A young man left Swarda, a small village in the Sudanese side of Nubia, over seventy years ago. He rose to musical glory in Sudan and Egypt, the two countries he most sang during his long career, spanning over a half century. Mohammed Osman Wardi died last February and leave behind a treasury of over 300 songs in Arabic and Nubian, a language still spoken by two million people.
He was born in 1932, when Sudan was still under the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. After a short stint as music teacher, he decided to dedicate his whole life to music in 1957. He moved to Khartoum and started working at Radio Omdurman. The radio, founded by the British and named after a famous victory of the colonial troops, was changing into a medium for pluralism and independence. Wardi became the voice of the station.
In the following years, the artist developed his style, balancing with gusto tradition and innovation. He loved playing the oud – a kind of lute – and the kissar, a Nubian lyre. The real innovation, though, came from the lyrics he composed. He started writing about everyday life, of freedom, of the values of African nations, which were establishing throughout the continent. His song became more overtly political after the coup that brought Ibrahim Abboud to power in 1958. Because of that he was imprisoned in 1961.
When Abboud was forced to leave power, Wardi wrote one of his most successful pieces: Green October, a song celebrating the popular uprising against a President, a fact unheard of in the Arab world. “Green October / with your name, people triumphed / the prison walls have been destroyed”. When Jafaar Nimeiri took power with yet another coup in 1969, Wardi supported him. However, after a while he realized that Sudan was once again under a totalitarian regime. He then wrote The Meeting of the Faithful, a song that became the anthem of the opposition.
Wardi songs were instrumental to make Nubian culture known to the rest of the Sudan. In 1971, he was again taken to prison because of his political stance, there he would spend two years. Nimeiri’s decision to impose the shaaria resulted in renewed fighting in South Sudan. In 1989, Omar Hassan El-Bashir took power with a coup. By then, Wardi and many other intellectuals, had left Sudan and lived in self imposed exile in Egypt, and later in California.
Wardi and the singer Sayed Khalifa are the two most important musicians who left Sudan. They worked together in Egypt. Their music became popular in the whole Horn of Africa, and as far as Yemen. He was never popular in the West, where the music of the Nile is not appreciated. Wardi leaves behind a vast production which testifies to his ability to work along the lines of tradition, yet bringing always something new. For instance, he was the first Sudanese musician to use western instruments in his arrangements. But the real legacy comes from his voice, rich and delicate at the same time, and his political commitment for freedom.
Unknown to world audience, too old to participate in the ‘World Music’ revolution, Wardi remains one of the most important African musicians of the XX century. A reality celebrated by the media and the people throughout the region, who spoke of him as the voice able to unite all the nations along the River Nile, the sacred link that bonds the peoples living along its banks.