One man aims to bring Sudan's nights back to life

Decades after an Islamic revolution, an old-school cat returns to the capital, Khartoum, to start a jazz club.

By , Staff writer

To see downtown Khartoum today – with its sidewalks of broken masonry, piles of trash, and storefronts closed at dusk – it's hard to imagine that just 30 years ago, this used to be Sudan's version of Bourbon Street.

Nightclubs lined the streets, shoppers would browse stores full of imported goods until midnight, and couples would walk down the street, hand in hand. In 1983, Sudanese Prime Minister Gafar Nimeiry – a former Socialist – imposed strict Islamic law on the country, and the good times were gone.

What a difference an Islamist revolution can make.

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But in a sign of how Sudan is changing, one can see a glimpse of old Khartoum in the leafy courtyard of a restaurant called Papa Costa.

Omar Yahya opened the restaurant six months ago as much as a personal mission to bring back the Khartoum he left as a teenager in the early 1970s as for profit. And one of the first things he did was to bring back something that had been banned for decades: music.

"I wanted from the first day to bring back what this part of Khartoum was like, not to make money, but to bring these values," says Mr. Yahya. "I'm coming to bring life back to Sudan."

To a returning expatriate like Yahya, change is coming to Sudan at a snail's pace. Yet the very fact that a restaurant such as Papa Costa – with its nightly live music, including a full jazz band on Thursday nights – is itself a revolution of sorts under a government that still considers itself a conservator of Islamic values. And gauging by the reaction of Papa Costa's customers on a recent cool breezy Thursday night, Sudanese families are welcoming the change with open arms.

Still got it, baby

Up on stage is a band of men in their 50s and 60s, a Sudanese version of the Buena Vista Social Club, playing songs from their heyday in the 1970s, when lapels were wide, America was loved, and disco was king.

Behind the microphone, Ali Doka belts out the Bee Gees' 1976 hit, "Staying Alive," Bob Marley's "Don't Worry," and the Eagles' "Hotel California," while a handful of Sudanese preteens dance under the stars. Dancing is encouraged at Papa Costa, but only for children. It is still illegal for adults to dance to secular music.

An accountant and graphic designer by training, Omar Yahya spent the last 30 years outside Sudan, attending college, getting married, raising a family, and working in Europe and in the US. He returned to Sudan last year, believing the news reports that Sudan was changing dramatically, with newfound oil wealth and flexibility by the old military regime of President Omar al-Bashir.

To his dismay, Yahya realized the new stories were wrong – Islamist restrictions, government corruption, and rigid state control still make it difficult for businesses to grow – but Yahya has decided to stay nonetheless, and see just what a difference a motivated individual can make.

"It was very difficult for me as a teenager, leaving such a beautiful social life," says Yahya, at the end of a very long night. "Khartoum was composed of big families and everybody knew each other. But today, it's like Khartoum has gone 200 years backward."

Mr. Nimeiry's socialist policies of the 1970s and his Islamist policies of the 1980s aimed at taking away the privilege of Khartoum's elite.

Villagers flocked to Khartoum in Nimeiry's time, bringing with them their own traditions, which were antithetical to everything Old Khartoum stood for. "It is like an invasion from the village coming to Khartoum, with envy and hate of what the city had," says Yahya. "They wanted to destroy this place."

Jailed for playing jazz

Under Nimeiry and subsequent regimes, musicians like Ali Doka soon found themselves out of work, as nightclubs closed down, and as Nimeiry's police broke up private parties with live bands. Khartoum's 20 jazz bands broke up; some went to jail, others went abroad.

After joining the army for a time, Mr. Doka eventually left the country for Egypt, selling honey in the markets of Alexandria, working as a construction laborer or a tailor, and occasionally picking up gigs in Cairo's thriving music scene.

In 2007, Doka received a phone call from Yahya, whom he remembered from his days as a scrawny teen from the 1970s.

The restaurant opened in June, and the band started playing soon after.

Gaining popularity after a slow start

In the early days, few Sudanese would venture inside. Hearing the music out on the street, a few would poke their heads inside the gates, and then rush off, fearing an imminent raid by baton-wielding police.

"On the first night, we were playing for the walls, for the chairs, for the trees," laughs Ali Doka, who also teaches music at a school in Khartoum. "Some people didn't believe that we can do this. People would come to the door and then walk away." But after a month, families starting arriving, meeting with friends.

Now, other restaurants are hiring bands. Success has found its imitators.

On this night, at least, and within the four walls of Omar Yahya's courtyard, Old Khartoum is alive again.

Families gather to eat pizza, pasta, and traditional Mediterranean food such as falafel and hummus, and Ali Doka's band, Blue Star, plays an endless stream of old hits from the 1970s that awaken memories of a Sudan that once was.

"I'm happy that people are starting to do something here," says Omar. "At least the victims of our society won't be so victimized."

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