For the last couple of years Sudan’s music scene has seen the rise of the stellar all-women band Salute Yal Bannot. Based in Khartoum, this group of seven women use their captivating voices to advocate for women’s rights. Harmonising and rapping in English and Arabic, they create soulful, catchy melodies with inspiring lyrics about the struggles faced by women, from FGM to self-love.
Their vibrant live shows have earned them a performance at the renowned TEDx event, and a place at the TV talent programme Arabs Got Talent 2017 semi-finals.
At a crossroads between African and Arabic cultures, Sudan has a rich and unique history of musical expression and cultural exchange. Mixing traditional ethnic rhythms with Arabic instruments like guitars, ouds and violins, modern music in Sudan also fuses jazz, hip hop and reggae.
Female singers became socially accepted for the first time in the 1960s, echoing the rise of girl groups in the west. Since then many have risen to popularity, like the group Al Balabil, also known as “The Nightingales“.
Although the country’s music has faced repression with the establishment of strict laws in 1989, it still remains an important part of everyday life.
“We don’t have lots of festivals or music events, like when my parents were young. So we now turn to weddings”, Hiba Elgizouli tells us. “Weddings are like festivals, you have to have an artist, no matter what it costs. Weddings are where people most enjoy music and dance”.
Hiba, one of Salute Yal Bannot’s very talented singers and songwriters, shares her experience and passion for music with NADJA.
Respect For The Girls
Hiba’s love affair with music started when she was nine years old. Then living in Egypt, her mum enrolled her and her siblings in a multi-disciplinary art workshop to learn about drawing, singing and playing music. The moment she saw a piano, her passion for music was ignited.
“It was the first time I really saw a piano. I remembered seeing it on TV and I just wanted to try it. When I did, I couldn’t stop myself. I immediately fell in love with the sounds it makes.”
From that moment, she would wake her sister up two hours before the workshop started to go and play piano, lost in the music. She began practising singing and playing at the same time when she got her first keyboard at age fourteen.
Four years later she went back to Sudan to go to university and study business management. She joined the university band, where she would meet future members of Salute Yal Bannot.
Salute Yal Bannot, or “Respect For The Girls” in English, was formed in 2016, after Hiba and ten musician friends joined the Yalla Khartoum workshop, an urban arts project at the Goethe Institut. The group initially consisted of seven singers and four musicians playing drums, guitar, bass guitar, and piano. Mentored by hip hop African American artist Akua Naru, Hiba describes the experience as life-changing. Besides gaining an amazing musical experience, it transformed Hiba on a personal level.
“I used to go on stage to sing and perform, and then I would go back home and have really bad anxiety. I couldn’t sleep well, I needed to have something to distract me”.
Even if her performance was great and everybody, including herself, liked it, Hiba would still be picking herself to pieces. She tried many techniques to calm her anxiety but nothing worked. Until the Yalla Khartoum workshop.
“I never told Akua I suffered from this, but somehow I was healed from it by working with her and the girls. Since then until now, I don’t have anxiety at all. It brings tears to my eyes every time I tell this story”.
Don’t touch me
Don’t cut me
Don’t cut my wings away
Salute Yal Bannot write, compose and perform their own songs. Most of them were initially created during the workshop. But since the group split into two bands a few months ago, Hiba and guitarist and songwriter Walaa Elmahi compose the songs together.
Usually either Hiba or Walaa come up with a chorus, a verse or a concept that they will play to the band. Little by little, the other girls will add their ideas and instruments, building a song together.
With the band members coming from different regions of Sudan, Salute Yal Bannot’s music has diverse influences, making it unique.
“There was a song I started writing, and I had this drum beat to it. When I described it to my musician friends, no one could get it right” says Hiba. “But when I introduced it to our drummer, she played it perfectly because the drums are from the Nuba mountains, where she is from”.
Hiba describes their music as honest. They sing openly about women’s issues such as FGM, women’s empowerment, love and respect. “Akua always told us not to be afraid of anything, we have to, and we need to express ourselves without fear”.
But their straightforward and outspoken style isn’t to everyone’s liking. Some musicians and corporate people from the industry don’t want to cooperate with them because “when you’re so direct, you eliminate one part of society, you eliminate men”.
Female singers, and female bands, have to constantly prove themselves. People are a lot more judgemental towards women musicians than men. Hiba particularly noticed it when they participated in the TV show Arabs Got Talent earlier this year.
“Some parts of Sudanese society support men more than women. When they see a male participant in Arabs Got Talent or The Voice they are like Yaaay! There is no “he cannot sing, he is not so great, he was off-tone this whole song”. But when it’s a woman, they become experts in music”.
I look in the mirror, I only see my flaws
Forgetting and neglecting to appreciate what God
Has given me and blessed me with
My skin, my hair, my eyes,
Changing that would be a sin
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know
With nearly 600 ethnic groups and more than 100 languages and dialects, racism in Sudan is a daily part of life. It is deep rooted and complex due to the racial mixture of various populations. Although the name Sudan comes from “bilad al sudan”, Arabic for “the land of the blacks”, the darker you are, the more difficult it is for you, Hiba tells us.
Racism is not only the norm in Sudanese everyday life, but a taboo subject too.
When Akua addressed it during the Yalla Khartoum workshop it was a wake-up call for Hiba and the girls.
“She brought paper and divided us into groups, and asked how we’re brought up. Four girls were brought up in either Egypt or Saudi Arabia, some in Sudan, and some have never been anywhere outside Sudan. She drew a hierarchy chart and asked where society puts us according to our tribe or skin colour.”
“Some girls put themselves at the top, some at the bottom and some at the very bottom. She asked one of the girls who put herself at the very bottom how she felt about it. She replied: “I feel sad. I feel really sad”. That moment hit us all because we don’t really talk about these things, and they are really important.”
That exercise was followed by long discussions with Akua about her own experience of racism and white supremacy in America.
It was after this eye-opening experience that the group decided to focus on women’s issues, particularly black women’s. They want to spread positive messages about identity, unity, solidarity, and respect, and help women to build up their self-esteem.
“Young girls and women are not confident at all. Most young ladies want to look lighter, look a particular way. It’s disturbing.” Hiba tells us. “Racism cuts the person very badly.”
“For me, I would rather get [dirty] looks on the bus for raising my voice than for having short, nappy hair. I take the hair part more personally; it hurts me more”.
We’re a black and wonderful nation full of joy and
We’re united and not in isolation,
We’re strong and we say no for hesitation,
Victory is gonna be our final destination.
African Girl is Hiba’s favourite song from Salute Yal Bannot. “The song is special to me because it brags about our identity when the world tells you that you shouldn’t brag about being black or being African.”
Imbued with a party vibe, this celebration of African Women is irresistibly catchy, and resonates with the band members as well as the public.
“Every time we play it on stage I feel like everyone is so engaged, and we all have so much fun playing it. And people like it a lot. It’s nice when girls come to us and say our music is inspiring and makes them feel good.”
Hiba’s hopes for the future of the band? To keep producing, “writing our souls out” as she puts it, and reaching as many people as possible.
To all the girls and women, but also boys and men out there, Hiba wants to say:
“You have to express yourselves. Not be afraid of anything or anyone. Expression is important.”
Music is a universal language that transcends cultural differences, language barriers and geographical borders. It is the most powerful expression of them all, and Salute Yal Bannot have mastered it beautifully.