Abazar Hamid’s soft-molded voice offers little about a man whose 200 songs has earned him brutal expulsion from the oil-rich African state of Sudan when his lyrics angered Mr. Omar Al Bashir, the world’s first sitting president to be indicted for genocide.
“I’m Abazar Hamid, 44, from central Sudan, 200 kilometres south of the capital Khartoum. I am the Beatles of Sudan,” he declares over bitter coffee at an annual weeklong residency called by the Hildesheim UNESCO chair in cultural policy for the arts in development and funded by the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs to devour the topic of “Artists. Justice. Human Rights.”
“You’re simply a singer?” I ask.
He rebuffs me — “I’m a songwriter, composer, arranger, guitarist, and pianist.”
Abazar is the first-ever guest musician to be granted protection residency in Norway. Along his ordeal, he had to hide 200 songs.
Forced to be an architect
“Growing up, I didn’t get a chance to study music because of the censorship in Sudan. The Muslim Brotherhood seized power in 1989 and stifled all forms of music. Institutes were closed. I was forced to study architecture at the Sudan University of Science and Technology,” he says of the regime of Omar Al Bashir.
Mr. Bashir is the longtime ruler of Sudan who has captured the global imagination after the International Criminal Court in Hague issued a warrant for his arrest, to detain him for what it says is a planned campaign of killings, rape, and pillaging committed in the country’s restive Darfur province.
However, Abazar’s family played a bizarre part in the suppression too. “Socially it was unacceptable to study music especially from my family. Singing is not socially respectful.”
“Fortunately for my mother and unfortunately for me, the coup happened in Sudan and music came under attack for the first four years.”
“I started my first band in varsity. We wanted to organize parallel culture societies to the narratives promoted by the state.” But the band was also struck down. “Muslim Brotherhood students associations combined with state intelligence to put down all other student unions,” he says.
His band’s misdeeds were serious in the eyes of the Brotherhood because, as he puts it, “I am a Muslim. Islam is my culture. But I am also a Muslim that believes Islam is a faith that also needs to be questioned.”
“Just like everything.”
After four years, authorities began to allow some bands to perform, but under full monitoring of the Muslim Brotherhood, he says.
Beatles of Sudan
After varsity, his professional career took off — “singing in parties, doing gigs, weddings, recording songs sort of.”
In 1997 he joined IGD Elgalad, the big band in the country as he calls it. “It is the big band of Sudan. It was established in 1984. It is the Beatles of Sudan. We call it a vocal band because we used the vocals as instruments.”
“I joined them for 7 years,” he reveals. “The main motive of our songs was resistance to the regime of Al Bashaar. Several times we were asked to stop performances.”
Three members of the band tried to flee Sudan but were caught and sent back to the capital Khartoum, he says.
Then in 2004 he made a drastic decision. “I left the band because I could see the band was heading into self-censorship to appease the regime.” He adds, “I began my solo career and released my first album called Good Morning Homein Sudan, Khartoum. It was a love song to the country.Not so revolutionary or radical, just folk songs.”
“It was a type of self-censorship also this album, sadly I now realize. This was a sensitive time when I was trying to establish my career and was trying to sound gentle, not subversive…I was fearful of talking about deeper issues.” The reception was decent, he says. He began to work on a second album — a controversial one.
Rainbow Songs Project
“The aim of this was working with traditional musicians in conflict-affected areas of Sudan like Darfur and Nuba Mountains,” says Abazar. “It was an exercise to promote the reconciliation of Sudan because the country was headed to the referendum of 2010 [a referendum that split South Sudan from the rest of the country].”
To ensure his safety, he got “good help” from NGOs like Care International because, “After the peace agreement we were optimistic about bringing lasting peace.”
“I saw it as my duty to work with others to drive the message that whether it’s a split into two Sudans or one Sudan — peace must not vanish.”
“During the Rainbow Project, I attended a workshop in the Netherlands, returned in 2007, and began to submit my collected lyrics to the Sudan censorship board for approval.”
“All of my material was censored, banned,” he says with a shrug of his lips. “The crime? I called my forthcoming album: “New Sudan.”
Also his supporters, 13 international organizations, were expelled from Sudanafter the International Criminal Court issued a warrant to arrest Mr. Bashir. “Most participants of the Netherlands workshop were arrested and tortured after the warrant.”
In 2008 Abazar had to leave Sudan. “It was too dangerous. I got tired of direct threats,” he says.
Exile to Egypt
Freemuse, the global advocacy group for artists’ freedom, got in contact with Abazar after the Washington Postpublished an article about his censored lyrics. He had to flee to Egypt. “It is close to Sudan. No one invited me to Egypt.” He says, “I got advice from Freemuse that I could continue the Rainbow Songs project from Cairo, Egypt. My family joined me in Cairo after one month.”
Abazar spent six years in Cairo. “I had to extend the scope of the rainbow songs because I found out that this is not only a local Sudanese problem, but a regional challenge — the lack of multicultural co-existence.”
In Egypt Abazar got connected with underground musicians who also suffered from censorship. “I got more committed to the Rainbow Songs project. I got alternative ways of financing — the typical underground to support myself.”
Egypt is a difficult place, I tell him. “Luckily in Egypt, they ignored Sudanese dissident musicians because they are busy with other things. Also because I was invisible. Underground.”
In 2011 the Egyptian Revolution happened and popular protests swept away autocrat Hosni Mubarak from office. “The same Muslim Brotherhood that I ran away from in Sudan took power in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was toppled. It was a scary dilemma.”
Threats surfaced again. “Egypt became bad, even for Egyptians themselves. Threatening visits emerged in Cairo from emissaries claiming to be from the Sudan embassy and Muslim Brotherhood. Someone coming to you saying ‘we can kidnap your son.’”
“I had to register as a refugee with UNHCR straight away,” he says.
In 2013, the Haarstad, a city in northern Norway, declared themselves as an International City of Refuge (ICORN), a “safe city for musicians.”
“I applied and ICORN accepted me,” says Abazar. “I was received as the first guest in all of Norway in December 2014.”
He found his flame again. “I began working again on my Rainbow songs. From Sudan to Cairo to Norway — I composed 200 songs all the way along the journey to exile.”
Remarkable, I tell him. He smiles lightly and describes the language, weather, and the need to integrate in Norway. “My family have settled, they can speak Norwegian fluently, my kids are making friends in the city. That makes me happy. One of my sons is autistic. He gets better medical care in Norway than Sudan.”
“When I came to Norway I lost my Sudan audiences. But I have gained new international supporters for my music.”
“I still have hope to release the Rainbow songs.”
Ray Mwareya is an arts journalistand Dag Hammarskjold Journalism Fund fellow. His writing appears in the Guardian, Huffington Post, and Financial Times.