A Pioneer of Modernity: Aisha al-Fallatiya

by Nusreldin Eldouma, Sudan

by Nusreldin Eldouma, Sudan

In 1943, Aisha Al Fallatiya walked into the National Broadcasting Station in Omdurman to give the first ever performance by a woman in Sudan.

At that time, it was rare for anyone to be a musician, but it was culturally less acceptable for women. Her arrival caused a stir - so much so that Mohamed Ahmed Saroor, a musical icon of that time, threatened to leave the station if she stayed. Aisha had longed to perform at the station all her life and ignored Saroor’s insult and did what she knew best: she got behind a microphone and sang what later became a famous song, “I am sending my greetings to you my dear one from the radio station.” She ushered in a new era of attempts to modernise Sudan.

Aisha Al Fallatiya was born Aisha Musa Ahmed Yehia Idrees to parents from Sokoto, a city in north-west Nigeria and a hub for Islamic teaching for West Africa. Like many Hausa people, her parents settled in Sudan on their way back from pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, and Aisha was born in Kassala in eastern Sudan. Her father’s work as a sheikh and teacher of Islamic studies took the family to Gedaref, and later to the suburbs of Al Moslimeya, a town in central Sudan where he founded a khalwa, a religious school to teach the Qur’an and worked at the Jazeera agricultural scheme producing cotton.

Born to be an artist

Aisha’s love for music started early. At the age of 10, the rebellious Aisha would run away from her father’s khalwa to sing at weddings. “I was very passionate about lyrics and was able to memorise and improvise songs,” she said in an interview with Rahimi Suliman from the Al Sahafa newspaper in the early seventies. “I was never interested in dancing like other girls, singing was my passion.”

Her religious background played a major role in shaping her voice. Memorising the Qur’an taught Aisha to pronounce each word and letter accurately and articulately. She quickly gained popularity and people began to ask about her. Out of fear, Aisha dropped her father’s name and adopted “Al Fallatiya” as her stage name. It stems from the Sudanese word fallata, which refers to people of West African tribes like the Hausa, Bornu and Fulani.

Her father, a respected religious man, was very strict. He disapproved of her love of music and lashed her when she came home from singing at social events. Sometimes he would tie her to a tree in the yard to stop her from going out to sing. But she had an accomplice in her young sister, Jadawiya, and together they jumped over the wall countless times to perform at events. Jadawiya, who was equally driven by her passion for music and Sudan’s emerging world of artists, later became the first female oud player in Sudan.

Resistance from her family and society pushed Aisha to persevere and work harder. Although she drew strength from her sister and others who supported her, it was her gift –her art– that kept her going. “Aisha was born to be an artist,” says Amir Al Nour, a close friend of Aisha’s late son who was a musician himself.

An ardent lover of her country, Aisha sang for the Graduates’ General Conference, a nationalist movement formed by educated Sudanese youth who outspokenly demanded the increase of Sudanese staff in the civil service and self-determination for Sudan. Aisha's dedication to her art was evident in her public battles and personal struggles with her family and community, who drove her into two unhappy marriages from which she escaped. Her ardent love of art also prevailed over diabetes and the amputation of her leg, about which Aisha unforgettably said, “I will sing even if they cut off my head.”

Stony path to a self-determined life

At the end of the 1920s, the family moved to Omdurman, a cultural hub and microcosm of the diverse people who make up the Sudan. Aisha accompanied her mother to work in a gum-arabic factory and would sing along in her mother tongue Hausa, while cleaning the produce. Coworkers noticed her skills and at the age of twelve, Aisha was recruited into the Border Forces Music Group at a moment when a Sudanese choirmaster replaced his British predecessor - a step towards independence for Sudan, just as singing in this band was for Aisha.

One of Aisha’s inspirations was Rabha Khojali, the undisputed celebrity of the famous toom-toom drum beat.  Brought forth by former slaves and beer brewers, it had a distinct style of women’s singing and became popular as girls’ music. This urban novelty had a danceable rhythm and simple lyrics with romantic themes that illuminated the plight of Sudanese women in society. These early buds of Sudanese modern music marked a social shift; before Rabha, only men used to play the drums at occasions and Sudanese popular music had been exclusively a male domain.

Aisha helped Rabha with housework and collected tips during her performances. It was while washing dishes and singing along to Rabha’s songs, that in 1936 Aisha had her breakthrough. A Greek owner of a recording studio came to invite Rabha to produce her music on vinyl discs in Egypt. Rabha refused. The idea of recording her songs to be purchased and listened to in her absence, perhaps even by men sitting in cafes, was too risqué . As they tried to convince Rabha, the guests heard Aisha singing in her kitchen and turned their attention to her.

Later Aisha recalled: “My father objected and told them I was too little to travel. I cried and screamed, finally the khawaja, the foreigner, succeeded in convincing my father who signed a contract for 60 Sudanese pounds. I travelled to Egypt and stayed at Khawaja Mishan’s home with his wife and children. I recorded many songs and produced my first record. My records were sold in central Khartoum at the Bazaar of Khawaja Cavendish and by his son Dimitri. Sudanese people started buying phonographs to listen to Aisha Al Fallatiya singing.”

Between 1936 and 1941 Aisha travelled to Egypt many times. She never stopped wearing the Sudanese tobe, not even at the height of the fashion waves in the 1960s and 1970s. She loved and identified with the traditional four-metre-long Sudanese women’s wrap-around. Proud of her culture yet longing for modernity she sings in her song Daughter of the Nile: “You daughter of the Nile, what are you after? A modern life in a Sudanese town with softness, manners, art and decency.”

When she was eleven years old, Aisha had been married off by her family to a relative who took her to Al Sokai in present-day Sennar State. The marriage lasted two months. In stark contrast to Aisha’s larger-than-life dreams the marriage stifled her, suffocated her aspirations to sing and limited her dreams to a small town. Her husband did not approve of her performing at weddings. Her family expected her to be a housewife and raise children, not sing. She asked for a divorce, which was unspeakable for a woman at that time. But Aisha, at a very young age, stood against her family and made her choice.

After a second marriage in 1939, Aisha gave birth to a son, Kamal Khamis. Motherhood proved difficult for Aisha as being a musician meant staying out in the evenings, travelling, and exposing herself to mixed-gender audiences. With all of the cultural expectations and customs, earning money as a woman carried the association of selling oneself and clashed with the traditional social role as wife and mother. Aisha’s family and husband expected her to be obedient and to stay home. Her husband accused her of neglecting their son and their marriage soon ended.

An exception - even among artists

In the mid-1940s during World War II, Aisha sang for the Sudanese soldiers in the British colonial army. The songs’ lyrics lay bare the core of the Sudanese nature in the way people downplay the catastrophic nature of war and other events. While the Italians attempted to invade Al Qalabat and Kassala in eastern Sudan, Aisha sang: “A plane in the sky above Khartoum...dropping amounts of bombs…killed the poor donkey of the milk lady Kaltoun”. With a keen ability to come up with interesting, cultural and humorous lyrics, Aisha drew from women’s folk songs to make her pieces come to life. In her famous song The Sesame of Gedaref, she likens a loved one to sesame, a seed of high cultural value in the Gedaref State in Eastern Sudan.

This General Conference was the basis for what later became the National Unionist Party, Sudan’s first political party. When the Sudanese Women’s Union was formed in 1952, Aisha strongly supported an independent Sudan free from colonial powers. When the guests asked her to sing, Aisha proudly sang patriotic songs about her beloved Sudan.

With all of the cultural expectations and customs, earning money as a woman carried the association of selling oneself and clashed with the traditional social role as wife and mother. Aisha’s family and husband expected her to be obedient and to stay home. Fallatiya also demonstrated the power of women in modern Hausa music in pieces like Muna Maraba da Sardauna Sakkwato, a welcome song composed for the then Premier of Northern Nigeria on a State visit to the country. She was backed by the “Sound of Sudan” string quartet with an accordion. The song found a ready niche in radio stations and urban clubs of northern Nigeria. In Egypt, she was known as the Oum Kalthoum of Sudan.

Caught between tradition and talent

When Aisha had decided to be a musician, male singers were considered “immoral” and women in the entertainment industry were believed to be “loose women”. It was common practice for female artists to abandon their family names and adopt new ones. Another famous musician of that time, Amna Kheir Allah called herself Muna Al Kheir to avoid dishonouring her family. Defying social barriers for Sudanese women, Aisha earned her own income, travelled abroad unaccompanied and was responsible for herself - a remarkable endeavour at that time. Similar to artists today, Aisha found herself among artists living a bohemian lifestyle, in which she freely mingled with male and female artists. This community was different than the one Aisha was accustomed to as her fellow artists dated openly and even lived together outside of marriage.

Aisha who never enjoyed formal education, amazed her listeners and fellow musicians with her ability to memorise songs and to create lyrics that were simple yet possessed the ability to reflect on the trials and tribulations of everyday life and to translate local motives to abstract messages. Aisha was the first female musician in Sudan to produce and compose her own music. She used only the beats of the oud which she memorized, her music had no written notes.

Aisha passed away in February 1974 after a severe illness. Her son Khamis was young when she died, and until his death a few years ago, he carried a handful of memories of her wherever he went: some pictures of her glamorous days and discs in a plastic bag. Before his death, Khamis entrusted the bag to a friend in Al Daim. With the death of that friend some years later, there is no more trace of the bag. What remains of Aisha Fallatiya is a collection of over 100 songs she recorded before her death, many of them homeland-loving songs of timeless value. She left an indelible musical impression on the Sudanese collective memory, compulsively producing new content and deploying her voice in any way to support her country.

Aisha’s journey garners much respect; she was a pioneer woman from Sudan exploring the world of music. A woman from a poor migrant family and an ethnic group that was largely discriminated against in Sudan, Aisha triumphed against all odds, overcoming discrimination, disapproval and scorn.

While her memory lives on, Aisha’s greatest achievements go beyond her sweet voice and the music she had produced. Rather, they lie in her powerful sense of self as a strong woman, a Sudanese artist, and a Muslim without being confused in her identity and her life’s choices. Forty years on, a dignified modern life in Sudan remains but a dream with the political instability and economic deterioration caused by the conflicts raging in three different parts of Sudan, where women continue to bear the brunt of insecurity.

First published in Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)