Sayyid Khaleefah: “Izzayakum!!” [Archives:1998/21/Culture]

May 25 1998

Sayyid Khaleefah is a household name in the Arab world. The moment his name is mentioned, people start humming his famous songs such as “Izzayakum?”, “Al-Momba Da Sudani” and others, the lyrics of which he adapts to the local dialect of each Arab country he visits. Born in Sudan, Khaleefah, 65, graduated from the Cairo Conservatoire in 1958, but he had started his musical career well before that. He visited Yemen in the late 1960s, in 1978 and last week to join the Yemeni people in the celebrations of the 8th anniversary of the unification of the country.
Bin Sallam of Yemen Times met Mr. Kahleefah, and filed this interview.
Q: How related is Sudanese singing to the same art in the rest of the Arab World?
A: Sudan is quite a large country with many distinct regions and tribes, each of which has its own music and rhythms. All these diverse colors meet in the capital, Khartoum. We as artists scoop out of this vast sea of folklore in order develop Sudanese and Arab singing.
Sudanese rhythms are very much similar to other neighboring African countries. The only difference is that we sing in Arabic. We also employ various Arab rhythms in our songs, but do not use the 7th musical scale. Thus, although we share the same language, the rhythm and beat of Sudanese songs is distinct from other Arab songs.
Q: Do Sudanese musicians use traditional African musical instruments or Western ones?
A: We do not usually use Arab musical instruments such as the lute and the zither because our rhythms do not have the 1/4 tone mainly present in Arab music. Our musicians use Western musical instruments such as the organ, accordion, guitar and bass because they have the semi-quaver we also have in our music.
Q: There are very few female singers in Sudan. How do you explain that?
A: This is because of our social traditions. Families just do not allow their daughters to sing. But there are a few outstanding Sudanese female vocalists.
Q: Sudanese artists have adhered strongly to traditional folk singing. They have not embraced the so-called youth songs like their counterparts in other Arab and African countries. Why?
A: Youth songs are some kind of a trend or fad. As a matter of fact, these songs have no distinct form. They are like soap bubbles – beautiful to look at but have no substance. They burst quickly. Some of these songs only last for a few months. Once they disappear, they are forgotten.
I should make a distinction here between the so-called youth songs and the light songs which draw inspiration from the traditional Arab music.
Q: Do you document your artistic achievements?
A: Yes, my participation in various Arab and regional art gatherings and festivals have made my work known in almost all parts of the Arab World. The Sudanese song is now known and admired by listeners everywhere in the region. I and many other Sudanese artists take extra care to make the Sudanese song known to Arab and international audiences. In Yemen, for example, the public likes Sudanese songs.
Despite all that, Sudanese songs are still relatively isolated because of neglect by the official mass media. I think by adopting the 5th musical scale, Sudanese songs will spread more in Arab states.
Q: What other artistic activities do you have in addition to singing?
A: I write lyrics for myself and other singers.
Q: Have your songs influenced young Sudanese singers?
A: There are many young Sudanese artists who admire my work and try to emulate my style. I try my best to encourage promising singers who have talent. But I do not condone plagiarizing or stealing the efforts of others.
Q: What do you think of Yemeni songs?
A: Yemeni singing has its own very unique flavor, representing Yemen in all its geographic variations. Some Yemeni and Sudanese songs are from the same original Arab folklore. If they are developed in a correct manner, they can really become more spread in the Arab World.
Q: Were you influenced by any Arab singers?
A: Yes, in the beginning of my singing career. I admired many Arab singers from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and of course, some outstanding singers and musicians from Sudan. I emulate their example of trying to preserve the Sudanese and Arab musical heritage and present it in a new form.
Q: How many songs have you recorded, so far?
A: Altogether, I have about 400 songs to my credit, 250 of which I can readily sing because I often perform at wedding parties and other celebrations. Of course, these are available with vendors.
Q: Do you have any other job, besides singing?
A: Singing is my profession. I was once a public employee, but I quit a long time ago.
Q: How did the Yemeni audience receive your songs when you performed recently in Sanaa?
A: With great enthusiasm. They cheered and clapped. They are a great audience.
Q: Any last comment?
A: I am very happy with my visit to Yemen. The country has changed beyond recognition since my last visit in 1978. But the Yemeni people are as generous and hospitable as ever.