When looking into the music scene in Sudan, musician Islam Abdelmoniem Elbeiti cannot be missed. The eloquent outspoken musician is a bassist striving for change in Sudan. As CNN’s African Voices describes her, she is ‘striving for social change through her strings’.
The 24-year-old bassist is a jack of many trades. She is also a programme officer at Impact Hub Khartoum and a radio presenter at Capital 91.6 FM. In addition, she recently joined OREM Arts Club part-time, managing the business development of the club, which includes finding sponsorships, writing proposals and managing programmes.
Islam played a leading role in the music and arts department of the successful first edition of Karmakol International Festival, which was held in Karmakol in December 2017, as a platform to showcase Sudan’s rich culture and for Sudanese and international cultural exchange. She also performed live on stage with the well-known UAE-based Sudanese singer-songwriter Nile.
Islam is a regular performer at educational, cultural and music and entertainments events in Sudan. She currently performs regularly at the Lebanese restaurant and hotel, Assaha Village, in Khartoum.
500 Words Magazine chats with Islam Elbeiti about her passion for music and her life as a bassist (amongst other things) in Sudan.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Initially and before everything else, I am obsessed with jazz. My love for jazz is indescribable.
I graduated from the University of Medical Sciences & Technology (UMST) with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. I grew up between in Ethiopia, China, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I am the eldest of five children. I have one brother and three sisters. I currently live in Khartoum and I can confidently say that I wake up every day and do what I love, whether it’s my daily job or pursuing my passion with music.
Where does your love for music stem from?
It definitely comes from my mother, as the first person who ever introduced me to music and the single person that has been supporting this journey of mine. I grew up listening to great music, and at some point, came to develop my own personal taste, which I believe was a result of all the different types of music that I was exposed to. Funnily enough, during my early teens, I could never imagine that I would be this obsessed with jazz, but little did I know that jazz is the mother of all music.
What drew you to the bass instrument and to becoming a bassist?
I think it was the challenge of being a bassist. Especially in Sudan, in 2013, I decided that I want to start learning how to play music, and I chose to learn the bass. I always felt like I resonated with the low-end a lot more. However, I was advised to the learn the guitar first, and so I did. I learnt the basics, chords, scales, melodies and so on. And in 2014, I traveled to Kinshasa, DRC where I bought my first bass, an Ibanez Gio (black with four strings). The journey for me began then. I feel like the bass, out of all the instruments, represents me the most.
As a bassist, what job opportunities are there for you in Sudan? Where have you performed? And are you developing a career in music?
There are many opportunities here, because the scene is still flourishing. There is plenty one can do. I’ve performed in many places, be it at receptions, festivals, art spaces, cultural events, restaurants etc. At the moment, I have two regular gigs per week at Assaha Village with a group of really talented male and female musicians. I wouldn’t say I am developing a career per se, but I am going in the right direction. I still have a long way to go as a musician but I mainly want to focus on the business aspects of music.
You wear many hats — a bassist, program officer at Impact Hub and a radio presenter at Capital 91.6. How do you balance all these positions?
Honestly, it is not easy. However, I believe when you love what you do, you will always find a way to balance things out. There will be moments where I feel like I am out of focus or that I am shuffling a lot of cards, but somehow things always work out.
A regular day for me would look something like being at Impact Hub from 10 am to 6 pm then head to the studio for a practice session until 7:30 pm. And if I am playing a show, I’d be there from 8 pm to 11 pm. On Saturdays, I go live on the radio on my show Jazzified, which is a show that is all and everything jazz related. It is exhausting, but it is extremely rewarding.
And which one of those positions do you enjoy the most?
They all have their perks. I equally love everything I do, but if I were to choose one, it will definitely be the one where I am on stage performing live.
Whether in Sudan or elsewhere, who are some musicians you listen to and/or who inspire you?
I am really inspired by jazz and jazz musicians as I mentioned before, in addition to traditional and contemporary African music. Most of the music I listen to on a daily basis consist of different subgenres of jazz, Desert Blues, soukous, Sudanese music, Tawareg music and so on. On the bass, I am most inspired by Jaco Pastorius, Richard Bona, Kinga Glyk, Charles Mingus, Victor Wooten, John Patitucci and Marcus Miller. I am also constantly inspired and supported by my close circle of musician friends and acquaintances such as Mohamed Araki, Ahmed Almustafa, Saria Wail, Girum Mezmur, Ahmed Elshafie (Shaf), Henock Temmesgen, Sibaweih Araki, Amjd Badr, Ibrahem Ibn Albadya and so many more. Without the constant support that these people have offered, I’d probably still be lost in terms of music. In addition to these phenomenal people, I absolutely love listening to Miles Davis, John Colrtane, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, Wardi, Mahmoud Abdelaziz, Dizzy Gillespie, The Addis Acoustic Project, Bombino, Kibrom A. Birhane, Toumani Diabate, Keith Jarrett, Zolo, Mahmoud Ahmed and the list is really long!
On Twitter, you share your thoughts about the challenges of life in Sudan, especially as a musician. Tell us more about it and the challenges musicians and those in the music and entertainment industry face.
It is difficult here in Khartoum, especially for us female artists. I can’t emphasize the amount of time I wasn’t able to play comfortably because I feared that some police man would come and arrest us because we are playing music and wearing pants. Or when you hear that one of the artists that you work with is being prosecuted because she was wearing a certain piece of clothing. I’ve never faced issues like these anywhere else in the world.
At some point, you reach a point where it’s either I will throw my bass at you or ignore you during my performance and give you a piece of mind after I finish. The society needs to understand that being a musician is not a sin. It doesn’t make us any less human, or worthy of respect. Just like there are doctors and engineers who spend years practicing and studying, there are musicians who spend just as much time trying to perfect their craft and we deserve as much respect as any of these other ‘respected’ careers.
From your tweets, I feel like you’re ready to move on from Sudan and pursue a career elsewhere. Are you seriously considering it?
I love Sudan. It is full of so much opportunity and talent. We have such a rich culture and heritage, which we should be absolutely proud of. However, I am considering moving from Sudan. As rich as Sudan is, Khartoum is unhealthy, difficult and slow. After being here for a year and a half, I feel like there isn’t much I can do here anymore. I need to experience a new environment and learn new things then come back and see where I can add value. I used to have this mindset that we must give back to our country and support its growth, but it feels like I am watering a plant that sits on a broken vase. Today, it makes more sense for me to leave and continue to develop elsewhere.
What are your future goals or plans?
I definitely want to go back to university and study jazz and have a minor is music business. I am currently working towards that and hopefully I’ll be able to go to within a year. Most of my future plans revolve around my personal development as an artist in addition to partaking in developing the creative music industry in Sudan. I also want to start producing music and hopefully launch a startup that works on musical co-production projects between Sudan and other countries.
For more information, follow Islam Elbeiti on Twitter @islamelbeiti.