Remembering Muhammad Wardi Censored, Banned, and Beloved

Muhammad Wardi died in Khartoum eight years ago today, on February 18, 2012:

By Lemya Shammat

Born to a Nubian family in Wadi Halfa, in northern Sudan, Muhammed Wardi (1932-2012) was a singer, composer, and poet who became a totemic and inspirational figure in Sudanese music and culture, whose prolific talent and massive contribution remains unsurpassed in Sudan.

Wardi began to sing passionately in his early, orphaned childhood, and he went on singing for more than five successive decades.

Educated and trained as a teacher, Wardi moved to Khartoum in the mid 1950s. That’s where he decided to steer his life in a different direction and pursue his aspirations as a professional artist. Wardi was regularly imprisoned, starting in the early 1960s, as he was a free-thinking leftist and progressive who opposed the successive military, absolutist, and totalitarian regimes in Sudan. Yet imprisonment failed to rob him of his energy or inhibit his productive creativity, as Wardi worked assiduously to turn oppression and resentment into ingenious art. His songs were repeatedly censored and banned from the airwaves on both national television and radio. In 1989, after the disguised Islamist military coup, Wardi opted for a self-imposed exile in Cairo and the US, where his music and songs continued to tell the woes of the bruised country he left behind. In 2002, he returned to Sudan and settled in Khartoum.

Molded by the melting pot of the once-vibrant capital, Wardi’s artistry and creative outpouring reflect the immense diversity and glory of Sudanese culture; uniting people across ethnic and social divides, voicing hopes, and echoing the country’s broken dreams and traumatic history. Both his patriotic and romantic songs are densely layered with diverse Sudanese rhythms and flavors that mesh together various tastes, colors and cultural elements that allow his songs to travel across racial, social, and cultural barriers and through the continent and region, proving relatable to a wider non-Sudanese audience. Vigilance of a Nation يقظة شعب and We Fall in Love with Those of our Country بنحب من بلدنا are examples of musical national travelogues that explore the distinctively rich cultural identities, idiosyncrasies, and rhythmic patterns of Sudan.

With the considerable contributions of Osman Hussien, Muhammed Al-Amin, Salih Al- Dai, Abu-Araki Al-Bakheet and Kabli, to name but a few, Wardi’s unique creative input enormously and immeasurably pushed the boundaries of Sudanese contemporary music. Post-colonial moods, various generational stories, cultural heritage, and a country’s aspirations were gracefully captured in songs, rhythms, and tunes that rendered Wardi one of the era’s most influential singers and a music maker to be adored in Sudan ever after. He also had a talent for nurturing contemporary artists, reshaping and advancing Sudanese music, injecting fresh perspectives, and carry out daring creative investments and experimentations, which cemented his growing reputation as an artist ahead of his time. Sudanese music will continue to bear his imprint.

What seems to define Wardi’s experience is how he tended — as a poet and an innovative and inspirational figure in the history of Nubian poetry — to discreetly choose the lyrics of his songs through creative collaboration with poets of considerable acclaim, such as Mahjoub Sharief, Salah Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohammed Al-Makki, Jaili Abd Al-Moniem, Ismaeil Hassan, and Omar Al-Tayeb Al-Doosh among others. After that, he laboriously composed melodies, with deep thought into every detail, to musically translate the poems into expressive pieces that captured the lyrics’ themes, internal musicality, and rhythmic structures. He would then diligently rehearse and orchestrate in order to unleash the epic power of music with his majestic symphonic band, staging a stunningly original and engaging performance.

His songs are perceived as splendid soulful musical lectures. For instance: “Beautiful and Impossible”, “A Young Rose,” “Old Grief,” and “Migrating Birds,” to mention a few. It comes as no surprise that his vast fanbase erupted at his appearance across the globe, whether in the Cairo Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, Wimbledon, and in iconic venues in the US and the Gulf, or in the fully packed stadiums in Cameroon and Ethiopia.

By the same token, Muhammed Wardi was particularly admired for his charisma, enlightening conversations, quick-witted remarks, carefully worded responses, distinguished critical voice and sharp sense of ironic humor. He was also cherished for his unwavering support of human rights and commitment to public causes. He was awarded with the Pablo Neruda Medal for his efforts as a human rights defender and activist, and his songs continue to voice an unceasing call to challenge inequalities and work individually and collectively to establish a durable democracy.

For that reason, Wardi’s words have been at the forefront of the current Sudanese revolution. He’s recalled as a strong example of a great artist who proved strong and steadfast in opinions, words, and actions. His revolutionary-themed pieces, which document crucial chapters of Sudanese history, have been used as rallies’ chants and played on the sit-in site loudspeakers.

His huge contribution to enriching Nubian heritage, music, and poetry added to his already impressive canon, and he left a legacy of inspiring musical philosophy and a rich and generous index of more than 300 varied songs. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Khartoum University in 2005 for his in-depth research into Nubian heritage, among other local and international medals, honorary awards, and recognitions. Truly, Wardi booked his high seat among the greatest artists. His towering stature will continue to enlighten and inspire.

Essayist, short-story writer, and critic Lemya Shammat has a PhD in English Language and Linguistics from Khartoum University and is an Assistant Professor at King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A member of the Sudanese Writers Union, Shammat has published a book on literary criticism and discourse analysis as well as a collection of short-short stories. She also translates between English and Arabic, and her work appears in ArabLit Quarterly.

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