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On a square crowded with hundreds of singers,the Sudanese artist Nada Al-Qalaa stood as the most famous.
In her country, she is well-known not only because of her music career, but also for the ongoing controversies she has raised through her songs, her appearance and details about her artistic and personal life, as well as her presence in public life.
Her real name is Nada Mohammed Osman. Al-Qalaa was a nickname that she chose, after the district in Khartoum where she lived when she first emerged as a singer in the mid-1990s. She was born on 1 February 1975 and has been singing for 22 years.
She got married twice, but both of her husbands died. Her first husband was the organist Walid Hijazi, whom she married at the age of seventeen. He was the person who first introduced her to singing. Nada has a son, named Wael, who she had with her husband Hijazi. Her second husband was Ahmad al-Faki, who died in 2009. They had a daughter called Wudd.
Low-Level Girls Songs
Nida al-Qalaa has posted approximately 240 songs online, 200 of which are her own songs, while the rest are mostly popular and traditional songs, as well as Al-Hageeba songs.
Many tend to classify the songs of Nada Al-Qalaa as so-called “women’s songs”, a popular type of songs in Sudan that is composed and sung by girls. This music style is prominent in Sudanese weddings, where one of the rituals of marriage is that the bride performs dances on the rhythms and melodies of such songs. Although Al-Qalaa has produced a number of songs of that kind, she disagrees with this labeling and doesn’t like her songs to be classified as such.
She says that she does not tend to agree with this type of singing. She performs her songs accompanied by modern musical instruments, unlike other women’s songs, that are often accompanied by popular instruments such as “Al-Dalukah” and “Al-Shatam“. Besides, she does not sing songs for brides to dance on, unlike most singers of women’s songs, and she strongly refuses to be accused of performing “low-level songs.”
Nada al-Qalaa tends to perform what is known in Sudan as “songs of enthusiasm,” an old form of folkloric singing in which the values of manhood, equestrianism, honor and generosity are celebrated by men. Most of the time, the lyrics of these songs are composed by women. Al-Qalaa has also become famous for providing the kind of songs that give social advice for women and young people. Her song “Rajil al-Sutrah [Husband Is Source of Protection for Woman Against Shame]” is one of her most famous songs in this category. Her song “Khabar al-Shu’m [Ominous News]”, which was released in 2015, describes the behavior of some young people who choose not to follow social and religious norms.
The song heavily criticizes gay men. It was banned by the Council of Literary and Artistic Works.
Liberal Performance and Conservative Attitudes
Through her songs and media interviews, Al-Qalaa expresses traditional conservative views on social life and gender roles of men and women.
The popularity of Nada Al-Qalaa does not only emanate from her songs. She is a beautiful woman, according to the prevailing standards in the Sudanese culture. She also pays good attention to her appearance and always has great makeup, hairstyle, fashion, and accessories. She has become an icon of elegance and a role model to be followed by Sudanese women. Her dress and henna designs regularly become a fashion that lasts until she appears in a new look again.
Sudanese thinker Dr. Haidar Ibrahim described Al-Qalaa by saying: “Nada Al-Qalaa has become an icon and a symbol, and she is a point of reference on some details related to shape, fashion, and behavior. She is not just a singer and a voice, but a cultural commodity that can be circulated and some of whose elements can be reproduced. She knows how to exert power by being different from others in terms of clothing and fashion. She has provided new forms of henna designs and hairstyles.”
Writer Dr. Hassan Musa has described her as “a great public aesthetic figure.” He has said: “Viewers cannot ignore the overwhelming femininity of her look in the footage and videos of her popular songs. She pays great attention to her appearance and looks very attractive, which qualified her to become a role model in terms of the beauty of the body of young females, representing physical aestheticism of the traditional society and becoming the source of inspiration for poets of Al-Hageeba and the latest fashions of beauty salons in the Middle East.”
Nada al-Qalaa’s Success with Wealthy Nigerians
The most controversial point on Nada Al-Qalaa’s artistic career has been raised by her trips to Nigeria. She has gone there more than once at the invitation of the Governor of Maidukri province, the Senator Ali Modu Al-Sharif, to perform special concerts there.
Al-Qalaa was paid very handsome sums of money for these concerts, receiving as much as 100,000 US dollars for one concert in addition to tips, a Lexus car and a mobile phone made of gold and diamond, which were gifts from Al-Sharif. She appeared in one of the videos in the middle of a piles of money that covered her bed, and in another video she appeared singing and dancing at one of Al-Sharif’s parties in an outfit other than the traditional Sudanese one she is used to wear in Sudan.
All of this raised much noise in the Sudanese circles about the nature of her relationship with the Nigerian Senator Ali Al-Sharif, accompanied by a strong campaign against her and clear and implicit attack on her reputation, “chastity” and morals.
Al-Qalaa confronted the campaign launched against her and confirmed that the great reward she had received for her concerts in Nigeria was only in appreciation of her art. She also orchestrated her defense in a song named “Al-Sharif Mabsut Minni [Al-Sharif Is Pleased With Me],” which caused an additional uproar as it was ridiculed by many who considered it to be a “low-level” and awkward song.
In recent years, Al-Qalaa has endeavored not only to present herself as an artist whose main job is to sing, but she has also taken initiatives and participated in activities that contribute to public social work. This includes visiting the Sudanese victims of floods and rains in 2015, providing them with aid, performing concerts, the revenues of which went to the victims, and singing a song about them. In 2016, Al-Qalaa organized a campaign to support female tea vendors in the country’s capital, Khartoum, and expressed her sympathy for the “dardaqat” workers [porters], who earn a living by helping buyers in the market to carry their purchases in hand-driven vehicles. In September 2018, Al-Qalaa launched a campaign of solidarity with Kassala residents to confront the Chikungunya fever that swept through the city, and she released a new song titled “Kassala Kafara & Salama [Kassala Do Not Be Sad; We Salute You]”.
Turning Back on Intellectuals
Dr. Hassan Mousa said: “The secret of the popularity of Nada Al-Qalaa lies not only in her ability to improvise as a singer, but also because she seeks to create her popularity through a number of traditional and modern ways of communication that allow her to appear in different faces in public. She has the image of a female singer, but she is also a female that is not ashamed of her femininity, which she does not hide in the masculine-dominated society in public. She is also an expert in emotional relations who gives advice to lovers, and acts like a compassionate mother who is dedicated to providing proper and useful education to her children. Also, she acts as a social activist who defends the values of the original Sudanese cultural heritage. ”
Generally speaking, Nada Al-Qalaa is an artist for the public, and the intellectuals do not like her very much. The country’s political opposition has accused her of collaborating with Sudan’s “dictatorial regime” (the “salvation” regime). Some have accused her of being a member of the regime’s security apparatus, and the opposition intensified their attacks when it was rumored that the Sudanese authorities invited her to participate in the National Dialogue Conference held in 2015 and 2016. The event was boycotted by the main opposition forces, though Al-Qalaa did not participate in the conference but performed a concert on its sidelines.
Dr. Haidar Ibrahim has another opinion on the singer. He considers Nada Al-Qalaa to be representing a “culture opposed to the culture of official hegemony” and that Al-Qalaa and the ruling regime are “two contradictory models.” He told Fanack that efforts by the state and official agencies to impose a religious culture, including the money they spend on this goal and all the crackdown, were not able to abolish the phenomenon of Nada al-Qalaa and other cultural and artistic phenomena that are seen as a cause of degradation of the country’s “civilizational project“. Al-Qalaa defies, fights and weakens that project, and she (consciously or subconsciously) nurtures the culture of resistance and opposition for those who do not want to be part of the greater culture. “She tries to spread joy, life and love while “the salvation” government offers a culture of death, hatred and abhorrence,” according to Ibrahim.
Left-wing writer Al-Fadil al-Hashemi commented on Dr. Ibrahim’s opinion and said that his analysis does not provide thorough knowledge about Nada Al-Qalaa by accusing her of being a security agent. He noted that Dr. Ibrahim did not see Al-Qalaa when she “was singing for the authorities, the governor, and the security.” He added that “Nada is a singer who exploits the parasite-like Sudanese political market, just like what businessmen and politicians do” and that “she does not aim to weaken or fight the authorities, but strengthen them; she had been repeatedly used to vent out popular resistance, whether directly or indirectly, as a cultural commodity exploited for consumption, wealth and distraction.” Al-Hashemi describes what he called “Nada’s culture” as “a ruthless political culture” and a “reactionary and masculine” one.
Hassan Musa commented that both Ibrahim and al-Hashemi had placed “more political burdens on Al-Qalaa than she can bear as a popular artist.” He said that “Nada al-Qalaa is an artist emanating from the people and is spontaneous,” adding that her audience “does not ask her opinion beyond her potential as a popular singer.” According to Musa, Al-Qalaa “reveals an instinctive anthropology that paints a picture of a relationship with the audience”. He said that “she speaks a language that the audience understands” and added that “she turns her back on the educated elite to focus on the people of cities that are torn between the nostalgic lifestyles of the lost rural paradise, on the one hand, and the requirements of modern life and material and symbolic difficulties, on the other hand.”