A few years ago, while still relatively new to Khartoum, I arrived three hours late to a Mahmoud Abdel Aziz concert. Sudan’s iconic music performer had yet to take the stage. Annoyed that their beloved singer had not arrived, a tipsy, agitated crowd threw lawn chairs and shattered soda bottles amid chants demanding his appearance. In a country where crackdowns by the morality police are feared, Abdel Aziz’s concert was a rare gathering of loyal fans and an artistic, Bohemian underground that enjoys aragi, a homemade liquor, and marijuana.
On 17 January 2013, Abdel Aziz, or the “Whale” of Sudanese music as he was known, passed away in an Amman hospital from stomach ulcer complications. As world attention focused on Sudan’s wars and politics, this devastating event received almost no international coverage.
Thousands in Sudan mourned Abdel Aziz’s passing. As with his concerts, impassioned fans chanted accolades and carried signs, some of which loosely translated to “the clouds of joy have traveled from our life,” a reference to a song from Abdel Aziz’s first album.
Unmoved by Sudan’s brutal political system, Abdel Aziz lived a lifestyle that was true to himself, and managed to cross social, class, and racial boundaries with his unassuming manner. For many, he represented the voice of the people, especially the youth.
These were some of the reasons Abdel Aziz was so beloved by a people worn-thin by a brutal regime. Known for appearing drunk or drugged in public, Abdel Aziz had a well-earned reputation for receiving public floggings from security officials. Because intensifying his punishment only increased his fame, the regime never knew quite how to deal with the beloved singer.
As a symbol of unassuming defiance against repressive rule, the regime feared that Abdel Aziz’s funeral would mobilize further protests against a government already dealing with growing dissent. Much to the agitation of his fans, authorities were vague in releasing any details about his funeral. Awaiting the arrival of Abdel Aziz’s body, mourners briefly breached the tarmac at Khartoum International Airport only to be dispersed by tear gas. Clashes between fans and police also took place near Airport Street.
Despite the secession of South Sudan, many in the South also mourned Abdel Aziz’s death. One of a handful of Sudanese musicians who actively promoted coexistence between northern and southern Sudan, Abdel Aziz performed in the South Sudanese city of Juba and recorded songs about peace between the two regions.
At the Khartoum concert, the restless crowd burst into cheers when Abdel Aziz eventually arrived on stage. As the band played, the crowd became bewitched by the singer’s music. Together, the Whale and his enchanted fans sang and danced along to his songs.
Abdel Aziz embodied a simple, indiscriminate acceptance of humanity, at its best and worst. In many ways his egalitarianism was the dream of what Sudan could have been, a New Sudan, where pluralism, tolerance, and equality prevailed and the country’s diversity was celebrated instead of exploited for political gain.
*This piece was originally published by Muftah on March 12, 2013 under the title, “The Passing of Iconic Sudanese Singer Mahmoud Abdel Aziz.”