Once lauded as one of Sudan’s finest musicians, Abu Obaida Hassan faded into obscurity under the Bashir regime and was even pronounced dead. Now he is back – to global acclaim.
The unpaved outskirts of Omdurman, Sudan’s second city, seem like an unusual place to find a musical superstar, but Abu Obaida Hassan is far from ordinary. The frail man in his 60s who holds court in the shaded yard of a squat brick house represents a musical revolution, one that electrified traditional Sudanese music. Stranger still, in the eyes of the Sudanese public he is back from the dead.
In his 70s heyday, Abu Obaida travelled from Merowe, the home of the Shaigiya people and a centre of Nubian culture, to Khartoum, finding fame as a renegade player of a local stringed instrument known as the tambour.
The music of the Shaigiya people focuses on call and response, designed to draw the audience into grand tales of love and heartbreak. Rolling, pulsating drumbeats are overlaid with heartfelt vocals, mirrored back with handclaps and a chorus of voices. As the first Shaigiya artist released on the global stage, Abu Obaida has become an accidental ambassador for both the Shaigiya people and their distinctive musical style.
“I became popular across the world!” he says, laughing in a way that suggests this is what he always wanted. Family members gathered around his bed laugh with him.
A fixture on the Khartoum music scene during its golden era of the 70s and early 80s, Abu Obaida subsequently faded into obscurity through a combination of misfortune and Sudan’s shifting politics. Things reached the point where, 20 years ago, one prominent Sudanese newspaper pronounced him dead. Rumours of his survival persisted, however, sustained by fans trading his songs through online forums and Khartoum record shops, by sheer devotion to the man who could play the tambour like no other.
Abu Obaida says he never went away, but simply receded from public view. His comeback, if you can call it that, is a spectacular one. Ostinato Records, a Grammy-nominated label based in New York and Bangkok, and known for an ability to source rare music from countries affected by war or natural disasters, tracked down Abu Obaida and released his music to the world.
In just a few years, he went from missing, presumed dead, to global star. His EP sold out worldwide within a week of its release. Ostinato pressed a second batch, which also sold out in Europe.
After his career fell victim to a crackdown on the swinging Khartoum party scene that sustained him, Sudan’s new transitional government is attempting to usher in an age of caring for revered musical icons like Abu Obaida.
“I was nervous initially, because it takes a bit of listening,” says Vik Sohonie, the founder of Ostinato Records, of Abu Obaida’s music. “It’s a new sound – there are no electric guitars or saxophones or anything like that. It’s not an immediately relatable or accessible sound, but people fell in love with it.”
Sohonie’s hunt for Abu Obaida and his records is almost as bizarre as the musician’s supposed return from the dead. Sohonie travelled to Khartoum in 2016, searching for lost recordings by the artist and hoping to learn more about his disappearance from public life. He was helped in his search by Ahmed Asyouti, a local dentist who had posted on TripAdvisor offering his services to tourists.
Asyouti told Sohonie that Abu Obaida was probably dead, but said that together they could find out what happened to him. The quest began with Asyouti getting Sohonie an appearance on Sudanese breakfast television, and helping him to sneak into the grounds of the national radio station, skirting a ban on the entry of foreign visitors.
“Someone at the national radio archives said: ‘I think he’s alive,’” says Sohonie.
A hunt through Khartoum’s record-collectors and music aficionados led them to a shop where playing one of Abu Obaida’s recordings sparked a chance encounter. “A guy in the corner of the store said: ‘Oh, you’re looking for Abu Obaida Hassan? His wife is my cousin.’ My first thought was that this guy was messing with us.”
He wasn’t, and the random meeting meant the pair finally found Abu Obaida’s wife, who set up a meeting with the artist. The result was an agreement to release an eight-track EP entitled Abu Obaida Hassan and His Tambour, the Shaigiya Sound of Sudan. The album comes with the warning: “We are not responsible for any addiction issues caused by Abu Obaida Hassan’s Shaigiya sound.”
Vintage Sudanese music is prized across Africa. From Nairobi to Mogadishu, collectors treasure its rich sound of playful synths and violins, often accompanied by piercing vocals and poetic song titles.
But Abu Obaida’s more unusual sound stands out, even among prominent tambour players of his generation. Part of his unique origin story is his own version of Bob Dylan’s “going electric” moment. By adding a sixth string to his tambour, and sometimes wiring it to an amp, Abu Obaida stormed the Khartoum music scene.
“My country was playing my music and I was a superstar,” he says of his moment of notoriety on the Sudanese music scene. “I was a megastar – I couldn’t walk in the street!”
Such was the demand for his sound, he hired a car and toured the concerts and parties that had sprung up across Sudan, riding a wave of his own celebrity and a scene that was fostering artistic talent.
“Morning and evening – parties that went all night!,” he recalls fondly. “At the time I had no idea of my own value. I was at the top, but I didn’t know myself.”
The implementation of Sharia law in Sudan in the 80s shut down the party scene, and a crackdown on musicians under the 30-year regime of Omar al-Bashir, who seized power in 1989, meant the work dried up. Abu Obaida moved to Saudi Arabia to work with his brother; by the time he returned, his celebrity had faded.
He worked as a carpenter and waited for his fortunes to change. Staying between Merowe and the outskirts of Omdurman, he had no idea that fans of his music had been trying to find him, despairing at his apparent demise.
Popular protests last year overthrew Bashir and brought his long-running dictatorship to an end. In its place is a transitional government, one intending to shepherd Sudan into democracy. The new regime has signalled a desire to care for cultural icons from the pre-Bashir era.
Sparked by increased local news coverage of the artists’ neglect and poor health, representatives from Sudan’s ministry of culture and members of the public began visiting the homes of golden-era musicians like singer Abdel Aziz El Mubarak and Abu Obaida. Social media campaigns soliciting donations were matched by government offers to pay both musicians’ medical bills, before El Mubarak’s death in early February. Although Abu Obaida is no longer well enough to tour, a stream of musicians and guests travel to his home to hear him play the tambour once again.
Abu Obaida’s family say his return to the spotlight is positive, but that they will remain sceptical until they see support from the government. “We want people to know that he’s a forgotten talent – and such a talent should be cared for,” says Hala Homeida, Abu Obaida’s sister-in-law.
Asked how she feels about Abu Obaida’s newfound fame, she replies: “The tambour is linked to the Shaigiya tribe, but now it’s viral internationally – this is amazing.”