6 August 2012

Sudan: Nuba Nour - a Percussion Group Without a Homeland

music review

The music of Nuba Nour captures the plight of the Nubian people.

Occupying Womad's Open Air Stage are five men dressed in white cloth. Each one holds an open faced drum. Behind them, two female singers clap and sway with their rhythms. This is Nuba Nour, a percussion driven group from Nubia - a Nile-hugging region that overlaps southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Gamal, Nuba Nour's energetic lead vocalist, takes a step forward. Holding aloft his drum he shouts a heartfelt cry; I found his voice strangely powerful, and was keen to get manager Zakaria Ibrahim to translate his words afterwards:

"Gamal said 'In this Duff lives all the joy and sorrow of the Nubian people.' That pretty much summarises the music of Nuba Noir."

Founder of the El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music and unofficial spokesman for Egyptian folk bands on tour, Zakaria Ibrahim went on to outline the problems facing the Nubian people.

"The Nubian people live for the Nile. Of course the Nile is very important for the people in the north, but for Nubians it is life itself. They take everything from the river, even its natural rhythm when they make music. If the waves in the river are slow, they play slow. If they are fast, they play fast. Their dance, which they call Ferri, comes from imitating the movement of the bolti fish."

"As you can see, music is also integral to Nubian culture. Most Nubian people can play a percussion style they call Duff, and all Nubians have to be able to sing well. It was, and still is, essential in Nubian daily life to stake an identity by singing and dancing."

"The Duff drum has a physical connection with the river Nile, and so is perhaps the single most important object in Nubian culture. The frame is made from palm trees that grow on her banks, and the skin is made from lambs, goats and rabbits who visit the Nile every day to drink. Nubian songs traditionally always focus on the Nile."

"The construction of the Aswan hydroelectric dam in 1964 changed everything. Due to the resulting floods, the Nubian people had to leave their lands. UNESCO helped preserve Nubian ancient temples by rebuilding them brick by brick on higher ground. They only saved a quarter of our heritage though; three quarters are now submerged under Lake Nasser. Nuba Nour mix traditional songs with songs about displacement they composed after the dam. Most of the members of Nuba Nour now live in Cairo, but were born in what we call the new Nubia - a collection of refugee camps to the north of Aswan. So, tragically, they've never known their own homeland. And as they grow older, Nuba Nour are beginning to understand the importance of returning home."

"There is some land that isn't covered by water, but there's a big conflict between the Nubian people and the government as to whether they can go back there. The good news is things have got better since the January revolution. The Nubian people have a voice now, whereas in 1964 the government's attitude towards the dam and the surrounding region was pure national pride. It was a huge status symbol for Egypt. Now the post-revolution Egypt can look back and admit it was a totally unfair compromise, whereas there was complete indifference from the Egyptian government at the time. It may be impossible to reclaim the land that is underwater, but for as long as Nubian land remains we'll fight for it."

Nuba Nour are supported by the El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music.

Clyde Macfarlane is a travel writer and music critic. He won a Guardian Student Media Award in 2009, while studying social antropology from Manchester University, and he has since had several articles published for the paper. He also writes for Songlines Magazine, specialising in African and Caribbean music genres. Follow Clyde on twitter @ClydeMacfarlane.

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