Remembering Abdelkarim Elkabli
By Eiman El-Nour and Adil Babikir
Sudanese singer Abdelkarim Elkabli, who passed away on this day last year, was a living example of an artist who devoted his entire life to propagating the values of peace, love, and patriotism.
A songwriter, musician, and researcher well-versed in Sudanese folklore and cultural traditions, Elkabli eloquently employed his versatile talents in shaping the artistic expression of his country’s national identity.
His style was to draw heavily from various strands of Sudanese heritage. He is widely credited with uncovering the treasures of folk poetry and positioning it as a major element in the evolution of art, music, and literature.
By putting to music many powerful pieces by such legendary folk poets as al-Hardallo, Elkabli helped in bringing folk poetry to the attention of the urban population across the Sudan.
He often opened his performances with melodious chanting of folk quatrains, or marabou’s, that set the scene for his songs. Thanks to him, many of the once esoteric, folk-specific imageries found their way to mainstream lyrics.
رايهوبةً على قوز ود حرير مسدارك
تاتى المشيه قودى الحزمك لا قصارك
حسس الغادى منك وا أذى الفى جوارك
والله يكافى محنك يا المتلعبة نارك
A young oryx, Wad Ḥārir’s hill is your grazing turf.
Stroll leisurely, flaunt your ample hair, hanging down to your waist,
Those far from you are ailing, and those near are smitten
May God protect us from your missiles, and your blazing fire
Besides colloquial Sudanese verse, Elkabli put many classical Arabic poems to song, including popular pieces by the 10th-century poet Abu Firas al-Hamdani, the Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, Egypt’s renowned literary figure Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad (1889-1964), as well as scores of prominent Sudanese poets, such as Muhammad Said el-Abbas (1880-1963), Tawfik Salih Jibril (1897-1966), Muhammad el-Mahdi el-Magzoub (1919-1983), and Muhammad al-Fayturi (1936-2015), to name a few.
Elkabli was endowed with a highly refined taste for poetry. Love, patriotism, and Sufism are the three main themes dominant in his selection of poems he put to music, whether those written by him or by other poets.
One of his earliest works was the patriotic-internationalist song “Asia and Africa” by Sudanese poet Taj el-Sir el-Hassan, which celebrated the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement as a brilliant endeavor by Third World countries to break away from the yoke of superpowers. That poem eloquently captured the high mood that swept the Third World as leaders from Asia, Africa, and Latin America (with only Yugoslavia joining from Europe) met in Bandung, Indonesia, 1955 to set a new course for their independent states:
Little I know, comrades.
For I haven’t been to Indonesia—
The land of Sukarno.
Nor have I seen Russia.
Yet from the luminous heart of the New Africa,
where the dark night is sipping trickles of light from distant stars,
I can see the people in the heart of the Malaya,
like the iconic beacons built by the First of May;
just as vividly as I can see Jomo [Kenyatta],
rising up as genuine as dawn light.
Many of his songs captured defining moments in Sudan’s political and social evolution, such as the 1964 October Revolution. His song “Along University Road” (في طريق الجامعة) echoed the heightened sentiments of university students, who had initiated the peaceful protests that put an end to the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Abboud.
He also stood out as an outspoken advocate of women’s and children’s rights. That won him international recognition in 2004, when he was named a United Nations Population Fund goodwill ambassador, as part of peace efforts in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.
Many of Elkabli’s romantic songs were in fact emotional stanzas in praise of Sudan’s natural beauty. An example of this is Mursal al-Shoug, Messenger of Longing, a panoramic portrait of Jebel Marra, a once a peaceful oasis that later became entangled in the violent strife in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
Vivid scenery from Sudan’s colorful cultural landscape is prominent in Elkabli’s repertoire. Here is an excerpt from al-Mawlid, a poem by Muhammad el-Mahdi el-Majzoub, inspired by the anniversary of the birth of Prophet Muhammad:
The Square of Abdul Moniem,
may divine blessings shower his soul,
is gleaming with seasonal crowds,
with enraptured tents exposing their beauty.
Here is a circle. An old man swinging to the rhythm,
Energetically beating the grand drum.
It whines then breaks into magic roars.
Around it are drums covered with dust,
as the circle keeps rolling
under flapping banners
like a boat struggling amid mountain-high waves
Celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is a high-profile event in Sudan, where Sufism is a deeply rooted tradition and a way of life. Besides al-Mawlid, Elkabli put to music Muhammad el-Fayturi’s famous spiritual poem A Roaming Dervish’s Stanza:
In the solemn presence of my master,
my emotions are playing havoc with me.
Faceless, I gaze.
Legless, I dance.
My flags and drums packing the horizon.
My passion annihilating my passion.
My annihilation is engrossment.
I am your slave;
yet the master of all lovers.
Elkabli was a Sufi in his own right. Even in his romantic songs, he seems to look beyond the sensual to sublime — almost saintly — heights.
His poem “On the Love of the Divine Being” manifests his true Sufi inclinations and profound spirituality. It was a direct appeal and supplication to the Creator and almost a farewell song:
The universe sparkles with your splendour
Through your light we see eternal beauty manifested
I feel your presence in my waking moments
And sleep is a witness to your miracles
I bear your spirit in my body
And chant your secret in my soul
Under your names we shelter
Your infinite mercy shades my sins
They take refuge in your embrace
Who but you Lord grants us pardon?
Who but you leads us to grace?
I long to meet you my Lord
In a Sufi’s yearning zeal
My lamenting soul soars in search of your heavens
And my shackled mortal form
Will be one with the flowers
In your vast landscape of colour
May God accept this devoted Sufi in Paradise.
Eiman El-Nour is Associate Professor in English Literature at Neelain University and Ahfad University. She is also Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. She specialises in teaching African Literature and her main research themes include African women’s writing, Sudanese literature and Sudanese orality.
Adil Babikir is a Sudanese translator and writer, living now in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He is the author of Modern Sudanese Poetry: an Anthology (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).His translation of Tayeb Salih’s Mansi: A Rare Man in his Own Way, (Banipal Books, 2020) won the 2020 Sheikh Hamad Translation Award.