The legend of Sudanese music Sharhabil Ahmed, who earned the title of Sudan’s King of Jazz for his unique style of music, is equally renowned for his art.

The legend of Sudanese music Sharhabil Ahmed, who earned the title of Sudan’s King of Jazz for his unique style of music, is equally renowned for his art, in particular his cartoon illustrations in the much-loved children’s magazine Al-Sibyan. He is a trailblazer, setting up the first jazz band and which included the first female band member guitarist in Sudan, his wife Zakia. His drive to experiment and innovate continues to this day, most recently in the form of collaborations with other famous African musicians.  

Sharhabil was born in Omdurman in 1935 into an observant Sufi family. His father owned a phonograph and records of Sudanese haqiba and foreign military parade bands. Listening to these different genres of music opened up the world of possibilities in the young boy’s mind.

At an early age, his family moved to El-Obeid in Kurdufan where Sharhabil’s deep fondness for the town was sewn. This was the place where he started watching foreign films at the Arus al-Rimal Cinema and where the array of musical instruments and styles that appeared on the screen inspired him to learn to play the oud. ‘Layali Kurdufan’, an elegy to the region, was the first song he performed at a contest which was organised by Sudan Radio and which he won was the springboard for his music going public.

After finishing school, Sharhabil was encouraged to join the College of Fine and Applied Arts in Khartoum by his friend, the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi. After graduating as a graphic designer in the early 1960s, he joined the Ministry of Education as an illustrator, working on children’s magazines until he retired in 1995. During his time at the ministry, Sharhabil developed, the famous Amak (Uncle) Tangu, a goofy character in Al-Sibyan magazine whose actions always ended in a mishap but with a lesson to learn. He also created the characters Maryud and Jiljil in the magazine Maryud.

Unsurprisingly, Sharhabil mastered a wide range of instruments over time. The first instrument he learned was the oud and it was with this that he made his first public appearances at various venues in Khartoum in the mid-50s. He also joined Sudan Radio’s orchestra playing the violin and he accompanied the players to Wad Madani where they appeared in the first live broadcast outside Omdurman studios. Later, he chose to play the guitar and was a member of a western band that performed at the Gordon Memorial Hall in Khartoum.

As for his singing, this started with Sharhabhil singing to himself, imitating legends like Dean Martin and Tom Jones and other Egyptian stars and only sung his first Sudanese song in 1954. Sharhabil’s voice was approved for Sudan Radio in 1958, but he remembers having difficulties with the Radio’s orchestra not being readily available or hesitant to perform his unusual style of music. Two years later, he was invited to perform his own interpretation of ‘ya hilwat al-aynayn’ at the inauguration of the National Theatre in Omdurman. Before the show, the theatre’s manager suggested the band should wear the same costume and for the first time they were introduced as Sharhabil Ahmad and his jazz band. This first musical experiment he says was the result of listening to Swahili songs and was quickly followed by the hits ‘min fi al-ahiba’ and ‘khatwa khatwa’, in a similar style. In 1971 the nickname ‘King of Sudanese Jazz’ was bestowed on him at a concert at St James’ Hall in Khartoum by the venue owner.

Sharhabil and his wife Zakia grew up together, she used to copy him playing on the oud and guitar until she became quite talented. When he suggested she join the band, Zakia was hesitant because at the time, the common perception of musicians, was that they were delinquents. And so, he suggested they got married and therefore not answerable to her father. Today, several of the couple’s children have had their own very successful musical careers after performing for a while in the family band.

It is hard to label Sharhabil’s music. The music company Habibi Funk, who edited some of his music for a compilation, described his style as ’an incredible mix of rock’n’roll, funk, surf, traditional Sudanese music and influence from Congolese sounds’. Sharhabil himself describes it as ‘Sudanese pop’, an experiment where at the core is a Sudanese piece or song to which he adds foreign styles of music and different instruments to create something new and something that Sudanese music is worthy of. He has also described himself as a researcher of new rhythms stemming from Sudan’s heritage. Today, in his 80s, Sharhabil continues to experiment most recently by collaborating with international artists. In the mid-2000s the Sufi recitation ‘misr al-mu’amana’ was performed with Egyptian musicians and in 2019 the Sudanese classic ‘ana ifriqi’ was performed with, among others, Ethiopia’s Mahmoud Ahmad and Morocco’s Asma El Hamzaoui.

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