Though they hail from the eastern city of Port Sudan, Noori & His Dorpa Band have come to know Khartoum intimately, carving out a niche for themselves as artists in the capital. Band leader Noori spoke to writer Sajae Elder about the cultural and culinary spots in and around Khartoum that connect them with their Beja background and Sudan’s artistic legacies.
Images by Rayan Elnayal.
The Beja people who inhabit the eastern deserts and mountainous Red Sea Hills region of Sudan have a cultural heritage that dates back millennia. And yet within Sudan, little is known about them—an erasure resulting from careful design. Much of the group’s ancestral lands contain vast gold deposits, and for decades, the Sudanese government has sold it off to foreign companies and displaced its residents, stifling their ethnic music, art, and culture in the process. And saddled by lingering colonial stereotypes that cast them as backwards and lazy, Beja voices have been continuously silenced.
With their debut album, “Beja Power!,” released by New York label Ostinato Records, Noori & His Dorpa Band hope to forward a new narrative. “I want Beja music to travel far and wide, and hope that when people think of Sudan, East Africa, or the Red Sea, they think of Beja culture alongside everything else they know from these places,” says the band’s leader, Noori.
“Beja Power!” is, in effect, a rallying cry for a people whose complex histories have placed the community at the forefront of political change in Sudan. During the recent shift in political power, sparked by 2018 street protests and civil disobedience against then-President Omar al-Bashir, the Beja people were among the loudest voices of dissent, attacking the government for denying them fair representation in politics and culture. With an electric blend of modern soul, jazz, blues, country, and surf rock sounds with ancient Beja rhythms, the album acts as the soundtrack to the country’s revolution, harboring a deeper message about the marginalization of one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups.
“Our music does not sound like anywhere else in the country. It is even played in a different scale from the rest of the country,” Noori explains. “That sound is completely its own, and I want people to understand how rich, ancient, and beautiful our culture is.”
Noori has been creating music since the 1990s, focusing squarely on keeping Beja culture alive through song. The band’s unique sound, deeply rooted in traditional Sudanese melodies, is largely down to Noori’s one-of-a-kind tambo-guitar—an electric guitar with a tambour drum (a gift from his father) welded to its neck.
Following the country-wide protests and military coup in Sudan in late 2021, Ostinato Records founder Vik Sohonie headed to the country’s capital of Khartoum, intent on discovering what the revolution soundedlike. A chance swipe on Sudanese TikTok would bring him into the world of Noori & His Dorpa Band, a mysterious collective from Port Sudan.
With very few recordings of Beja music ever produced, and even fewer that still remain, “Beja Power!” serves as a call out to the past and future. It’s a guided journey through Sudanese history, and the changing sounds of a country in flux. While the group is rooted in their hometown of Port Sudan, they’ve been able to find important elements of Beja culture in and around Khartoum, where they’re now based. I spoke with Noori about the places that keep them connected to eastern Sudan and to the country’s musical legacy.
“There is little work in Port Sudan or in Beja country in the east, so many of us must come to the capital. To us, Seelat offers a taste of home. It’s a simple place where we can celebrate things casually as a band, like recording a new album, and enjoy a meal with other Beja people who have come to the capital to work. We’ll have cuts of goat, beef, and pork that have been salted and cooked on hot stones, and eat it with bread, tahini, and shatta, a spicy dip made of nuts, green chilies, lime, salt, and garlic. This is nomadic people's food—we come from a harsh, arid environment, so the cuisine must be simple.”
“This is a legendary institution, built in 1959. During independence, governments invested a lot in culture, since they saw it as a way to emerge from colonial rule. The seats are red, velvet, and plush, and people dress in fine outfits and wear oud perfumes when they go. The Nile river is just behind it, so there’s lush greenery surrounding it. Many famous musicians from Sudan and other parts of Africa have performed on that stage. Though the size has diminished over the years, and it doesn’t have the prestige it once did, the theater remains a testament to Sudan’s commitment to culture. Beja culture has not graced its stage yet, but that should change.”
“In Sudan, we only eat communally. There is no head of the table. We are all equals before food. Hospitality is sacred. Fish restaurants in particular are a key pillar for Sudanese cuisine because we have delicious fresh fish from the Nile. There are many famous ones, but Awadia Samak in Omdurman, where many artists eat, is especially revered. It’s run by an older woman who many people in the community know. The setting is simple, but charming—small, low wooden tables and stools made of rope and wood. The fish is so fresh that it produces little smell. What you smell instead is the spicy scent of masala seasoning, and the large vat of brewing sharbot—a drink made of fermented dates and spices like ginger, galangal, and cloves. We brought Vik and Janto to eat fish with us many times. These fish restaurants are the entryways for our hospitality.”
“Al Tabia is the site where Sudan’s resistance fought off the British. It is now in ruins and the sands have taken it over, you can still imagine the daleb[melody] being played here. This site has an energy and a history that gives us all strength as Sundanese people, and as Beja people, because we were able to beat a colonial power.”
“The Professional Musicians Union in Omdurman is an old place with dilapidated walls, soundproof rooms, and flickering lights. It’s also the premier meeting ground for the country’s artists. It’s been around for decades, but was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when the most famous artists from Sudan and elsewhere in Africa would play together, enjoy a hot tea, talk about life and come up with new ideas. (It’s also where the famed musician Khojali Osman was tragically killed.) We’ve spent a great deal of time here ourselves, and even recorded the ‘Beja Power!’ here. Today it is not in the best condition, but as a band, we feel honored to be part of this venue's history.”
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