This participation between an Arab jazz maestro and a young Afro-hip hop star bursts with an innovative dynamism that combines familiar musical genres in an unexpected way. Its intricate melodies intertwine with lyrics poignantly calling for reconciliation in the wake of Africa's longest conflict. Ceasefire not only showcases a hauntingly original new talent, it is also highly politically significant. After almost 22 years of civil war, their cross cultural collaboration has a resonance far beyond the world of music - it symbolizes the hopes of peace and development of a continent lost to generations of conflict.
Abdel Gadir Salim is not only one of Sudan's most popular singers but one of its most innovative. He is also one of the few musicians from the country's vast reservoir of talent who has made a name for himself internationally.
Emmanuel Jal is fast becoming another. His rise to fame was crowned by a show stealing performance at Live 8 Africa Calling at the Eden Project in Cornwall, where he hammered home his multilingual message of peace and love whilst conducting five thousand newly acquired backing singers.
Jal's famous argument with Sir Bob Geldof for allegedly marginalising African musicians won him many plaudits. During Live 8 he commented: "We are here to promote global justice and fair trade but they insist on marginalising Africans far from centre stage - no wonder we are going backwards. Sometimes I think these people are not serious. Western leaders talk about the need for transparency and good governance yet they meet in isolation to decide the future of the world. The campaigners allow their showbiz friends to exclude the most important people in the entire debate, the Africans themselves. Who decides these things? A bunch of fading western popstars too busy with self-congratulation to notice genocide in Darfur and
famine across the continent. We need action, not just words - and the words we need to hear should come from the voices of the voiceless."
Jal has come a long way since we first met some thirteen years ago, in the swamps of Upper Nile in the midst of war-torn south Sudan. He was one of a small group of soldiers who trekked for months across the bush following a failed rebel attack on Juba, the capital of south Sudan. Of hundreds who set out, only a handful survived, but he was already a veteran of several year's guerrilla warfare and made it despite the dangers from landmines, thirst and hunger, and attacks by rival armies and wild animals.
He had been recruited into the Sudan People's Liberation Army at the age of eight or nine whilst he was a refugee in Ethiopia, and went on to participate in song of the most intensive combat of a war that had been fought between the Arab Moslem rulers in the north of the country and the predominantly Christian tribes of the south for generations. Slave raiding and British attempts to prevent it marked Sudan's pre-independence era: military coups, civil wars and Islamic Law have riven the country since.
The latest fighting began in 1983, and Jal was caught up in it from day one. His father, a senior police officer, had to flee when he was suspected of supporting the rebels, his village was burnt and the next few years were spent on the run. He was sent to Ethiopia after his mother died and he was separated from the rest of his family.
Fighting in the SPLA rearguard following the rebel's expulsion from Ethiopia in the wake of the 1991 downfall of their main ally, President Mengistu, Jal failed to follow the bulk of the refugee children to eventual safety in Kenya (where many of the "Lost Boys" eventually found refuge in America) and instead went on to participate in the rebel assault of Juba. When the rebel factions began to turn against each other he felt the whole cause was pointless and attempted to make his way home. His life rapidly improved following his rescue by aid workers, who subsequently sent him to Kenya to go to school.
When he finally escaped his ordeal he was desperately thin, unkempt and bedraggled, but twelve year olds are amazingly resilient and he was back on his feet in no time. He gave hilarious yet heart-rending descriptions of his experiences as a soldier: "First they give you your rifle," he sagged slightly at the knees. "Then your ammunitions," another sag. "Then you have your pack, your water, more ammunitions. It is so heavy you can hardly walk".
I also first encountered Abdel Gadir Salim that same year, but under somewhat different circumstances. In 1992 he was in Britain on a tour to promote his acclaimed new album, the Mahdoum Kings Play Songs of Love. He was at the time one of Sudan's most eminent singers and former head of the Musician's Union. His performance brought back fond memories of life in prewar Sudan, before the country had torn itself apart again on the altar of religious intolerance. (A few years later Abdel Gadir was badly injured in a murderous attack on the Musicians Union Club in Khartoum, when a knife wielding fanatic attacked the band playing on stage in the misguided belief that music was against Islam. One of Abdel Gadir's backing musicians was fatally wounded in the attack.) I scarcely imagined that the two would some day be recording together.
The idea for the album came about at the start of the year when one of Jal's tracks was licensed to the Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan, along with one of Abdel Gadir's. They were both were planning to return to London in the spring and, as they were both renowned peace activists, it seemed a good idea to try to bring them together.
Eventually recorded in both Nairobi and London, Ceasefire was produced by Paul Borg, someone well-placed to bridge popular rap culture and African music. He has worked for artists such as Naughty By Nature, MC Solaar and Urban Species, and with African musicians such as Cheb Bilal and Mory Kante. Borg has coaxed spell bending performances out of two musicians from opposite ends of a cultural divide that has kept their country at war for decades.
The result is a fascinating musical syntheses : a captivating fusion that moves from Arab jazz across the spectrum of African dance music and hip-hop, with vocal backings that bring home the beauty and complexity of their native country.
Abdel Gadir composed 'Ya Salaam' - a tribute to peace that Jal guest raps on - 'Lemon Bara', 'Hadiya' and 'Gamearina'. Jal composed 'Aiwa', 'Elengwen', 'Nyambol', 'Baai' and 'Gua', performed with his rap crew, the Reborn Warriors. Abdel Gadir and his band, Merdoum All Stars, feature on some of Jal's numbers, bringing ud, electric guitar, saxophone, accordion, bass guitar and Arab percussion to the mix, while Jal and his crew add raps to Abdel Gadir's compositions. The two soloists also swap roles in places: Abdel Gadir demonstrates a previously unknown talent as a rapper whilst Jal overcomes his reluctance to do anything other than hip hop, and reveals a wonderful singing voice.
Abdel Gadir's unusual foray into rap tragically spotlights the shortcomings of the current peace deal - it's not enough to bring an end to fighting between the government in the north and the rebels in the south: "We need peace for all Sudan, in the North and the South, in the East and the West. We need peace for all Sudanese. We need peace in Darfur". He explains that he was eager to get involved in the project because the main driving force behind the conflict has been racial and religious discrimination for which the best remedyunderstanding. In a word, multiculturalism, a concept somewhat alien to those usually in control of Africa's largest and most diverse country.
Jal has recorded a version of 'Gua' for War Child's new fundraising album:
'Help - A day in the Life', which has now the record for the fastest recording in history. Jal appears alongside some of Britain's biggest bands: Radiohead, Coldplay, Kaiser Chiefs, The Magic Numbers, Manic Street Preachers and Gorillaz. War Child aims to help young victims of conflict and Jal has also established his own Gua Africa Foundation to help war-affected youth in his own country.
Jal has also contributed a cover of John Lennon's Mother for Amnesty International's Make Some Noise Campaign album. In addition to being a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Jal has been working with Amnesty and Oxfam on the Control Arms Campaign and is sought as a role model to rap against Britain's urban gun culture. For someone who has seen bullets bounce off attacking helicopter gunships, Jal knows more than your average rapper about the effects of guns. He also has a somewhat more graphic image of Hell's Fire than most kids and when he chants "Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil" you somehow know he has a rather stronger grasp of the subject than US rappers like Coolio.
On January 9th, Jal performed at the signing ceremony of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement at Kenya's Lake Naivasha (which became the inspiration for the title Ceasefire) but this wasn't enough get him a visa for his scheduled recording session with Abdel Gadir in London. As the ceasefire had yet to come into effect on the ground at the time, it eventually proved impossible for the two musicians to appear together in the studio: Abdel Gadir's work permit had expired before Jal's visa came through. The two have still yet to meet face to face but the fruit of their collaboration is getting worldwide exposure.
Abdel Gadir and Jal are hoping to perform together in the next few months, both in London and hopefully Sudan, if the situation stabilizes sufficiently. Plans for them to get together in Khartoum and Juba have until now encountered delays in the post conflict transition but as peace takes hold their participation is increasingly sought because the more their voices are heard the better the chances are for their country's reconciliation.