Music is a Shared Speech: A Q&A with Abazar Hamid
Abazar Hamid speaks to politics through his music. A Sudanese musician, he worked in Darfur to dismantle the hate songs of the Hakamat, who would move door to door and sing songs of hate, bloodshed, and violence—songs that were funded by the government just like the militias that caused destruction. Hamid implored the singers to renounce violent lyrics and make their music about peace. The government viewed this work as an extension of the international justice system’s actions against Sudan. When the International Criminal Court issued a warrant against Bashaar Al-Assad, thirteen organizations were kicked out of the country, including the one where Abazar was working.
Hamid relocated to Cairo in 2008, where he fostered new collaborations and partnerships with a diverse body of musicians, then fled to Europe in 2014 following the censorship and instability after the Arab Spring. Since, December 2014, Hamid has made his home in Harstad, Norway, and continues to use artistic collaboration to reimagine music, human rights, and political integration. SampsoniaWay.org spoke with Hamid about the connection between music and politics and how it can be used to facilitate conversation between different nations, factions, and belief systems.
Abazar Hamid is the ICORN musician-in-residence of the Harstad City of Refuge in Norway.
It seems as if, for you, music has always been linked to human rights and political work. How do you think that politics and music are connected?
When you are a Muslim musician, you’ve grown up with the great taboo that music is forbidden, and that it is harmful. I think this religious fatwa–that music is harm–is a political fatwa; it’s a political decision, or it’s a political attack against musical expression. We didn’t choose to pull music into politics. But, if you’ve grown up in such a community, if you are a musician you are against the political regime. I do not mean any certain regime, but regimes in general. Since you are a Muslim and are a musician, that means you are into politics because the main action between music and Islam is to forbid music. This isn’t really related to religion but to a politics that attempts to control freedom of expression. When you express yourself through music, you find yourself facing a political regime. So, when you are working with music you are being political, you are pulling music to human rights and political work.
Do you think this question of music and politics comes up all over the world?
Music is my way to engage politically. At first it was a national engagement, through what I was working on in Sudan. Then, when I left Sudan, I found some of the same challenges, but they became more expansive as I moved from Sudan up to Norway. Music is the only tool that I have to express myself as a Sudanese, as one of the victims of the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Sudan, and that actually goes more largely into human rights aspects and political issues.
You compose lyrics in several different languages. But you don’t think that some languages fit some songs better?
When I left Sudan I was just composing in Arabic, but when I lived in Cairo, I lived in a close political and multicultural community there, so I had to interact with that community. The language in my composition, in my songs, is music itself! The other languages are dressing. If needed, I can sing in any language because the main language is music.
Now that we are up in Norway I have fallen in love with the music of the region and the indigenous Sami language. It gives the work more potential.
In Darfur you worked to rewrite the the Hakamat, or “Janjaweed women,” who sing songs that stir the spirits of men and call them to war. You used the music but changed the lyrics. How does the hakamat song’s musical structure transcend the violence of their lyrics?
When it comes to the traditional music, there are very clear similarities in the rhythm, and in the dance, and in the musical instruments. There are natural connections between even the different tribes; they are sometimes using the same rhythms, some of the songs are for the harvest. When they are finishing the harvest season and they are making festivals, tribes are using a specific kind of instrument. Even different groups–even if they have different meanings, or are different types of music, for different activities–have similar rhythms, because traditional music is linked to daily activities.
Sometimes the different groups are fighting each other but they use the same kinds of drums and the same kind of rhythms. But the challenge is getting different groups to see these similarities.
What projects are you working on right now?
Although I have composed around two hundred songs, I have only produced three songs out of these two hundred. I am working on recording demos for these songs, making sheet music, rearranging, and trying to make a presentation for what I have now. There are lots of new projects happening at the same time here in Norway and new compositions, so I am stuck with a lot of songs and trying to produce those. It’s complicated to know what to do. Now, I’m composing songs for my Sami language project, and also composing songs for children. I’m trying to find link between an African childhood and the Norwegian one, to think about modes of integration. I don’t know how to put all these things together. I have a lot to do: I’m working hard to promote myself as a musician, while at the same time focusing on having my songs streamed online.
Then, right now you’re digitizing all your work? Is that how people in Sudan are able to keep up with what you’re doing?
Since I arrived in Harstad I have received more invitations, performed and connected with fans and musicians online. I’m connecting with groups in Sudan and with those out of Sudan, in Europe and in exile, and they’re also connecting and interacting with each other. I’m singing for many Sudanese audiences around Europe. But I need more time in the studio producing. Besides I can’t meet with everyone physically, so I meet with them virtually through videos and mp3s they send.
Does exile change the kinds of music that you make?
In moving to Norway I had so many different experiences and met with many different musicians. I think that’s why I need to integrate new elements into my work. Then there’s the space to share it, to democratize it. In other words, I took my local and national project from Sudan and made it international.
Do you think that your performances and your message help spread the plight of the refugees in Europe?
The main role I play as a musician is to help to integrate refugees into the host community. Integration is important. In Cairo, I’ve learned that culture helps host communities integrate refugees. But music and culture can also help a host community become the kind of civilization that can host other cultures. This is not the cultural war; rather, culture is what connects us. Through music we share values. We share knowledge. If music is in the center, then our other differences lessen, differences like language, or the color of your skin.
What can regular people who are not musicians can do to help the refugee situation right now?
It’s not just about helping musicians or those who are in the cultural world. Culture and music are for everyone. As a refugee, when you have your music represented in your host’s community, that is enough. At the same time, if you get access to the host community’s music you become integrated into their community. You don’t need to be a musician to use music to help yourself integrate. We need to redefine the role of music so that it functions as a bridge both ways, from the host community to the refugees and also from the refugees to the host community.
Music is the thread that connects all kinds of multicultural influences and creates a community. We have Sudanese music; we have Norwegian music. We have a lot of things in common. Music connects all these kinds of multicultural influences. And at the same time, the gathering together of people is important and necessary. We mix different languages together. Norwegian musicians and I composed a song in Norwegian, talking about refugees and their story, and I am singing an Arabic version of the song.
Do you get to connect with a lot of other refugees, either at ICORN or in Norway more broadly?
There is a will, here in Norway, to support the refugees and work to integrate them. The city has good support for this, with a cultural school and the Red Cross actively working in this area. And we are investing in this integration, supporting building these efforts in the places from where we come.
At the refugee camp, I’ve formed musical and cultural workshop, which we call immigrant beats. It’s a workshop with music, dance, singing, and percussion. The refugees arrive, come to this camp, and some go south and some go north, but the workshop is still there. We developed the output of this workshop into a radio program, and the project has grown from there.
And what would you like to see in the future for Sudan?
People and nations learn from each other. What happened in Sudan, what’s happening now in Syria, what’s happening in many places should be somehow stopped. In Sudan, we have to work out how to reach that point, where for sure one day we will have a peace. It’s not just a dream. I do believe in peace there.
The international community needs to be redefined, not from just the elites. The international community is us, and not only those in the center of power. Peace needs time. The current actions of the international community are bad. The Sudanese president is wanted. Arresting the Sudanese president would be the starting point for peace in Sudan. I do believe in peace through justice, and justice keeps peace. They can sign a peace agreement like they did in 2005, but that will result in a war in two countries.
How do you think your music grapples with these questions of being a Sudanese refugee?
My music speaks to music. But, I am from Sudan. Wherever I perform, raise all the things that come from the place where I am from. I am committed to Sudan. The main thing that I’m thinking about my music is that everything takes a long time to happen. I could talk about my music all of the time, but I want to have more time to make it.