Songs of resistance and other songs of the  Beja

The Beja people live in the north of Sudan, in the barren, mountainous regions between the valley of the Nile and the Red Sea. Their territory stretches from the borders of Egypt to the north of Eritrea. Their population is estimated to be three million, distributed over a dozen tribes. The Beja are above all nomadic farmers, even though some are now settled and cultivate cereals on the alluvial plains of the rare rivers which cross these arid and desolate regions. The El Gash delta, of the same name as the river which crosses it, is one of these oases of fertility. The Beja are Muslims, partially arabized, and they speak a cushitic language.

In 1956, the independent Sudanese State was created. In 1958, in order to speak with a single voice, the Beja formed a political party which united the various tribes. At the time, the country was going through a period of severe political troubles and was facing a first secessionist rebellion by the southern peoples. Throughout the eighties a new war for the autonomy of the Christian and animist south pitted the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), led by colonel John Garang, against the Islamic government in Khartoum. A military coup brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power in 1989. In the general clamp down which followed, the Beja Congress, infuriated by the exactions imposed on the Beja community, subject to intense pressure towards assimilation and settlement, decided to take up arms against the central power (Kassala Conference, April 10th 1994) and to rally to the other rebel movements (Declaration of Asmara, 1995).

The first great armed offensive led by the Beja (1997), with the support of the diaspora and the discreet backing of the Eritrean government, liberated a territory several dozen kilometers wide along practically the whole length of the Eritrean border. This territory, where approximately 200 000 Beja live, is today directly administered by the Beja Congress. The civil populations of this liberated zone, victims of a forgotten war, receive only a pitifully insufficient and sadly sporadic international humanitarian aid. The recent intensification of American aid (2000) to the Beja, is probably due only to the recent political and strategic upheavals in the region and... to the huge petroleum interests.

The war led by the Beja against the Islamic regime of Khartoum is not a war of independence but is rather intended to create a federal state in which the Beja would enjoy greater autonomy and the legitimate respect of their cultural identity.

Ima livret basbar 112

Musical practise
The Beja sing mainly at tribal feasts or during family celebrations (marriages, births, funerals, etc.). Their repertoire is divided into collective songs (with dances) such as the
bibobe (in a circle, standing up) and the siera (in a circle, sitting), and individual songs which include both traditional and recent songs. These songs, traditional or modern, can be classified into love songs ( khane ), war songs ( birirt ), epic songs ( akikt ), "critical" songs ( newab ), songs of praise ( hamad ) and funeral songs ( habool ). These last are mainly sung by women. Two types of instruments accompany these songs: a quadrangular symmetrical lyre with five metallic strings ( basenkob ) and drums ( delooka ) with one or two skins. Special drums are sometimes used for special occasions, such as a declaration of war ( nogara ) or for funerals ( kaboor ). Similarly, there is a variation to the women's vocalizations ( leelt ) during funerals ( yeet ).

The public practise of music is generally reserved for men. Women prefer to sing within their family circle and have developed their own repertoire in addition to the traditional repertoire. The learning of music is subject to no particular social rule. It is the talent of a musician which determines his fame. Each community or group also has a professional poet - the
labib - who is chosen for his talent. This person may also be a musician, as is the case for Arka Mohammad Sabir, one of the two performers on this record. Labibs enjoy great power and considerable influence. Indeed, it is said to be unwise to get on a labib's wrong side, for his words could pursue your family over several generations...

Arka Mohammad Sabir and Sidi Doshka
Arka Mohammad Sabir - in his thirties - is the first singer of the Beja resistance, a movement which he joined in 1996 after deserting from the regular Sudanese army. He belongs to a reputed line of labib (poets) from the tribe of Gamilab-Redey, established in the region of the river Gash. Nowadays, the songs which made his reputation are known all over the north of Sudan, well beyond the liberated zone. This success is due, among other things, to the community of the Janikat (women of easy virtue) who transmit his repertoire and who have also composed several songs of praise ( hamad ) in his honour. In ancient Beja culture, that's to say before Islamization, morals were much freer. Today, small pockets of this ancestral liberalism persist, allbeit discreetly, as these Janikat prostitutes demonstrate.

Sidi Doshka - also in his thirties - is another famous figure of the Beja resistance. His tribe, the Atman-Sidab, is settled in the region of Port Sudan, a town in which he was a semi-professional musician before joining the Beja Congress in 1999 and participating in the armed struggle.

These recordings were made in June 2001 in Molober, on the border between Eritrea and Sudan. The male chorus singers are militiamen from the Beja People's Liberation army.
The two female singers are from villages in the region.

 CD Tracks

  1. Farsab  - "Heroes" (akikt )
    This song praises the Beja fighters and their courage.
    "(...) Now, we the Beja, have left behind ignorance and have learnt how to fight. We cross enemy defences without hesitation (...)" The chorus singers emphasize the point: "The Beja will not accept injustice".
    This song also mentions that even the religious figures (
    fagiri ) and the clan and village chiefs (hada
    ), traditionally conservative in their views, support the armed struggle.
    " We will not give up our rights. Let us be master of our land and we will be good neighbours ! "

  2. Dorarait - "Honour" (birirt )
    This war song exhorts the Bejas to carry on their struggle and holds up the martyrs fallen in combat as an example. It also refers to the territorial limits of the Beja country which stretches "from Chalatin (a village near the Egyptian border) to Khiari (in the south)".

  3. Basbara - "The courageous" (akikt )
    Basbara also means "young". "The young people have taken their responsibilities seriously, they are full of honour and bravery. The
    basbara are known for their skills. They form the Beja army. They defend their territory with courage."
    The title the Beja chose for this album,
    , can be likened to a war cry and could be translated as "The struggle goes on !"

  4. Labasoï (akikt )
    "Because he had lost several of his brothers, Labasoï remained on the battlefield until his death. In paradise he will be surrounded by celestial nymphs (
    huriat ??? ). He had a great reputation, he was a true warrior (...). One day Labasoï met his destiny: we must remember him".
    The singer, Sidi Doshka, states in the song itself that this is not a funeral song (
    habool ), but rather is historical.
    Commander Labasoï, a member of the central committee of the Beja Congress died in combat in June 1999 at Kadabot, defending an entrenched position on a mountainside. For his sacrifice and courage, he is considered to be the first martyr in the struggle undertaken by the Beja against the Islamist régime of Khartoum.

  5. Haida doba  - "The best husband" (khane )
    This old traditional song is only performed during marriages. It refers to the preparations and the red material (
    quable ) with which the groom covers his head when he is "ready". "
    This man is not alone. He has brothers and cousins who will protect him."

  6. Labasoï (birirt )
    This other song dedicated to Labasoï, this time interpreted by Arka Mohammad Sabir, is more of an exhortation than an epic narration.
    "That which Labasoï did will remain engraved in our memories for centuries! Mother Sudan, lift up your head, your sons are ready to defend you. We have taken many RPJs (Russian/Soviet anti-tank weapons ???) from the enemy. The east of Sudan is now ours and we will carry on the fight. Our people are with us."

  7. Masoola chikiana - "The powers that be are afraid" (birirt )
    This song evokes the attack against the Sinkat oil pipeline in 1999.
    "The brave Beja soldiers crossed the desert and blew up the oil pipeline. The government will no longer be able to pay its debts. The oil flows into the sand. We will not stop until we win back our rights."

  8. Galbijena - "My heart is sad" (khane )
    This very ancient song evokes a state of melancholy and love -
    laheba - which is as impossible to translate as the saudade of the lusophones. The singer uses both the local dialect (the hidareb ) and the dominant tigré.
    "The woman who lives in the Gash delta has stolen my heart (the name of the woman is never given). My soul is far from her. We are apart. Don't try to describe her beauty to me, I already know it."

  9. Kassala (khane )
    "My heart is with the girls in Kassala. My heart is sick with love and only the sweet words of the women can heal it. After I loved her, she left me for Kassala... Oh! My heart, I will take you to Kassala. My heart is suffering. I cannot sleep without seeing her again, but she is in Kassala...".
    The separation evoked in this old love song takes on a political dimension here since the town of Kassala is still under the control of the central Sudanese government.

  10. Doshka (khane )
    From the name of a heavy machine gun of Soviet manufacture. This however is not a war song, but rather a love song dedicated to a young girl who bears the sweet name of this fearful weapon...
    "I love her like the meal after the fast, like the soup of he who has not eaten, like the joy of a father who awaits a child... Doshka, Doshka, my heart is lost..."

  11. Shohada - "Martyrs" (birirt )
    This song addresses Beja members of the Islamic National Front in power in Khartoum, that's to say, the traitors.
    "(...) To you who whisper to get news of the front and who are afraid to be heard by the enemy, come and join us or speak out! Ask surviving fighters, if you still have doubts, ask at the Kadabot mountain (...)." The song is also addressed to those who hesitate: "We did not stay in our houses when it was time to go to the front. We have faced up to death or victory." 

  12. Aratanib  - "If you ask me" (birirt )
    "(...) I will explain to them the injustices: the peasants who they leave to die without hospital care, the policemen who hold travelers to ransom, the lands stolen from the peasants, ..."

  13. Min Halaieb  - "Since Halaieb" (akikt )
    This very long song, interpreted by Arka Mohammad Sabir and Sidi Doshka, gives a stage by stage account of the itinerary of a traveler crossing the Beja country. The journey, by truck, begins at Halaieb on the Egyptian border and ends in Kassala, "the mother of all towns" crossing El Gash and passing through Port Sudan and many other marvellous places on the way.