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Cities of refuge
8 min read

Peace songs for Sudan

Month after month, the Sudanese musician Abazar Hamid submitted his peace and love songs to the government’s music monitoring committee which mostly censored and rejected them. Songs dealing with social and political issues riding Sudan were especially scrutinized, and after severe censorship and verbal threats, Abazar chose exile. He arrived to Harstad, Norway in 2014 as the first ICORN musician to be hosted by the city.

Credits Text: Nicky Armstrong, Christopher Finnigan March 10 2016

The call for war in Darfur begins with the Hakamat – the ‘Janjaweed women’. Huddled as one, they move from house to house, street-to-street, energetic hate songs filtering through every door opened. The spirited words of bravery, bloodshed and violence are sealed with government money, just as the Janjaweed militias are funded. As the songs stir the spirit of the men and reach their peak many leave to kill there and then, often accompanied by the Hakamat, their lively tempo transcends and presents itself as murder and rape.

The Hakamat too are victims of a war that has ravaged Darfur and split Sudan. Home to more than 50 ethnic groups and 114 languages, Sudan sits on the Christian-Muslim fault line casually etched onto a map by colonizers and cattle drivers. The line is a wall. A wave a carrying hatred, conflict and ethnic cleansing begins here and continues to wash over Darfur, taking 480,000 lives so far.

Once again the Hakama are huddled together. This time the energetic sounds of African and Arab influence are accompanied by the words of Abazar Hamid, a Sudanese musician who brings with him a message of peace and conciliation. The Hakama are learning to sing for love, not hate. After just a few sessions, he receives word that his input isn’t welcome. His life is in danger – within a month Abazar has crossed the boarder and fled Khartoum for Cairo.

Six creative years followed in Cairo but as the Arab Spring began censorship bit at his heels once more. As the Middle East crumbled, Abazar, like millions of others fled to Europe. Now his home is Norway and with the help of the ICORN Cities of Refuge programme Abazar is contextualizing, redefining and integrating Europe’s one million new migrants that arrived just last year through his music.

PEN: It was your peace building activities in Sudan that drew the attention of the international media, but also that of the government. Could you explain more about the work you were doing?
Habazar Hamid
: It started with an article in the Washington Post. They started covering workshops with the local musicians called Janjaweed singers [the Hakumat], a group of women who used to sing for war. They are composing songs based on hate to inspire men to go and fight, and actually the Hakumat is one of the genuine tools of genocide in Darfur. If they start singing in front of your door, unless you get your weapon and join the militia you are not a man. What makes the genocide in Darfur special is that they use this kind of culture and abuse music. The women are victims also.

They sang for money. They thought if we sing for the war we can get money, we can get clothes, we can get jewellery. Then it was for safety. They had an element of safety if they were singing these songs. But the music came from different resources, you can find the Arabic input and the African input mixed in there without any fighting, in a peaceful way. It is the same input the Africans and Arabs are using to fight each other.

You started to work with the Hakumat to change their music and bring about reconciliation. The project was quickly shut down, why was this?
I began the project with Care International. It was called Peace and Development Villages. They are trying to bring reconciliation to the villages. We tried to mix the Hakumat’s songs and dances and get them to play the role of peace builders. But the government saw this work as an extension of the international justice system’s actions against Sudan, and so immediately after the warrant was issued from the International Criminal Court against the Sudanese president, 13 organisations were kicked out of Sudan, Care International was at the top of the list. I started to see those who I was working with at Care International arrested as well as some of the artists and photographers related to the project, so I had to move.

The ICC’s warrant against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir changed the atmosphere in Sudan, and as you have mentioned you felt the authorities getting closer. You decided to move to Egypt in 2008. Can you explain what your time was like in Cairo?
I went to Egypt with the cooperation Freemuse and started working with an open space called Town House, although recently, two months ago, the police went and closed in down. I started to link with musicians there and developed the initiative democratising music. It was to share resources between musicians. We started working with musicians, other NGO’s and refugees from Darfur and other countries to use music to integrate everybody there. I also worked as a music teacher and sometimes an assistant in a studio. It was difficult in the beginning, I didn’t find a job immediately and I was father of three children at the time, now there are four. It was difficult but it was possible. Before the revolution there was space to play and hold gigs, now there is not.

Egypt had been your home for six years. How did the revolution affect your life there?
Suddenly things dropped down in Cairo after the revolution. Through my work and connecting with underground musicians and independent artists I became part of the layer in the community that brought about the revolution. So, after the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood, those who I had fled from in Sudan, came into power in Egypt, things started to get more difficult. The same threats and the same enemies were getting closer. Freemuse, who had hosted me as a musician in exile started to be targeted. Most of my friends and the activists that were part of my experience in Cairo started to be targeted; most of them are now in jail. So, in another place that I moved to I was gaining enemies and loosing friends.

A year before I had applied for residency in Harstad, Norway. I was nominated by Freemuse and through the ICORN programme I was given residency in the northern city of Harstad.

You have slowly moved north from Sudan, to Cairo and now Norway. Can you describe the development as an artist and as a musician?
Around 1997 I joined a famous band in Sudan called Igd Elgalad. Most of our songs were censored, the group had been arrested many times so they decided through self censorship – not singing about the social and political situation in Sudan – that they could perform every day. So, I decided to start my solo career. I could sing love songs without censorship but my second album went further. I sang a song called ‘New Sudan’, it is a peace building song so it was censored, I felt sad and sorry.

And then I started working with the Hakumat. I learned more about what it is to be a Sudanese musician and started developing a vision about Afro/Arab music. It enriched my experience of being a musician working in a conflict zone and that helped me a lot.

When I moved to Cairo I met people from all over the world, and all over the world there are stories told through music. When I moved to Norway I realised that even there music tells a story of suppression. I am interested in the Sami folk music and the Jojk, traditional singing using no instrument. When Christianity came to Norway it was seen as a bad thing, until recently you could not jojk in church, there is persecution and censorship even there. So I started developing the project Afro-Sami, trying to mix the cultures and to share this lesson because people learn from people.

How is your music helping with social integration in Norway?
Norway is a welcoming place to integrate refugees and integrate other cultures. The thing that linked my story from Cairo to Norway is the project “Music For All”. It’s an initiative that started in Cairo to link isolated groups of immigrants or refugees to the host community by doing activities and sharing them on Facebook. It is the most important thing at this time to not be divided into two groups towards refugees. We have a fire and we can’t sit a play with the smoke.

Abazar is still living in Norway – he continues to promote peace through his music.

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