The Habibi Funk compilations go back through the music of North Africa and the Middle East. Explanations from Berlin cratedigger Jannis Stürtz as Volume 8, devoted to Sudanese musician Kamal Keila, is released.
Diggers are not yet finished burrowing in the endless well of popular music, unearthing gems all around the world. Certain regions have already been meticulously searched by fans who have stirred up the dust at every record store and delved into the archives of coutless old labels. However this is not the case in Sudan, which is still relatively unexplored territory, even though every dig there reveals the existence of a sparkling, active musical heritage.
Archaeologist of Arab music
The co-founder of the Berlin hip hop label Jakarta, Jannis Stürtz, has become a shrewd agent for modern Arabic music of the 1960s to the 1980s. In 2013, While he was accompanying the Ghanaian rapper, Blitz the Ambassador, to the Mawazine festival in Rabat, he took advantage of a few days off to visit local record stores and get his hands on some overlooked treasures—little or not at all documented—that sealed the meeting of Eastern chants and Western modernism, especially funk’s syncopation. Convinced that he had found a mother lode, Jannis created the sub-label Habibi Funk, on which he released the Tunisian group Dalton in 2015, Moroccan singer Fadoul, Algerian composer of film scores Ahmed Malek, and more.
The case of Kamal Keila, to whom Volume 8 is dedicated, is typical of this approach. Jannis Stürtz, who was looking for information about Sudanese music, spotted his name on a blog specialized in the kind of jazz he was producing in Khartoum in the 1970s. The scene wasn’t widespread. Kamal Keila himself never released an album; only a now untraceable cassette, recorded in Libya in 1976, could be proof of his only album. But the musician is aged 89 and is still alive. Living in a modest house in a Khartoum suburb and excited by the prospect of an international release, he initially expressed the suspicion of those who have been cheated in the past. “Then, when the contract was signed and the advance on the rights had been paid, he became as excited as we were,” recalls Jannis, who had gone to his house. He was fortunate that while Kamal Keila himself did not own his only cassette, he kept the tapes recorded during two sessions made in 1992 for the national radio. It was unpublished work, on which the Sudanese played 10 songs, most of them old. This is where we finally discover this artist influenced by Fela Kuti’s afrobeat, Mulatu Astatke’s ethio-jazz, and the funk of James Brown, whose dance steps he reproduced during his concerts.
Funk in torn country
Kamal Keila also had messages to share. “It’s not just about dancing and having fun,” he states in the liner notes. “There are lessons to give.” On the mid-tempo Muslims and Christians that gives the album its title, he sings, “Some of us are Muslims, some of us are Christians, some live in the south, some live in the north. We’re a nation; Sudan is a nation.” The country was torn apart for several decades by a civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south, until the declaration of independence of South Sudan in 2011. Kamal Keila lived through this history, sometimes censored, sometimes close to power. “The relationship between the regime and music was never completely back and white,” explains Jannis Stürtz. “Even after 1989, when the Islamists took power, music was never banned. However, artists were persecuted, imprisoned, exiled for what they had said in their songs previously. Kamal was close to Gaafar Nimeiry (Prime Minister from 1969 to 1985 – Ed.) who often took him on long trips. With the arrival of Omar el-Béchir (the general who introduced an Islamic legal code in 1989 – Ed.), his message was no longer in line with the regime, which hurt his career, However, Kamal remained a symbol of unity, and el-Béchir asked him to sing at the signing of the peace treaty (in 2005 – Ed.). After the concert, however, several members of the delegation came to tell him the he did not represent Sudan. That’s a little story that gives an insight of the regime’s nuanced relationship with music in general and with Kamal in particular. ”
“Sudan at the heart of Africa,” sang Kamal Keila, who declared pan-African dreams. Today, it’s not sure that his message is getting through to the protagonists in an extremely tense region. Maybe he consoles himself knowing that his music is finally reaching our ears, thanks to Habibi Funk.
Kamal Keila, Muslims and Christians (Habibi Funk)