This weekend there's a remarkable event in Detroit - the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival. At a time of genocide in Darfur and other conflicts in Sudan's south, east and north, the festival brings together musicians from across the African nation to perform on one stage. It's a sharp contrast from real life; the very picture of Sudanese harmony and unity.

The festival debuted in Chicago last week, Banning Eyre was there and he has this report.

BANNING EYRE: Thirty-three musicians took the stage at Chicago's majestic Millennium Park. They formed an orchestra of brass, strings, percussion, guitars and keyboards who together backed eight singers from different regions. In all, it was a pageant of the Sudan that could be.

There was Ali Alsigaid representing the country's dominant orchestral pop tradition.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALI ALSIGAID (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Omer Ihsas delivered driving rhythms and passionate melodies from his home region, Darfur.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OMER IHSAS (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Two sisters from the 1970s supergroup Al Balabil — the nightingales — brought in the flavor of Sudan's Nubian north.

(Soundbite of music)

AL BALABIL (Group): (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Sudan is Africa's largest country, home to some 300 ethnic groups and practitioners of Islam, Christianity and animist religions. It achieved independence in 1956, but after a long history of divide-and-rule politics by Egyptian, Turkish, British and Sudanese leaders, Sudan is still struggling to become a nation.

That struggle was on display in Chicago. The Sudanese community there includes many so-called lost boys - refugees from the civil war in the south. Some of them wondered why the south was not more strongly represented in the concert program. There was one southern singer, a young man who goes by the name Dynamq.

DYNAMQ (Singer): Our southern part of Sudan, I think our music is more like the underground music in America. There are a lot of musicians, but it's the opportunities. They don't have the ability to say, you know what, I have a song in mind. Let me get in my car and go to the studio and lay it down.

(Soundbite of song "Inner City War")

DYNAMQ: (Singing) You know, my people can't go out. People everyday.

EYRE: With an overtly political reggae song called "Inner City War," Dynamq was something of a fish out of water rehearsing with musicians from Khartoum's musical elite.

(Soundbite of song "Inner City War")

EYRE: But the artists were determined to overcome cultural, stylistic and historic divisions. Here's Hadia Talsam from Al Balabil.

Ms. HADIA TALSAM (Member, Al Balabil): Everywhere there is a problem. It's not only west. It's not only south. In the north as well, people are also dying. So if everybody is talking about his problem, particularly, then who is going to represent the whole country? It's us.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: As the concert neared, there were issues - funding shortages, late arrivals that disrupted a tight rehearsal schedule, visa complications that stranded musicians in Khartoum and Cairo, and most dangerous of all, a false rumor that the largely hated Sudanese regime was behind the festival.

Veteran Sudanese producer and orchestra director Yousif El Mosley responded.

Mr. YOUSIF EL MOSLEY (Producer and Orchestra Director): I told them, how come lost boys going to do something with Sudanese government? How come city of Chicago can deal with Sudanese government? Impossible.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: As the concert began, the elegant music of Sudan swept over Millennium Park where a crowd was gathering despite iffy weather.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: Later on, a fierce Chicago thunderstorm struck, forcing the most determined fans, including many Sudanese, to the sheltered zone close to the stage where they shouted and waved, creating the atmosphere of a street party.

Omer Ihsas represented Darfur with a mighty voice and soaring spirit. And Al Balabil, the last to sing, showed why they were once called The Supremes of Sudan. The big surprise for musical director El Mosley turned out to be that young southern singer, Dynamq.

Mr. EL MOSLEY: Dynamq is brave, because he knows the voice is the most important part of the game. So he played with the voice. He played with communicating with the audience. I loved him very much.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: In the concert's moving finale, artists, organizers and lost boys sang and danced together before a sea of waving arms. And for one beautiful moment, Sudan became a nation.

For NPR NEWS, I'm Banning Eyre.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from