Brian Scudder talks to Mohammed Wardi, one of Sudan’s leading musicians,
about the fundamentalist assault on music and musicians in his country.
Khojali Osman died in the back of a Sudanese ambulance. The frenzied knife attack that slashed his chest and ruptured his stomach was the work of an Islamic militant. And Khojali’s crime? Simply to have been a musician.
Khojali’s death rocked Sudan. For he is the first artist to have been killed in a politically-motivated attack in the country’s history. His death also symbolizes the final collapse of tolerance in a country once renowned for it. While the military-Islamacist government of Lieutenant-General Al-Bashir denies any knowledge of the murderer, many Sudanese believe it was the climate of perpetual hysteria fostered by the Government to keep itself in power that prompted the killing, This is certainly what Mohammed Wardi thinks. The last freely-elected head of the Sudanese Musicians’ Union and a close friend of Khojali, Wardi has watched the slow painful closing-down of Sudanese music culture from his enforced exile in Cairo. For him the attack on Khojali is an attack on all Sudanese musicians and a direct result of Government policy.
‘The Imam’s main sermon from the Friday prayers at the Central Mosque is televised throughout Sudan,’ Wardi points out. ‘A week before the attack this sermon condemned music and musicians as haram [forbidden under the realm’s version of Islamic Law]. It is the Government that directly controls the contents of the sermon through the recently-created Ministry of Social Planning.We know that there had already been a great deal of debate in Government circles about music and Islam. A ban on men and women dancing together was already in place. The ground was well prepared for such an attack.’
Wardi points out that the attack was not an isolated incident. The way the Government has played on the feelings of the profoundly religious in Sudan has created an anti-music climate and resulted in verbal assaults on Sudanese musicians (particularly women). ‘The Government has backed this up with a Public Order Act that empowers the security police to break up concerts and wedding ceremonies that infringe its interpretation of Shari’a law,’ says Wardi. ‘You do not know whether you will return from giving a concert or not. They fear the power of musicians over the hearts and minds of the people and are trying to stop them playing or being broadcast. They are trying to replace them with new musicians of no talent whose sole purpose is to promote their ideology by singing pro-Government songs about Jihad [Islamic struggle].’
Khojali Osman and Mohammed Wardi are representative of a different kind of Islam, a tolerant Islam with capacity not just to co-exist with other religions and cultures, but to embrace them as its own. Sudan’s diverse musical heritage is an expression of this mutual respect and cohesion. It is for this reason the Government finds it dangerous.
‘They could have no reason to kill Khojali as an individual,’ says Wardi, ‘Unlike some of his colleagues he was not political. Over the past 25 years he composed neither for governments or political parties.’
Khojali’s murderer, Suleiman Adam Musa, however, appears a typical activist of militant Islam. He is a member of a militant group in the impoverished area of Omdurman, where the attack took place. Musa cried Allah-u-akbar (God is great!), and declared himself a mujadi or Islamic fighter as he stabbed. He had gone pretending to have letters for two other famous Sudanese singers at the Musicians’ Union Building, but finding neither present had lashed out at the closest to hand.
Although Musa’s group have no reported links to the Government, it is part of a network of Islamic groups under the umbrella of the Islamic Brotherhood. The Government relies on these for support and to help with the indoctrination of the Sudanese people. Musa has now become a pawn in a government damage-limitation exercise aimed at absolving it of any responsibility for Khojali’s death.
‘A press release was issued on behalf of the Musicians’ Union following the murder. This proved to have come directly from the Minister of Information. Most Union members didn’t even see it. No post-mortem was carried out on Khojali’s body and the Minister of the Interior ordered the body to be buried at night – to avoid the burial becoming a focus for anti-Government feeling.’ Wardi is disdainful of the cover-up: ‘A delirious Musa was put on television to prove he was mentally unstable. Yet Abdul Gadar Salim, another musician wounded in the attack, confirms that he had an entirely lucid 10-minute conversation with Musa before he pulled the knife. Musa was politically motivated and not mad.’
This was not the end of the matter for Wardi. He was in London promoting his latest release when Khojali was stabbed back in Khartoum. He attended a demonstration outside the Sudanese embassy and sang a song about his friend’s murder. When he got back to his apartment, Wardi found a letter slipped under the door. The author of the letter had taken verses from the Koran and used them to threaten Wardi over his support for Sudanese music. The letter was signed ‘Your Brother In Islam’, the signature of the Islamic Brotherhood.
Brian Scudder is a freelance journalist working in London, England.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995