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Synthesized Sudan: Jantra’s Astro-Nubian Jaglara music
Party in DarGoog, Soudan ©Ostinato Records

Synthesized Sudan: Jantra’s Astro‑Nubian Jaglara music

Keyboardist Jantra, unknown in Khartoum, doesn't even know his album is out. Without a telephone, he continues his search for inspiration in Sudan, combining traditional music and celestial melodies. The latest craziness from the Ostinato label.

Somewhere in the Sudanese countryside, people are gathering for a party. It’s a henna, a wedding celebration, but really, they’re getting ready for a concert by the maestro Jantra. Having traveled to the outskirts of Khartoum all the way from Fashaga, a small disputed region at the border of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, he sets up his blue Yamaha keyboard and invites the crowd into his hypnotic melodies. Pulling the universe into his fingers, Jantra improvises on his electronic synth keys, merging celestial strings with percussion. Repetitive patterns envelop the crowd into an electronic trance. As the sun sets, the dancing becomes rowdier, Jantra pulls people into a frenzy. Some men lift their swords to the propulsive rhythms; one has a gun and when the music reaches climax, he fires shots into the sky. This ecstasy needs no alcohol, it is fuelled by the sublime energy of Jantra’s 155—168 BPM music. “I’ll never forget the party in this little tent with the really great sound system”, says Vik Sohonie, Founder of New York-based record label Ostinato Records. “If I don’t remember anything else in my life, I’m gonna remember this party. Everyone was jamming really hard.”

Ostinato Records

Vik Sohonie stumbled across Jantra, a moniker that translates as “craziness”, through a serendipitous Youtube search. Born in India and based in Thailand, he was training his algorithm to find new sounds and artists during the first pandemic lockdown. Having started his career as a journalist in his early 20s, and frequently worked with record labels, Sohonie launched Ostinato Records in 2016, envisioning to encapsulate his world view as a South Asian and approach music with an ear from the Global Majority. “Music is a very powerful storytelling tool in the public court of opinion”, Sohonie says. “It can re-centre notions of history. If I present good music, it’s indisputable evidence.” On his mission to look for music in countries that nobody cares to look for music in, his travels have taken him to Sudan four times. Each trip culminated in an album release on Ostinato Records, celebrating music from a different region in the country. 

This latest project, ‘Synthesised Sudan – Astro-Nubian Electronic Jaglara Sounds From The Fashaga Underground’ by Jantra, was released at a time when Sudan is plunged into armed struggle between its military and paramilitary forces. As the news report on war and upheaval, turning Sudan into a singular narrative that leaves out its wealth and cultures, this album is a reminder that there are more stories to hear than the ones told by loud politicians. “Sudan’s music culture reminds me of South Asia’s food culture”, shares Sohonie. “I could just have a record label on its endless wealth of music. It changes from one neighbourhood to the other. You can drive in any direction for three hours and find a completely new sound.

©Ostinato Records

Jantra is an enigmatic icon in the Sudanese countryside and unknown in the capital. His other-worldly dance music, Jaglara, is his unique creation. “He doesn’t want to tell anyone where the melodies come from”, says Sohonie. “He likes to go missing and takes inspiration from his wanderings. The melodies just come to him. He says they’re a gift from God.” The album cover’s Africanfuturist imagery of ancient Nubian pyramids next to a UFO-style Corinthia hotel, one of Khartoum’s landmarks, is emblematic of Jantra’s sound: traditional rhythms mixed with ethereal synth keys that only his Yamaha keyboard can produce. In the centre, Jantra’s head is floating amongst planets over the desert, a cigarette in his mouth, an axis dividing him in half, opening him up to the universe’s revelations. The album’s subtitle is inspired by his travels to what was ancient Nubia where he found inspiration gazing at the infinite cosmos of the night sky. 

Synth culture in Sudan took off in the early 2000s. However, special mechanics have been around since the late 80s, tuning foreign keyboards into uniquely Sudanese instruments that play polyrhythmic notes. “In Omdurman, there’s a giant keyboard graveyard”, says Sohonie. “The mechanics go inside it and manually tweak things to create these specific keys and rhythms. There’s no preset sound that has that.” In this tradition, Jantra programmed his Yamaha to cater to his unique aesthetic of celestial keys and hypnotic Sayra rhythms. “Sudanese music is his only influence, nothing from overseas”, asserts Sohonie. All tracks on the album are permutations of the traditional Sayra rhythm which characterizes songs for men at their weddings en route to the bride’s home. Sayra is most discernible on ‘Jaborouna Jabor’, the album’s last track.

A hybrid reissue contemporary album 

Jantra has no songs, his performances are improvised intoxications that, apart from a few old cassettes and digital recordings, have never been recorded. When he invited Sohonie and his colleague Janto Koité to the party they would never forget, they made sure to remember his melodies so that they may recreate them later. Thus, ‘Synthesised Sudan’ is a “hybrid reissue contemporary album”, a compilation of tracks that Koité built with Jantra. “He couldn’t just record the keyboard. He had to extract the individual melodic patterns, rhythms, and MIDI data and then rebuild it in the studio”, explains Sohonie. “If you record the keyboard directly as Jantra plays it, you’re gonna get the full song and can’t isolate each instrument.” Jantra had to first play the keys, then the rhythm, then the backing key; Koité later combined the different stems with the older recordings and assembled them into well-constructed dance songs.

©Ostinato Records

Although Jantra’s brother owns a phone shop, the maestro himself doesn’t have a phone. As of our interview, he hasn’t heard of the album release yet; he’s somewhere finding inspiration. “He’s a humble guy and tough to reach. He did the recording to do us a favour”, laughs Sohonie and stresses how much of an honour it is for the world to hear this organic music that, until recently, was confined to rural gatherings. It may seem like Sudan’s armed crisis eclipses an album release, but Sohonie believes the opposite to be true. “There’s a conflict raging, but the music is still shining.”

Find Synthesised Sudan – Astro-Nubian Electronic Jaglara Sounds From The Fashaga Underground on Bandcamp here.