Home | News    Wednesday 7 July 2004

FEATURE-Music group sings to unite divided Sudanese

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By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM, July 7 (Reuters) - Singing and dancing to African tribal rhythms, the Balinbo Stars group prides itself on reflecting the diversity of Sudan’s many cultures.

The 11 band members - Christians and Muslims, men and women - hail from all corners of Africa’s largest country. Singing only traditional songs in local dialects, they have fast become the war-torn nation’s most popular group.

Mixed dancing is illegal under Sudan’s Islamic Sharia law that is most strictly enforced in Khartoum, but Balinbo still shake, wiggle and sing in their bright orange and purple outfits to enthusiastic crowds of strict Muslims in the capital who clap and sing along with them to folk songs, church and tribal music.

"We are Sudan. We are unity," said band member Jane Lindrio Alao, a Christian whose family fled fighting in the south 15 years ago.

Sudan’s south has been mired in civil war for all but 11 years since gaining independence from Britain in 1956. The war, which pits the Islamic government in Khartoum against the mainly Christian, animist south, has claimed two million lives and displaced some three to four million people within Sudan.

Issues of oil, ethnicity and ideology complicate the strife.

In the remote western Darfur region, years of fighting between Arab nomadic tribes and African farmers over scarce resources exploded last year into a rebellion that has displaced more than one million people. U.N. officials say it is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Members of Balinbo say the massive movement of people has led to many more mixed marriages and a far greater awareness and tolerance of the different cultures and traditions than ever before in Sudan. They say they encourage unity by singing music from all over Sudan.

"These songs existed for many years but people were not exposed to them," Alao said. "With the ongoing peace process we think everyone is going to have the freedom to express his own culture, language and traditions."

PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE

Another band member, 21-year-old Afraa Bur, spent most of her life in Khartoum and has never visited her father’s region of Darfur: "I knew nothing of these folk songs from the south or Darfur before I joined the band," she said.

Before she would only sing Arabic songs like those of Egyptian pop star Amr Diab or Egyptian icon Um Kulthum, who died in 1975. "But now I prefer the African music from the south," she added.

Balinbo see themselves as living proof of peaceful coexistence between Sudan’s many rich African and Arab tribal cultures and they use only traditional instruments.

"My mother is from the south of Sudan and my father is from Darfur," said band member Amal Suleiman, sweating profusely after dancing and twirling to a traditional southern song in a style similar to breakdance.

Alao said they were extremely hopeful that an impending peace deal in the south would help heal the rift between the dominant Islamic and Arab culture and Africans in the south and west of Sudan who feel they are marginalised by Khartoum.

But she said she would not be voting for secession when a referendum is held in the south after a six-year transition, one of the main points of the peace deal to end the southern war.

"What will the people who have a father from the north and mother from the south do if there is a divided Sudan?" she said. "Where will they live?"

ILLEGAL DANCING

In Islamic Khartoum, people dress conservatively, alcohol is banned and mixed dancing forbidden since the imposition of Sharia law in 1983.

But analysts say authorities turn a blind eye to parties thrown by the thousands of southerners who fled fighting to live in Khartoum, and the implementation of laws is becoming more relaxed in anticipation of peace.

"Dancing and mixed dancing and gatherings are not allowed but nowadays, with some exceptions, there is a kind of relaxation because people are feeling that change is coming very soon," said Husam Bashir, head of the Sudanese Organisation for Human Rights in Khartoum.

"It’s a preparation for this change. These people are not so militant or powerful as before, although the laws are there. They are not changed yet," he said.

Permits - at a price - can also be obtained for special occasions like weddings so that people can dance without fear of arrest, Bashir said.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir himself loves to dance, and often shakes his hips to music that follows public speeches.

Balinbo is seen as a symbol of the unity and diversity of Sudan.

The group performs throughout the country, while performances abroad have received an enthusiastic response.

"When we performed in Morocco, people were amazed to hear the music we were playing and that it came from Sudan," said Alao, adding that Moroccans had not expected the driving African drum beats and energetic dancing.

"But we like to play songs that have a meaning and a message," she said, citing a folk song from troubled Darfur called "The Dove of Peace."

"Dove of peace fly high above, spread your wings, sing and dance the song of peace," the lyrics say.

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