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Traig Abubakarby James Hale
Copyright © 1999 James Hale
On January 28, 1998, Sudanese saxophonist-vocalist Tarig Abubakar was killed in a car accident on his way to catch a flight from his native country to his home in Canada. This piece was commissioned by Rhythm Music magazine, but never published.
A ski resort village north of Canada's capital city is about as far as you can get from the banks of the River Nile, yet it's a fitting place to talk about roots with singer-saxophonist Tarig Abubakar, a Sudanese native whose music defies borders and celebrates cultural differences. A resident of Toronto since 1989, the 31-year-old Abubakar and his six-piece Afro Nubians encompass a number of African genres - including soukous and highlife - as well as reggae, rhumba and Western pop. Abubakar's lyrics, sung in either English or Arabic, address the turmoil in his homeland and cite African folktales in earnest pleas for universal peace.
It's an easy assumption that Abubakar's eclecticism is a product of living in one of North America's most culturally diverse cities and the struggle to keep an African band together in Canada, but he says it's a homegrown influence.
"In Sudan, there are between six and eight beats in our music. At a concert, a band will start off in 6/8 time, then play a reggae tune, then a samba and so on. If a band plays three reggae songs, someone will yell out, 'Come on, man. Give us a change.'
"Sudan, because it is surrounded by eight countries and covers so many regions of Africa, has absorbed many different styles of music. It is the Cradle of Civilization, but it is also a melting place of cultures."
Abubakar spent his childhood in one of Sudan's best-known 'melting places' - the Khartoum neighborhood called El Dume El Sharghia, or Dem. A ghetto of 6,000 descendants of black laborers imported from southern Sudan by British colonists, Dem was a hotbed of music when Abubakar was a young teenager.
"The very best musician was Omar Abdu, whose forefathers were Muslims from Nigeria. He was a saxophonist and leader of the Dem Band, very famous. He wrote all the music and was known by everyone in Dem."
While Abdu was making his name, Abubakar was struggling to keep his music a secret. Intrigued from the age of six by an oud-playing uncle and a cousin who fashioned an electric guitar from baling wire, wood and an old radio, young Tarig was forbidden by his father from following a musical path. Regardless, he successfully auditioned for one of 15 openings at a vocational school built by the South Korean government north of Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Telling his parents he was taking evening classes, he would take two buses - using money scrounged from his lunch allowance or cadged from friends - to get to his saxophone lessons.
Even after he started playing professionally at 16, his father still believed his oldest son was headed toward a career in medicine. After gigs, Abubakar tithed his salary to a neighbor in return for stashing his saxophone. Then came what he calls the "confrontation day. I was making good money and spending it on clothes, shoes, perfume. One day, my father called me into the house and demanded to know where I was getting my money. Was I selling drugs, or what? I had to tell him, 'No, Daddy. Remember I wanted to be a musician? Well, now I'm doing it.' I told him I was making enough to get my own place if he wanted me to leave, or I could stay and contribute some money to the family."
With the intervention of his mother, Abubakar's father agreed, and the saxophone finally came home.His father continued to hold out hope that Tarig would go to university, if only for music, but tragedy intervened. A car crash took the lives of Omar Abdu and five members of the Dem Band. Fans couldn't abide the loss and approached Abubakar and some of Dem's other young musicians to take over the group.
"Until then, I was studying classical music, but the Dem Band showed me what music was in a practical sense ... how to perform it, how to lead a band. Today, I feel like Omar Abdu's spirit is very well connected to mine. I learned more from him than I realized at the time."
But Abubakar's ambition stretched beyond the segregated confines of Dem and the constant strife of Sudan's ethnic civil war. After three years in the New Dem Band, he headed for Egypt with the intention of using Cairo's thriving music scene as a stepping stone to Europe or North America. A stint with an Egyptian pop singer who was billed as 'the Eastern Madonna' gave him the money he needed to apply for immigrant status, and research at the local library told him which country most warmly embraced multiculturalism: Canada.
Every article and press release about Abubakar includes some version of his arrival in Canada on June 18, 1988. His luggage lost in transit and little money in his pocket, Abubakar decided to walk into Montreal from the city's Mirabel Airport. Not far into what would've been a 35-mile hike some passing Haitians stopped and offered the stranger a ride.
It makes a great story, and it's indicative of the relationship Abubakar has had with his adopted home. Distance, determination and luck have been three constants over the past nine years.Once in Toronto, Abubakar set to work learning the recording business, part of a deal that found him sleeping on the floor of the studio, and writing music that evokes the diverse sounds of his homeland. He worked at a car wash to buy a new sax and stocked CDs at HMV to pay the rent.
With the city's African population surging over 100,000, there was a thirst for authentic music. Formed in 1992, the Afro Nubians filled the bill, despite a revolving door lineup that featured a fair number of Canadian-born ringers robed in African finery. Within two years, the Afro Nubians were winning Toronto's Music Africa Awards, playing to packed clubs in the city and releasing their debut album, Tour To Africa, on Stern's Africa.
It was time to conquer the rest of Canada. Enter a gutted ambulance rigged up with bench seats, and the ill-fated plan to tour in the dead of winter. Outside of Winnipeg one night, Abubakar found out how big and cold the Canadian prairie can be when your vehicle breaks down.
Four cross-country trips, hundreds of small-town bars and two CDs later, the Afro Nubians are as close as you get to being a household name on public and campus radio play alone. Now, Abubakar is looking outside at the rest of the world and wondering how to take the next step. It turns out that Canada may not be the best launching pad for an African band with diverse roots.
Looking out across the still-frozen Gatineau River in the hills north of Ottawa, Abubakar sounds discouraged for the first time in an hour. "The problem is, I don't know if you could call it racism or not, but people in Europe and the U.S. don't believe you can play real African music if you live in Canada. That will change, but it's a slow process." His round face brightens into a grin. "We have to go places and show them. Then, when they hear that we're from Toronto, they'll be shocked."^ Top
Editor of Jazzhouse.org.