KHARTOUM: Adored nationwide, Sudanese musical icon and former exile Mohammed Wardi, who hails from the Nubian north and has sung about unity for decades, says he will be saddened to see his beloved country split.
"For me as a singer who sang for unity for 54 years, what is happening is too difficult… I am sad, and I hope that even if south Sudan chooses secession, one day it will reunite with the north," Wardi told AFP.
The 81-year-old musician, who began his prolific singing career in Khartoum just after independence in 1956, is guaranteed a rapturous reception on the few occasions when he still performs.
At a concert in Khartoum on New Year’s Eve, the hall was packed with more than 1,000 expectant Sudanese, young and old, who waited all evening to hear their favorite musician sing.
He finally appeared at 1:00 am and was carried onto the stage, sending a ripple of excitement through the crowd, which started swaying and clapping to the haunting vocals and catchy rhythms of Wardi’s support band.
"Everybody loves Mohammed Wardi. Not just in Sudan but in all of Africa," said Mai, who attended the concert with her husband and two young daughters.
"He sings about many things. He sings about Sudan, about politics. He is a communist and he has always wanted the nation to be united. He is the most loved musician in Sudan."
More than just a musician, Wardi has political stature in his home country, and his activism has caused him problems in the past, including a spell in prison in the early 1970s.
He was an ardent supporter of former southern rebel movement the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which now rules south Sudan, when it was headed by the charismatic John Garang.
Salva Kiir, the SPLM’s new leader, has campaigned outright for secession, breaking with Garang’s long-standing campaign for a new, federal and democratic Sudan.
Wardi performed in SPLM camps in the early 1990s, before going into exile for 13 years.
He returned in 2005, the year Garang signed a peace accord in the Kenyan town of Naivasha that brought 22 years of devastating conflict with the Khartoum government to an end.
Garang was killed in a helicopter accident shortly after the peace deal and the new SPLM leadership has made no secret of its support for an independent south.
"The Naivasha agreement gave great hope to the people who were outside Sudan at that time. We came back to support the unity of all Sudan… It was my choice to come back, but if something forces me to leave again I will leave," Wardi said.
Ahmed, 24, who was at the concert with his uncle, said he first heard Wardi when he was just seven years old, and saw him play live when he was 12.
He said that part of Wardi’s appeal to Sudanese people is the fact that he is not a native Arabic speaker, a reflection of the country’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity.
"When he came to Khartoum he was trying to record his music in the Nubian language. But then he started singing in Arabic, and he proved himself in front of the Sudanese music legends."
Wardi said the problems facing artists and musicians in north Sudan today go back to 1983, when then president Gaafar Nimeiri imposed sharia, or Islamic law, in a move that rekindled hostilities with the mostly Christian south.
President Omar Al-Bashir has repeatedly threatened to reinforce sharia law in the north should south Sudan vote for independence, as widely expected.
If he were to write songs today, Wardi says he would sing about the "reality" of life in Sudan.
"I would say that political Islam cannot solve Sudan’s problems. I would sing about poverty and sickness."
"I would sing about how Sudan is a huge country with a variety of cultures that cannot be ruled by one tradition, or one party, or one religion, or one man."
"They must not force us to live with one religion and one culture. This is not Sudan.
Despite his foreboding, Wardi still sounds a note of optimism about the future.
"I believe there is nothing that can stop artists from flourishing, whatever laws they impose. It is true that it can have an impact on the development of the arts, but it cannot put an end to it."
By law, concerts in north Sudan must finish at 11:00 pm, but there are exceptions, which allow musicians performing on New Year’s Eve to play later.
At 1:30 am, after singing just one song, Wardi announced apologetically — and to the disbelief of all the concert-goers — that his time was up.
Dismay quickly turned to anger, and frustrated fans started breaking up chairs and smashing glass vases on tables around the hall, before the security forces arrived to disperse them and send them home.