Graded on a Curve:
Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins
& Synths of Sudan

While the output of Ostinato Records is still small, through the guiding hand of founder Vik Sohonie the Grammy-nominated label has already unveiled a deeply researched wealth of enlightenment succinctly described by the endeavor’s mission statement: “Afrophone stories from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean.” Previously, they’ve delved into the sounds of Haiti, Cape Verde and Somalia, and in 2018 have continued to travel, with the excellent new compilation Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan Ostinato’s second release to focus on the country of the title. Available as a 3LP gatefold on 140-gram wax with a 20-page booklet and as a 2CD bookcase with 36-page booklet, it’s out now.

Ostinato isn’t one of those late-arriving cash-in-hand labels poised to simply scoop up and platter the results of others’ diligence while reclining back as the modest profits and larger plaudits roll in. No, the label’s driving force Vik Sohonie is a true world traveler holding the passion of a fan, the curiosity of an archivist, and the desire to share what he’s uncovered. To an extent, Ostinato reminds me of a cross between John Storm Roberts’ Original Music label and the info-rich approach of Smithsonian-Folkways, or more appropriate to the current moment, Atlanta GA’s Dust-to-Digital.

If you want to not just hear the music of various global cultures but understand its context, Ostinato is a still young but reliably solid resource, and Two Niles to Sing a Melody only deepens this circumstance. It documents the era in Sudan prior to the violent coup of 1989, a fertile period described by the collection’s co-compiler, Sudanese poet and actress Tamador Sheikh Eldin Gibreel as “a time for culture, writers, artists, sculptors, fine arts, the musicians, and the people in the theater.”

It was time under the rule of Gafaar Muhammad Nimeiry, who seized power in 1969. He instigated a long period of support for the arts, though it was a political maneuver that as hardline Islamists established a foothold in the mainstream, was also ended by Nimeiry; in 1983 he imposed Sharia Law in Sudan with matters only worsening after Omar Al Bashir took power in 1989 (a coup removed Nimeiry three years before).

The compilation begins with “Al Bareedo Ana (The One I Love)” by Emad Youssef (as with prior Ostinato releases, the titles are helpfully translated into English, which can, though obviously only partially, offer insight into the emotional thrust of the music’s power). While the name of this compilation highlights violins and synths, the focus here is on rhythm, guitar, accordions (or accordion-like instrumentation), and Youssef’s sturdy, expressive vocals.

It’s in Abdel El Aziz Al Mubarak’s “Ma Kunta Aarif Yarait (I Wish I Had Known)” that the strings emerge in a big way, and with a tangible Asian influence, specifically of North Korea, as the country’s investment in Sudan during this period was substantial. This doesn’t diminish the vitality of the sounds heard in this track and across the comp, to the contrary broadening it, as one won’t likely mistake the contents for any other archival release, African or otherwise.

Kamal Tarbas’s “Min Ozzalna Seebak Seeb (Forget Those that Divide Us)” combines the strings and accordions with wind instrumentation and a palpable groove (the bass is a treat), though it’s worth noting that Two Niles to Sing a Melody’s wares aren’t especially funky (or jazzy a la neighboring Ethiopia). Instead, the orchestral string lilt of Madjzoub Ounsa’s “Arraid Arraid Ya Ahal (Love, Love Family)” offers an atmosphere reminiscent of pop, though in the (shared) inclination to stretch out, another groove does take hold.

Fluid and up-tempo rhythmic intensity increases in Khojali Osman’s wah-guitar-tinged “Malo Law Safeetna Inta (What if You Resolve What’s Between Us?)” as the crisp strings and robust vocalizing remain. But as the selections unwind there is crucial diversity, with Zaidan Ibrahim’s singing in the live track “Ma Hammak Azabna (You Don’t Care About My Suffering)” somewhat smoother than his contemporaries, and Saied Khalifa’s “Igd Allooli (The Pearl Necklace)” offering enjoyable exchanges with backup vocalists plus an abundance of handclaps (always a good thing).

Taj Makki’s “Ma Aarfeen Nagool Shino! (We Don’t Know What to Say!)” kicks up some hand-drumming dust as the strings swirl (with more of that Asian flavor) and a sweet muted trumpet enters the scene late. With Hunan Bulu Bulu’s live cut “Alamy Wa Shagiya (My Pain and Suffering)” a strong female lead voice enters the comp’s portraiture, and it’s easily one of Two Niles’s standouts.

If one is wondering where the synths are in the equation, they emerge in Abdelmoniem Ekhaldi’s “Droob A Shoag (Paths to Love),” though it’s important to relate that the electronic keyboard-ish textures don’t bring a transition as much as added flavor to the overall scheme. It’s also not a constant element; with Samira Dunia’s “Galbi La Tahwa Tani (My Heart, Don’t Fall in Love Again)” the spotlight lands on another superb woman singer as the synths subside (but those violins, they do stick around).

The only artist to land two tracks on this release is Mohammed Wardi, and with good reason, as he’s cited as attaining a level of popularity comparable to Fela Kuti, though he doesn’t sound like the wizard of Afrobeat. No, Wardi’s “Al Sourah (The Photo)” and the set’s finale “Al Mursal (The Messenger)” are very much in league with what precedes it here, but with the string-sections a bit more full-bodied, the drumming a little deeper in the pocket, and the assured vocals backing up his stature as the tracks’ durations are the longest of the collection, nearing and eclipsing ten minutes respectively.

With Mustafa Modawi & Ibrahim El Hassan’s “Al Wilaid Al Daif (The Youth Who Came as a Guest)” the synths return in a big way, and then enlarge their presence in Ibrahim El Kashif’s composition “Elhabeeb Wain? (Where is My Sweetheart?).” It’s the only non-vocal entry on the set and at under two minutes in length, in comparison to the longer tracks it kinda impacts the ear like a fragment.

But it’s a damn fine short take that’s unlike anything else on Two Niles to Sing a Melody, and it helps to elevate the whole into another unreserved success for Ostinato. The notes in the booklet are exquisite, including numerous interviews with the surviving participants, and for anyone with an interest in the historical retrieval and highlighting of global sounds, this one’s pretty much mandatory.


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