Sample 'the James Brown of Sudan,' unearthed by Habibi Funk


Sample 'the James Brown of Sudan,' unearthed by Habibi Funk

Habibi Funk is the sister label of Jakarta Records, dedicated to rereleasing funk-fueled Arabic music from the 60s to 80s. From rare Tunisian disco to Sudanese jazz—Kamal Keila is part of a series on the latter. His record 'Muslims And Christians' was saved from oblivion off old moldy studio reels tucked away in Kamal Keila’s basement.


Danny Veekens


May 11, 2022

In the record’s liner notes, you write “the Sudanese interpretation of jazz is fairly different to the Western.” What unique qualities did you discover about the music from Sudan?

Sudanese “jazz” incorporates elements of Western jazz, funk, blues and rock & roll mixed with the dearth of local folk musical styles—everything from Eritrean influences to the folk music of the Shilluk, Dinka, and Nuer tribes in South Sudan, the Blue Nile beats of the Nuba tribes in South Kordofan, and even further influences from Congo and Ethiopia.

Kamal Keila harmoniously incorporated Eritrean, Ethiopian, Shilluk, Dinka, South Sudan and South Kordofan beats and melodies in his music, making his music multi-diverse and inclusive. From Ethiopian and Eritrean harmonies to Congolese-driven guitar grooves.

Kamal Keila is coined “the James Brown or Fela Kuti of Sudan.” Can you please illustrate this with a couple of songs off Muslims and Christians?

When it comes to James Brown: Kamal liked the aspect of movement with dancing and singing—Kamal was the first in Sudan to do so. Hot soul-steppers like “Ajmal Alyam” & “Ya Shaifni” sound like a mix of Ethio and Ghanaian group Marijata with hints of afro-soul, American soul and R&B.

And what about his resemblances to Fela Kuti?

Fela Kuti in the way that he steadfastly believed in: the unity of his people and his outspokenness to corruption. The fact that Kamal sings in English indicated his brave stance in combatting censorship at the time.

Here's a selection of songs to illustrate that:

The politically driven lyrics on “Muslims & Christians” call for the end of the sectarianism that is the major fault line within Sudan.

On the same vibe as “Expensive Shit” by Fela Kuti, “Agricultural Revolution” calls out the government directly but singing in English in order to get around censorship issues. This is Fela Kuti-like afrobeat high-life inspired music, politically charged lyrics, and a Curtis Mayfield-like melody and rhythm.

African Unity” includes a James Brown breakdown! Hot horn flourishes and thick basslines—almost reggae-like—and vocal stylings at times. This song has been sampled by Disclosure.

Alsafir”—afrobeat, high-life goodness with percussive polyrthyms and stutter-stepping guitar!

vinylfactory habibifunk

Kamal Keila gave you the tape reels for 'Muslims & Christians' in a plastic bag, which were full of mold and damage. What was the restoration process like to be able to release the music?

I didn't know if we could salvage what was there. So, I decided I wouldn't listen to it in Sudan but once I got back to Germany. Normally, you get one chance to hear music in good quality from an old tape, so I decided to listen to it while simultaneously digitally transferring it.

You discovered Kamal Keila’s music through talking to Sharhabil Ahmed, arguably the first artist to play Sudanese jazz. How did he change the musical landscape in Sudan?

Sharhabil says that “In Europe, the rhythms of swing and tango were being replaced by jazz, samba, and rock-and-roll. We were influenced by this rejuvenation in Sudan, too. I started out by learning to play the oud and traditional Sudanese music, and got a diploma from the music institute of Khartoum University. But my ambition was to develop something new. For this, the guitar seemed like the best instrument. Western instruments can approximate the scales of Sudanese music very well.”

How does Kamal Keila’s style relate to his groundbreaking music?

To share a quote from Kamal himself: “Up until the 1970s, [the versatile Sudanese culture] was not really represented in Sudanese music. I felt like this had to change so I believed in myself and put it in my mind: ‘I have to change the style in Sudan.’ I saw Sharhabeel and his singing. The first man who made him sing in English was me when I came back from Cairo. Before that, he was exclusively singing in Arabic. My aim for my music was to bring together European songs and Sudanese culture and at the same time present it in a way that was more influenced by James Brown shows.”

"Especially in a musical ecosystem where older artists are all too-often taken advantage of, a platform like Tracklib attempts to right those wrongs. It’s an exciting time."

One of the main goals of Habibi Funk’s reissues is to challenge and expand the Western perception of Arabic culture. How do you feel like Muslims and Christians can change people’s perception of Sudan?

That it’s far more nuanced and diverse than what news stories and talking heads make it out to be. It’s far more culturally rich than we’ve come to understand, and Kamal’s songs embody the cultural fusion that is Sudanese Jazz. There’s such a hegemony towards Eurocentric culture and musical creation in general, that when you dig a little under the surface there’s this diversity and talent that all too often is pushed to the margins of music consumption. ***Muslims and Christians***attempts to showcase a piece of that stunning cultural history, but the re-releases are just a small piece of a much larger puzzle to support structures, institutions and individuals who work to save cultural goods in all forms from actually being lost.

What does it mean to Habibi Funk to be able to make music available for sampling on Tracklib, in terms of supporting original artists like you do with all of your releases?

Having Habibi Funk music available on Tracklib opens up the possibility of reaching even wider audiences. Through the act of sampling Kamal Keila’s work, his message is passed on to a new generation of listeners. For example, the Disclosure track “Where You Come From” features a sample of Kamal’s “African Unity.” This opened up Kamal’s music to a whole host of new listeners within the EDM sphere; a genre where Kamal’s kind of music may not have otherwise had an impact. Sampling allows this continuing story of musical history to be told in all its contexts. Especially in a musical ecosystem where older artists are all too-often taken advantage of, a platform like Tracklib attempts to right those wrongs. It’s an exciting time.

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