Songs of Hope for Sudan, When the Censors Allow

Abazar Hamid leads a group of Hakama singers in a rendition of "Peace Darfur," a song that the Sudanese government has censored. Video by Miguel Juarez/The Washington Post
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 19, 2008

AL DAEIN, Sudan -- It is difficult to unleash your inner Bob Marley in Sudan, but singer-songwriter Abazar Hamid is trying. He submits peace and love songs month after month to the government's music monitoring committee, an apparently surly bunch that mostly censors and rejects them.

"Songs like 'New Sudan,' they didn't like. Songs like 'Peace Darfur,' they didn't like. Next week, I'll try the Abyei song," Hamid said, referring to a reggae song about a contested Sudanese town recently destroyed by government forces. It includes the controversial line, "My brother, be with me."

"I talk with them and talk with them, and sometimes they allow it," he said.

Hamid, who is 37 and sweet-voiced, has earned some renown around Khartoum, the capital, for his sentimental love songs that get radio airplay. But he recently decided to give up his day job as an architect to devote himself full time to the more controversial goal of using music to transform a country so often at war with itself.

At the moment, there is conflict in the Darfur region in the west, the possibility of a return to civil war in the south and rebels in the east.

In that context, Hamid's Rainbow Project involves trying to slip lyrics about human rights and dignity past the suspicious government monitors. Hamid, a married father of three who favors groovy hippie shirts and knit caps, is also hoping to record an album of peace songs, if he can find the money and a producer abroad.

But he was here in this desert trading town in Darfur recently working on the most ambitious part of the project. It's an effort to reform the traditional Arab singers known as Hakama -- more colloquially, the Janjaweed women -- who are about as far from Bob Marley as it gets.

"They are singing you have to kill, kill, kill," Hamid said. "They have a big influence on the community and a very dangerous role in conflict."

A bit propagandists, a bit hate radio, Hakama singers exist in just about every Arab town and village in Sudan. Their traditional role is to compose and sing songs to stir up men's baser instincts and launch them to war.

During the early part of the Darfur conflict, many were paid with cash, gold and jewelry by local authorities to sing songs urging the government's nomadic Arab militias -- which came to be known as the Janjaweed -- to kill, rape and pillage ethnically African civilians. According to an Amnesty International report, one lyric went like this:

"The blood of the blacks runs like water, we take their goods and we chase them from our area and our cattle will be in their land!"

Hamid sat in the hot shade of a tree with a dozen or so Hakama singers, trying to convince them of the less financially rewarding, and perhaps less exciting, merits of singing about peace.

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