In Sudan's capital, music from the oud tells of times past

Behind the desk of his shop, its wall lined with musical instruments, Mahmoud Ghari Allah knows he is a man meant for another time.

Everyone in this city loves music, he says, but these days few can afford to buy an instrument. Back when his father opened this shop in the teeming central business district, just a few blocks from the Republican Palace, and beyond that the Blue Nile, customers would fill the shop as if it were a fruit market.

"I could not sit here and have a conversation with you, as I am doing now. Believe me, it was packed," says Mahmoud, massaging his chin covered in gray stubble. His father imported instruments from as far away as Lebanon, Egypt, and Germany, and in a workshop in the back, he used to make stringed instruments. It was here that Mahmoud found his first love, the pear-shaped lute known throughout the Middle East as the oud.

His mind still in reverie, he picks up an oud and plays an exotic tune in a minor key, a song of loss and remembrance. "You play this instrument for yourself, like you are having a conversation," Mahmoud says. "You can tell it things that you cannot tell to others." He repeats this last phrase to himself, relishing it like a poem.

To many in the outside world, Sudan is a distant country, a rich oasis where the two branches of the Nile meet and join and disappear once again north into the desert. But a stroll through Mahmoud's shop is a journey through recent political history; what's stocked and sold reveals an arc from British colonial rule to the country's war-torn modern era.

For Mahmoud, as for many Sudanese, keeping silent is a survival technique honed by the past 20 years of civil war and coups. Poverty, too, can shut down a part of one's soul, and the past 20 years have been hard times for all Sudanese, especially a musical instrument vendor like Mahmoud.

"When people are poor, they spend first on the necessary things, like food, housing, schools, medicines," he says. "They love music. But they can't think of it, not now."

Oddly, it is military men who have kept Mahmoud's business going during the hard times. The military coup of 1989, led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, ushered in more than a decade of international sanctions – largely because of President Bashir's Islamist policies, and his support for the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's army.

But Bashir also liked a good military brass band, and encouraged all his military and paramilitary units to have their own band, for discipline, and proper marching. Today, Bashir's powerful army and police have been one of the mainstays of Mahmoud's business.

The glass cases of Mahmoud's shops look full, with gleaming trumpets, tubas, and trombones. In one case full of guitars, there is a large, fading poster of the Swedish pop group, Abba.

"The British did one good thing for us during colonial times, they taught our soldiers to read music," he says, with a smile. In the 1930s and '40s, this training sparked a creative renaissance of sorts for Sudanese music; not just marches, but a rebirth of older Sudanese songs for a new generation. "But instead of playing on this," he says, tapping his oud, "they play on that." He points at a tuba.

He shrugs. "It's a different sound."

As he plays the oud, using his thumb instead of a pick, deep tones reach out into the room. A young couple peers in through the trumpets and guitars hanging in the front glass window and enter the shop – she in a pink head scarf worn in the Islamic way, he in an oxford-cloth shirt and slacks – and listen patiently, appreciatively. They are the very picture of Sudan's new-found prosperity, built on oil wealth.

Why isn't Mahmoud's shop full now, as Sudanese are enjoying the fruits of an oil boom? The answer may be found in the half dozen CD shops in this neighborhood, where every dance hit from Egypt, and Lebanon, and yes, from America, can be found. Playing a tape takes no effort, it requires no lessons.

"Will oil money allow Sudanese to bring back the old culture?" a guest asks.

Mahmoud shakes his head and thrusts out his palm. "Let's not talk about oil. Please. Just music."

He plays his oud once more, telling it things he cannot tell others.

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