Jabana song is about coffee, which reflects their culture of hospitality. Al Amal touches on hope, which they carry in the face of their tribulations.
From the sonic universe that the album inhabits, one can disentangle links not only with Sudan but also with Eritrea, with even light notes of guitar music from Niger. Some tracks share common ground with dhaanto, a style of Somali music that has rhythmic patterns similar to reggae. Meanwhile, hand percussion and rhythm guitar provide a foundation for Jaber’s tambo guitar and bandmate Naji’s tenor sax to intertwine and flourish.
This makes Beja music distinctive in the Sudanese canon. Arabic music that dominates Sudan is pentatonic, while Beja is four-scale. The other difference is the melodies.
“If you listen to Khartoum’s music, you’ll hear it’s driven by deep violins, very nostalgic string melodies and great blues,” says Sohonie, adding that while Beja’s beats are distinctly Sudanese, they’re distinctly more slow and more loaded with grooves.
Dexter Story, a Los Angeles-based musician and ethnomusicologist, said there’s also a great combination of harmony and melody. “It’s a wonderful revelation that he combines Arabic virtuosity with folk harmonies,” he told Al Jazeera.
Although there is a repetitive call-and-response element in much of the music of northern Sudan, Beja’s music is progressive and mutable – a quality that Sohonie attributes to the sound emanating from the sea region. Red.
“If you go to Djibouti and listen to their music, it sounds more like Beja than Beja does anywhere else in Sudan. This is where the Red Sea comes in,” he said.
The sound of the Red Sea
Founded by Sohonie in 2016 to combine her love of storytelling and music, Ostinato Records has unearthed otherwise overlooked sonic gems from the Horn of Africa for global audiences. In 2017 he released a Grammy nominated 1970s-80s Somali music compilationand became the first imprint to be published contemporary Djiboutian music in 2020.
When it comes to Red Sea music, Sohonie and Story pointed out how underexplored it is.
Story recalled that when he was in a cafe in Eritrea in 2019, he heard music that made him notice how the sounds of Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea converged. “There were similarities that I was hearing. Honors too, but there was a thread running through them,” he said.
The Red Sea, he added, is a region teeming with movement and influence, marked by the footprints of merchants and colonial intruders. Migrations across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and the African interior all fostered a cosmopolitanism that resonated culturally.
Story went on to explain that, in the region, “we talk about music that is very mobile. You can carry the drum and percussion instruments. You can put them on your back, throw them on a camel or make them with the tools at your disposal”.
Speaking on Ostinato’s Beja outing, Story thinks it’s the perfect intersection of tradition and modernity. “Listening to the album, you connect to something older than anything you’ve heard before.”
And now, as Jaber and his Dorpa Band hit the international airwaves, the world has access to their music.
“The preservation of Beja culture,” said Jaber, “depends in large part on keeping its ancient melodies alive.”