‘My personality was built in Sudan, and I belong to Sudan.’
Emirati-born singer-songwriter Mohamed Al Tayeb is keen to state this. Originally from Wad Madani – 200 km south of Khartoum, where he spent most of his life – he’s been a two-year resident of the Netherlands as a consequence of actions by the Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) to halt his career back in Northeast Africa.
‘I was monitored because I didn’t cooperate with them,’ he says. ‘In Sudan NISS is not just a police station, it is a foundation that owns all the media platforms in the country. I started to talk about politics with music, then they tried to use me, and when I didn’t cooperate, they followed me and cancelled my performances.’
Al Tayeb’s popularity as an artist marked him out and added to his currency. After all, he had been a successful contestant on MBC The Voice – the Arabic version of the Dutch Show, The Voice of Holland. This 2015 TV appearance featured a powerful rendition of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, with a reggae lick that made the song Al Tayeb’s own.
Beyond that, his choice to use his music to sing about sensitive societal issues such as the separation of Sudan, Christians and the rights of minors went against what NISS had in mind for him.
‘I literally visited every single detention centre in Khartoum’ he says, ‘with temptation and intimidation being the strategy that NISS followed with me.’
It was this atmosphere that led him to escape to the Netherlands, although he’s far from being a victim.
‘The Dutch society is very individual’ he says. ‘The good thing about that is you always try to be the best of yourself. To be honest, I learned how to create my own peace of mind.’
Still, he’s very much influenced by Sahel music influences. As a singer and musician – he also plays basic guitar and piano – his sound is a ‘mixture of everything,’ and could sit under the world music genre, or better still, ‘Sahel blues’ as he likes to frame it.
‘I belong to a sub-Saharan Sahel country where music is always about serious issues in society and not about a specific artist and singer,’ he says. ‘There is much I have been through and that has influenced me to sing about freedom, love, justice and peace.’
Al Tayeb’s first experience of performing to a live audience goes back to 2006. ‘It was a singing competition at my secondary school’ he recalls. ‘I remember that people were surprised when I started singing. When I won first prize, the teachers in the Emirati school were proud of me.’
As much as his current European location allows for a sense of creative and lyrical liberation, Sudan is always at the forefront of his mind.
‘I dream of going back to Khartoum, maybe when there’s justice against those who persecuted me, and laws against extremists in Sudan,’ he says.
However, he’s also aware of the country’s opportunities, despite political and social restrictions.
‘Musicians [in Sudan] are still doing great things, and they deserve respect for it.’
The creative freedom he wants back home would mean art without borders and an ability to fully express this without going to jail.
The melodies within one of his latest songs – Al Maseer – marries well with the societal issues that he highlights.
‘It means “destiny,” he says of the song’s title. ‘It’s about weird decisions by presidents and politicians, and the situation that Sudan went through with war criminals building a base to become leaders.’
It’s a beautiful track with a sublime and emotive energy.
Mohamed Al Tayeb has a new EP coming out later this year.