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  • UNESCO Collection Week 51: Music of the Blue Nile

    This week’s UNESCO reissues feature tribal music from the Blue Nile Province of Sudan, focusing on an eclectic range of music infused with native and immigrant cultures.


    by Annie Hammang

    Music of the Blue Nile Province: The Gumuz Tribe
    This week UNESCO releases two albums, Music of the Blue Nile Province: The Gumuz Tribe and Ingessana and Berta Tribes, recorded in the southeast of Sudan in the early 1980s. While certain tones, instruments, and subject matters often tie together the sound of even the most comprehensive regional compilations, the different ensembles and singers featured on these albums represent music sometimes radically different from one another. The musical heritage of Blue Nile Region is a product of unique circumstances. Civil war and successive military coups in Ethiopia in the 1970s forced dozens of geographically distant tribes to cross the border into neighboring Sudan and relocate? into nearby villages with older local tribes. Diverse musical traditions mixed together along with the people, and the end result is less a stew of sounds than a tossed salad, a kind of dish where several discrete parts come together to form a whole.
    Music of the Blue Nile Province: Ingessana and Berta Tribes
    Some tracks sound Appalachian or faintly Calypso: a man singing a sad song to a scratchy lyre or a group of women singing in call and response to the rhythm of a shaker. I find it uncanny how familiar these tracks feel, though less surprising perhaps when considering the giant undercurrent of African influences in folk, jazz, Appalachian old-time, and so many other genres of American music. Other tracks though, like those from the Kome-m’Dinga Ensemble, seem a world apart: a whirl of shrill, lilting kome flutes improvising in syncopated arrangements with m’dinga barrel drums and a chorus of female singers sporadically chiming in.

    The liner notes suggest Indonesian influences from across the Indian Ocean, audible on “Wandia”). In “Sowa,” a few songs later,the listener is wrapped up in inescapably Arabian drumbeats setting the rhythm to female dancers ornamented with jangling waist bells.

    Some album standouts can be found in the vertical flute Buhlu Ensemble tracks. The closest sound I have to grasp at for Western comparison is Philip Glass, or some other minimalist modern composer. The flutes in this ensemble move through a hypnotic repetition that shift through subtle changes and continually hook the listener deeper into the song.

    Some cultural context colors the edges of the liner notes included with this album, but they are mostly a painstaking compendium of the technical details: instrumental arrangements on the tracks, diagrams of the chord progressions and octave ranges, and descriptions of indigenous instrument design. The song texts are written out here too, and the subject matter is as varied as the music itself. Some are light and recreational, silly and obscene (Ingessana and Berta album, Kogder); others commemorate contemporary political figures (Watana Numeiry above); others still are ancient ballads that handle war, famine, and death. It seems that the compilers are doing their best to represent a sum total of life in the Blue Nile Region with this album, and the effect is a bit dizzying. These are not albums easily processed in a first listen, or even a second one. It takes some time and digesting before these disparate parts really resolve into focus, but it’s a digestion well worth the effort.

    Annie Hammang is an ex-DJ of KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, California. She works in biotechnology but remains an anthropology enthusiast and sometimes writer on the side.

    UNESCO Collection Week 51: Music of the Blue Nile | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings