Afropop Worldwide’s 25th anniversary gala concert at the City Winery in New York on September 19 is getting more interesting by the day. It now appears that Omer Ehsas, one of the most respected singers and composers of Darfur, Sudan, will attend, and engage Bassekou Koyate and Ngoni Ba in a unique, spontaneous encounter between East and West Africa.
Omer Ehsas has led a band for 24 years, composing songs that have helped sensitize Sudan and the world to the rich culture and profound challenges of his home region. During a period when many of Sudan’s most accomplished artists left the country, Ehsas has remained on the scene from city stages to refugee camps, using music as a persistent force for change, and to bring a better future. Afropop met him at the two Sudan Music Festivals (2007, 2008) in New York, Chicago and Detroit, where he was a star among stars, one of the most charismatic and compelling East African performers we have seen.
Ehsas was born in 1958 in Nyala, Darfur. His mixed Arab and African heritage makes him a quintessential Darfurian. This vast region borders Chad, Central African Republic, and Libya, and so is fantastically diverse culturally. That diversity was the charm of Ehsas’s youth. “Nyala is one of the most beautiful, serene, civil places I’ve ever known,” recalls Ehsas. “When I was young, it was quite different from now. Different tribes gathered peacefully every year for celebrations with dancing and singing. We lived together naturally.” That unity has been savaged today by decades of neglect and divide-and-rule tactics from a hostile government in Khartoum, and now a new set of challenges posed by the division of Sudan into two nations.
After he began singing in 1977, Ehsas went to Khartoum in 1981 and auditioned to study at the Institute of Music and Drama. He is a natural talent with a powerful voice that is also capable of great sensitivity and nuance, so it’s no surprise he passed with flying colors. He auditioned with an Arabic song that speaks of “feeling,” in Arabic, “Ehsas,” and this immediately became his stage name. Initially, Ehsas worked at fitting into the music scene in Khartoum, mostly imitating what other artists were doing. “I tried to be accepted,” he recalls, “but I realized that this was not the right goal. They were limited to 5 or 6 styles of music. I wanted to bring the richness of Darfur to the world.”
After 1989, Ehsas, like so many other Sudanese musicians, faced harassment and arrest at the hands of the new Islamist state. He understood that he had to address the political realities of Sudan in his compositions, but in a positive way. “We are singers,” says Ihsas. “We sing love songs first. But the conscience of a singer is with the people, and with the land. My conscience woke up.” In 1991, he composed one of his most famous songs, “Darfur, Our Homeland.” Through all that has happened since, Ehsas has remained in Sudan, committed to his dream of a peaceful future there.
Bassekou Kouyate, on the road in Europe, is excited about the encounter with Ehsas. September 19 will be historic.