Shurahbeel: Emperor Haile Selassie commended my singing and thought I was an American singer and not a Sudanese

BY: AHMED ALHAJ

Singer, actor, painter, and cartoonist, Shurahbeel Ahmed, bony faced and smiling as ever, has amassed fifty years in his coffer as an undisputed king of jazz and popular music in Sudan. He has become an iconic mark in Sudan’s jazz and music history. He stands out more popular than many a politicians and leaders. It suffices to say Shurahbeel, to bring sweet memories to at least three Sudanese generations. With his creative skills in many areas, including master of Guitar, drawing, singing and even dancing, and blacksmithing, the man stands out to be a history of his own in Sudan…. He is known as Sudan’s king of Jazz.
 

  1. info.sd interviewed Shurahbeel who reviewed the different stations in his artistic journey and his contributions to the Sudanese singing genre.

Shurahbeel calls for revival of the cultural diversity of Sudan and restoration of the Children’s educational magazines. He is planning to venture the field of Piano’s single hits and oil color paintings to form a base for a huge museum in Sudan like the Louver in Paris.
He is currently planning to develop the Tanboor (a traditional local Sudanese musical instrument) to play more than one diatonic with different tones.
Shurahbeel sang in different world languages including the Chinese, Halfawi, Arabic, English, Hausa, Fulani, Nubian, and Swahili among others. He says arts are limitless and means for cultural interrelation.
A man with such drive would have been expected to say he would like to have his own children following his path but, to him, “each should trek his own passage and make his own way in life, they have to have their independent personalities.”
He said he loved the theatrical singing and expressed hope that this form of singing would be welcome in Sudan because it reflects the genuine arts as it is directly connected to the audience.
Shurahbeel adored music and signing and his musical epiphany dates back to his early childhood, namely when he was six years old, when he kept by heart the songs of the famous Egyptian singers Abdul-Wahab and Abdul-Haim Hafez from the movies in cinemas. 
In this respect, Shurahbeel says: “I acquired my artistic sense from my family. My mother and grandmother were skillful in acting and imitation, mimicking, and name it… besides their singing and painting skills. They made every one surrounding them laugh a lot through their gifted skills. They created an ambiance of happiness everywhere they are…”.
“My father owned a phonograph and discs containing Sudanese Haqiba (classical) songs and Ethiopian marches music. My father was also a generous man where he used to organize banquettes on Fridays for the people in his home at Al-Abbasiya area in Omdurman”, he added. 
Shurahbeel performed at Al-Nahda school in El-Obaid after his family moved there. He also imitated the film of Abala and Anter and repeated the songs of Shaiboob and the oration of Anter for King Al-Numan. These performances qualified him to be selected for a role in the famous Sudanese play of Nebta Habibati (Nepta my Love).
Learning drawing on El-Obaid sands:
Shurahbeel’s life with his family in El-Obaid constituted a rich period in his life that was full of surprises. In this respect, Shurahbeel says: “My artistic skills were developed there, namely through my participation in the school’s artistic societies”.
He said he became skillful in drawing and handwriting through his contributions to the school wall newspaper, saying that the Italian Benni played a great role in developing his knowledge of using water colors and pencils in drawing.
He said he used to follow and observe what Benni was doing every day and learned much from him.
He said this period dated back to the late 1940s of last century when Al-Sibyan magazine (kids magazine), to which he contributed, was published, adding that he was a regular reader of the magazine, which means that he learned drawing before joining the College of Fine Arts where he studied graphic design.
Failure in mathematics causes his father to send him to the industrial area:
“When I failed in mathematics I told my father that I wanted to learn to be a driver, but he shunned the idea away and asked me to go to the industrial area to learn a craft. He asked Awad Khair-Essid, a family friend, to help me in this respect. I used to ride my bicycle from Omdurman to the industrial area in Khartoum everyday. I worked there for seven months and the owner of the workshop, a foreigner, attached great concern to me because I was a skilful turner due to my drawing skills and I was fluent in English. I then shifted to smithery and here I remember that I installed a roof truss in Boosh Company’s workshop. My mother did not want me to continue working as a blacksmith after I injured my hand”, said Shurahbeel.
Abu Ganbour and al-Salahi were behind Shurahbeel’s joining of Fine Arts College:
Shurahbeel’s desire to join the Fine Arts College overwhelmed all other interests to the extent that he failed in the mathematics supplementary exam and thus his relation with studying ceased. He used to draw and paint but his father had opposed that and torn all his works.
However, as he was exercising gymnastics at Al-Hilal Club, he heard of the college. One day he and his friend Mohamed Khader Abbady headed to Abbady’s home. There he saw a painting by an Italian. When Khader observed his interest in the painting he asked him about his passion for painting and drawing.
“I love painting since I was at the school, but I do not have painting stick”, answered Shurahbeel, adding that “he then provided me with the necessary painting materials and asked me to draw something and I drew Abu Ganbor (a local type of bird) and a number of other drawings”.
“After that I discovered that Mohamed Khader was working at a publishing house and that he had decided to join the military college. He then asked me to replace him at the publishing house” he said. 
“Khader was the connecting ring between me and Ibrahim Al-Salahi who was our neighbor and who had managed to persuade my father to allow me to venture the world of painting. He convinced my father that painting as a career has a future and that his son Shurahbeel was talented. Al-Salahi then took me and introduced me to Ustaz Shafiq, who was then a lecturer at the fine arts college with a diploma degree from England on the eyes of animals. Ustaz Shafiq is the one who draw the painting which was at the gate of the Khartoum Zoo in the past”, cited Shurahbeel.
Fine Arts College versus industrial area:
Shurahbeel told Sudanow that “after I learned about the terms of admission for the fine arts college I joined a school in Banat area in Omdurman to develop my English language skills. I used to move between the industrial area and the school. The teacher then suggested to me to leave the industrial area and work for him with a wage of four Sudanese pounds to teach English for the school pupils. Therefore, I actually started to study the English Book Reader (7) for free and at the same time receive a salary for teaching the other students at lower stages”.
He added that “my mother backed me at the time when my father opposed my willingness to venture the field of fine arts. My admission to the fine arts college delighted Mr. Tassu, the owner of the workshop in which I worked at the industrial area and also my master Mahmoud Mustafa who specialized in the Hellman vehicles at the industrial area”.
Mario Nestrao and son of Shiekh of butchers were Shurahbeel’s colleagues:
Shurahbeel was admitted to the college of fine arts after scoring the first place in the skills exam. He engaged in plastic arts but just as an activity. However, he used to go to the publishing office to contribute to publication of Al-Sibyan magazine. After graduation Shurahbeel worked in the magazine and developed the famous character of Ammack Tango on bases similar to Micky Mouse and other Walt Disney child characters. He then, and through his plastic arts skills, contributed to developing of maps and images in the educational syllabuses in addition to adult education magazines such as al-Hudhud, al-Bahith al-Saqeer (The Young Researcher), Bakhtal-Ruda and Risalat Mua’lim (The Teacher’s Message). All these were educational magazines but unfortunately they have all vanished.
At the college, Shurahbeel had not abandoned his passion for music where met his friends Mario Nestra, a Greek-Sudanese, and Yassin, the son of the Sheikh of butchers. The three had one thing in common- the love for music.
Shurahbeel recalls that his teacher Osman Wigaialla was a big fan of jazz music and that he used to go with him to his home in Khartoum to listen to music discs and dance to their melodies.
While at the college, Shurahbeel said he kept going to the publishing house to exercise drawing and sing the songs he kept. He said he sang at all the special occasions of his friends, adding that he was repeating the songs of others as he did not have his own songs at that time.
He said he learned how to play Tanboor and sing the Nubian songs at the publishing house and that his friends supported him a lot in this respect.
Layaly Kordufan Shurahbeel’s first song:
During his days at the publishing house, Editor-in-chief of Al-Sibyan magazine Rida Mohamed Osman advised Shurahbeel to apply for the Sudanese Radio. Rida’s brother Abbas and Shurahbeel were colleagues in El-Obaid. Abbas had an acting troupe and Shurahbeel cooperated with him where Shurahbeel played the soundtracks through his lute. Shurahbeel remained playing the soundtracks with Abbas’ troupe until he joined the Sudanese radio.
Shurahbeel kept singing in Sudan National Radio of Omdurman lyrics written by Rida. Layaly Kordufan (Kordufan Nights) was among his first songs. The song was approved by the texts committee after long time of debate. The song was transmitted through the new “Voices Corner” program. Shurahbeel then started to draw the attention of the audience after Rida gave him four songs.
Shurahbeel said his experience at Sudan Radio granted him more fame than painting. “The notion of painting and drawing was slow due to the limited distribution of the means to which I was contributing”, explained Shurahbeel .
Shurahbeel performed his first songs accompanied by such musical instruments as lute, violins and then an orchestra. During the 1970s, he studied music as he was convinced that music should be studied and not taken randomly, particularly after he shifted to jazz music. His activities with the Sudan Radio ceased because some at the Radio opposed transmission of some of his songs.
“They justified their move by saying that those songs were not good”, said Shurahbeel , adding that he then shifted to playing the violin.
He said the renowned Sudanese violin player Abdalla Arabi assisted him in learning to play the violin as Arabi was following his musical activities.
After mastering the violin, Shurahbeel played with renowned Sudanese singers such as Osman Hussein, Mohamed Wardi and Osman Mustafa and toured the various Sudan states with them. He also played in the first air transmission for Wad Medani, Atbara and Port-Sudan radios.
Shurahbeel kept looking for a specific music color that he learned from cinemas and foreign musical groups that visited Sudan. However, he did not find that musical color in the Sudanese songs. He then kept thinking and comparing as he was regularly visiting Saint James Club to follow the Gordon Music Hall group (GMH). He finally managed to obtain a six-string guitar, but according to Shurahbeel , he could not adjust it.
Nevertheless, Shurahbeel said he met a group of southern Sudanese students from Rumbaik who had a musical band. He said he joined them where they taught him how to play the guitar.
He went on to say that he developed the guitar and exploited his efforts to develop and modernize the Sudanese dancing song without tarnishing its national spirit. By end of 1960, Shurahbeel formed his own musical band after obtaining his second guitar which he bought from Wardan, a foreigner who worked in field of electricity. Shurahbeel developed his first guitar with the assistance of Mustafa Allam, an electricity engineer. The first musical players who played with Shurahbeel included Sirouji, Babikir Awad and Kamil Hussein who is still playing with him.
“I started to write my own songs after developing my own singing color”, said Shurahbeel, adding that “after that other jazz bands appeared on the arena”. Shurahbeel has about 160 songs besides the lyrics which have not been approved.
Inauguration of the National Theatre behind his return to singing:
The relationship between the National Theatre, Abu Aqla Yousuf and Hilwatal-Ainain (as the sweet eyed one):
Shurahbeel said he performed his song Hilwatlal-Ainain (The Girl with Beautiful Eyes) at the inauguration of the national theatre, thus returned to singing again. When the theatre started working Shurahbeel was a musical player but when the theatre was officially inaugurated, he performed as a singer.
Shurahbeel cited this story, saying “I received an invitation from Abu Aaqla Yousuf, who was then the Director of the national theatre, to sing at the inauguration. Without thinking, I told Abu Aaqla that I had a new work similar to the Rock’ in roll songs but with a Sudanese color. At that time I had nothing in mind other than the young guys in my area. Therefore, I formed my band from seven persons and two children. Together, we performed Hilwatal-Ainain in a manner that fascinated the audience, including the foreign band with which I was working, the participating communities and the director of the theatre. They had applauded us for a long time.”
Shurahbeel performed as a singer at the inauguration of the national theatre in 1960, but strangely, after 20 years, he performed at the theatre again, but as an actor where he presented the famous Sudanese play Nepta Habibaty (Nepta My Beloved One ). Besides his main role in the play, Shurahbeel also composed 9 inaugural songs in the play.
Renowned Sudanese actor Awad Siddiq was the one who recommended Shurahbeel for his role in Nepta Habibaty.
In this respect Shurahbeel says: “I accompanied Awad Siddiq in one of his tours when he used to exercise gymnastics at Al-Hilal Club. Both of us adored Abdul-Wahab and I remember that one day I imitated the oration of King al-Nouman in a drama work that Siddiq has seen during the 1940s. He liked the way I performed that part, the reason why he selected me to work with them in the play.”
The play, Nepta Habibaty (Nepta My Beloved One), though it had been banned several times during the May rule for political reasons, but it enjoyed remarkable success as it had been performed at the Friendship Hall in Khartoum and in Iraq.
Shurahbeel says the lyrical theatre constitutes the real art as it combines acting, singing and poetry and above all else that it is the best means of communication and the nucleus for the cinema.
In this respect, Shurahbeel wondered why the cinema in Sudan was not assisted and called for supporting the arts and creativity, calling for exempting the cultural production inputs from taxes, respecting the country’s cultural diversity and documenting for it.
He further called for boosting the publishing sector and attaching concern to the educational publications together with restoration of educational publications such as al-Sibyan magazine.
He pointed to the issues facing the singing and thee singers, saying that singing was still underestimated.
He said, in this connection, that one of the directors of Radio Omdurman said that arts and singing were prohibited, explaining that this issue was a subject of debate during the 1990s despite the fact that during the 1950s, the lyrical songs were approved by a committee in terms of language and content.
He further wondered why in the third millennium a magazine such as Huwa wa Hiya (He & She) is distributed free, while a magazine such as al-Sibyan ceased to be published.
“You can’t figure out what is really going on?” wondered Shurahbeel . 
Regarding the reason behind preserving his voice intact, Shurahbeel said because he was aware of his vocal abilities and because he followed what was mentioned in the vocal education book and refrained from smoking, alcohols, hot food and cold water.
People for whom he sang:
Shurahbeel said he sang for many singers including singer Harry Belafonte who came to Sudan to participate in a singing festival to alleviate hunger in Africa, and the 1988 floods victims. He also recalled a remarkable singing tour to Addis Ababa with a group of Sudanese singers when he received a gold medal from King Haile Selassie.
“Haile Selassie commended my singing and thought I was an American singer and not a Sudanese”, said Shurahbeel .
He described the Ethiopians’ appreciation and love for the Sudanese singing as “a source of pride and made me realize the huge responsibility upon my shoulders to work to preserve the distinguished color of the Sudanese singing at all forums”.
He said he participated in many Arab festivals including the African Arts festival in Algeria, Tunisia’s festival and the inauguration of the Arab theatre in Iraq besides the invitations by the Sudanese communities in the European and Arab countries for me to sing for them.
He further said that he regularly attended the annual opera in Cairo, explaining that he could not attend the Cairo opera in 2009 because he participated in a national work in Washington at an invitation by the Sudanese ambassador there.
He said he also participated in external events relating to painting including his participation in the first painting exhibition in Paris at the time when France won the World Cub in addition to an exhibition in Addis Ababa and another in Paris.
Shurahbeel says arts and artists have an ancient message in wars, peace and knowledge besides entertainment, adding that his message, for which he invites all the artists and singers, is a message of knowledge and affinity to the homeland, a message through which can all inform about our homeland via the country’s different dialects of its various tribes of Nuba, Hadandawa, Dinka, Zaghawa and all others to preserve our distinguished diversity and disseminate peace and love.
He further reiterated that other than entertainment, arts have many other roles represented in the tales of grandmothers and heroic stories, explaining that the history of Sudan embodied many lyrical stories on bravery, harvest and marriage ceremonies.
In our present era, Shurahbeel said the songs carry messages for the sports people and for disaster managements, adding that “for instance, I sang in different Sudanese dialects to bring the Sudanese people together. Such a matter avails the opportunity for further communication among the people of one homeland and removes all barriers between them. What the official diplomacy fails to achieve can be achieved through the people’s diplomacy. This was an ancient saying, but the people could not translate it into reality”.
“Here, I would like to urge the Afro-Asian Studies Institute to motivate any student who manages to learn a Sudanese dialect and grants him/her an academic degree to preserve our country’s diversity so that our multi-cultures will endure”, added Shurahbeel .
In the meantime, the Sudanese king of jazz stated that he was planning to perform single hits and document for some historical Sudanese personalities via paintings and story series.
He said he would write about Tajooj and Mihaira and document for historical personalities from the Mahadist era.
He further regretted lack of a huge museum in Sudan and expressed hope that his oil paintings would be a nucleus for a huge museum that incarnates the rich history of Sudan and the Sudanese.
With his combined skills of painting, music and acting it is hard to tell where did our renowned singer started, but we can say that there were great contributions by a distinguished singer who worked tirelessly to grant the coming generations a rich and successful experience that extended for over fifty years.
Female role in Shurahbeel carrier
Shurahbeel has meanwhile pointed to the vital role played by women in his musical life and he pointed out to his cousin Ms. Zakia Abul Gasim, a “courageous and talented person” to venture into such a field rarely frequented by ladies in the Sudanese society.
She joined the band not as a mere numerical addition but an effective and contributing member in the bank, in the early sixties … only four years after t he bank was established by Shurahbeel himself… her presence as a guitarist in the bank, pioneering lady in this field to be ever frequented by a lady in the Sudan.
This in the words of Shurahbeel “I have come to realize one of the objectives of my carrier … to have the opposite sex well involved in the public life… which by all means is a natural practice that should cover all walks of life..”
He stressed that from that point on Zakia build more confidence in herself and her abilities which would later on be seen in her move to create her own female band… having travelled all over the continent from Somalia to Ethiopia to Eritrea to France , Geraman7 and Algeria as well as Egypt and performed at the Egyptian Opera House
It is thus marked in the history of this personality that he was the first Sudanese to introduce the Jazz music and the blues style of music…
To produce music and come up with great hits has not deterred Zakia and her husband Shurahbeel from raising wonderful kids, seven boys and girls, and despite the difficulties of rearing seven children and at the same time playing music, the couple was able to complement each other and overcome hurdles seeing all their children growing up and following their footprints ” it is a matter of genes”, because after some time the children all moved in the same direction, some going artists, other going musicians and singers other going into the domain of arts.
But the family, in this case Zakia, made sure that their children went to receive proper college education… Zakia froze all activities in the troupe devoted her life to raising the kids who studies in Cairo’s American university in the Sudan and other area…She stayed close to her children in Cairo as of the year 2000, but after eleven years ..year after year, Shurahbeel going to Cairo to meet with the family who will then play a family band and then come back after vacation to leave them continue their studies… they finally come out graduates… it was wonderful.. And although Zakia has continued her musical activities, it was a separate course…She is now focused on venturing into a new field, the first of its kind; once again… she is now entertaining a new pure musical band known as “SawaSawa female musical band for music and singing…” says Shurahbeel with a pride in his voice…
Shurahbeel is currently working as a cooperating lecturer at the Sudan University of Science and Technology, a new challenge in which he is to excel.. 

 

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