Mo Ali - Interview with a Gentle Rebel
09/08/2020 by Gardy Stein
Sudan. A name that's a mystery to many, as even well-educated people shrug their shoulders in ignorance when asked about it. Not much is known about the fate of this ancient land which used to be the biggest on the African continent until, in 2011, South Sudan claimed independence from the North and is now the world's youngest state.
Both countries still struggle with their violent past (the terrible Darfur conflict, a brutal civil war... the list is long), and it is extremely important to make the gentle voices be heard that speak of peace and reconciliation. One of these is Mo Ali, a Sudanese singer and multi-instrumentalist now residing in the Netherlands. There, he is working on his musical legacy, something he couldn't do in Sudan.
He has just released his debut EP Alhamdo Lilah, vibrant proof of the global impact Reggae has on idividuals all over the world, a five-piece rootical treat produced and released by the artist himself. Reggaeville, who had the pleasure to meet the charismatic young man at last year's SummerJam Festival in Cologne, discovered the story behind his beautiful music, music for which he has even been held captive in Sudan:
How are you, Mo?
I'm good. I'm happy that right now I'm releasing my first EP which was a struggle for me. I've been into the musical experience since 2010, but, imagine, after all these years I'm just now releasing something.
Before we talk about your music, please tell us something about you as a person. You have a very unique personal history, I think...
Ok. I grew up in the United Arab Emirates, in Dubai. I lived most of my life there, going to school there. From time to time I've been travelling to Sudan, to visit my family, but when I finished High School, I went back there to study in the University, in Khartoum. I lived in my grandmother's house for almost three years, and then after that my family came back to the Sudan to live together in our house.
How was the situation during the time you studied in Sudan?
When I went back, I started focusing on studying. I studied Computer Science which is really something different from what I do right now. At that time at University, I used to do Rap music, HipHop style, showing my class-mates 'Hey, I have a talent!' (laughs). From there I realized I have the voice to sing, so I started to look for musicians which is not easy to find in Sudan, Reggae musicians especially. I am the founder of the Sudan Roots band, and I had to run from place to place to find a drummer, a bassist... it's really a long story, at the end of the day it was a phone call to everyone asking if they'd like to join and they said yes. They didn't know each other at that time.
How did you get in touch with Reggae anyway? I imagine it's a very different culture, how big is Reggae there?
In the Emirates, people don't really listen to Reggae. What linked me with Reggae was really my uncle. When I was young, I used to travel to Sudan during school holidays, and I saw the big picture of Bob Marley in my uncle's room, and he was always playing his music, video tapes, and I watched the video of Bob Marley singing Get Up, Stand Up, that's all I remember in my head. And then he gave me a gift cassette for the Exodus Album and I took it and went back to the Emirates and it was on play every day (laughs). I didn't even know what he was saying because I didn't speak English at that time, so I had to translate his lyrics and found out that really it touches me. Even though I was living a good life in Emirates, I didn't know the struggle until I went to live in Sudan.
Struggle in what way?
In Sudan there is a lot of struggle! As a musician, you can't buy instruments, original instruments, you know, the sellers on the market they don't want to bring it to Sudan because it's too expensive to buy, and if they do bring it to Sudan, nobody is going to buy it. The struggle of finding musicians, it's not easy. The struggle of finding a place to rehearse. It's not allowed sometimes, I remember many times we were performing and the government come and stop the show... they get scared that the people get wild and go in the streets, you know.
The political situation... it's tough. People in Sudan are not so much into music, but they listen to Reggae, they listen to Bob Marley, to Alpha Blondy... there is no day I'm out in the street walking and I don't hear Reggae from somewhere, cars or radio or whatever. Most people know Bob Marley.
How did you manage to find instruments to play and to teach yourself to play? You are a multi-instrumentalist, right?
Actually, the first instrument I had in my hand was a gift from my cousin, he gave it to me when I was travelling back to Sudan to study. He gave me a guitar and at that time, I tried to learn it and I was trying to find local musicians, local bands, and I joined their rehearsals. I was asking them "Please, can you teach me how to play one chord?" So they taught me how to play A minor which is easy on the guitar, and from there I went through YouTube to learn how to play guitar. Even some songs I learned from Bob Marley videos when he was in the concerts, I just picked up the chords when he was playing on stage.
Wow! But you also play other instruments, drums, bass, keyboard...
That came after I founded Sudan Roots. We've been rehearsing four or five times a week, getting ready for shows and concerts, so at that time I really developed myself in learning instruments. It was tough, you know, all the time we played shows, we were not able to make money, most of the times after the show we went back home walking because we didn't have the money to take a taxi, it was really a tough time. Also for the people to accept what we are doing, it wasn't easy in Sudan.
Is Um'Reggae'ga another band you were active in? I read that name somewhere...
UmReggaeyga is actually a dish, a Sudanese meal, hard to explain. It's really popular in Sudan, any house you go to, the first thing they will give to you is UmReggaeyga. For us, when we heard UmReggaeyga, even when you write it, you can hear the word 'Reggae' in it. What we are trying to do, me and some other musicians from Sudan, is trying to make our own Reggae style. I'm working on another EP right about now, it's going to have that flavour. It's Reggae, but at the same time it has a Sudanese melody, Sudanese type of drums, Sudanese rhythms. It's not easy, it's something new, something we are creating.
From being in Sudan, how did you make your way to Europe?
After being in Sudan Roots for three years, I left the band. I travelled to America first, I got invited by the Americans, they had something called the Leadership Musical Programme, and they chose me from Sudan to send me to America. They paid for the whole trip, I've been travelling all over America for one month, touring. I didn't perform there, but they were teaching me about the musical history of America and they were supporting me. In 2015 I then got in touch with the Rootsriders, a Bob Marley tribute band here in Holland. They actually sent me an invitation, their manager linked me up and said "Hey, would you like to be a guest artist in our show here in Holland?" And for me it was just a dream come true, I've never been to Europe before, so I said "Yeah, let's make it work!" So he sent me an invitation and I went to the Embassy and I came as a guest artist to do four songs in their show, and now I am the lead singer in the band!
What a journey! Beside this involvement, you always pursued your own works. You have quite a few singles out, among them Rise Up Sudan. I read on Facebook that you got arrested for that last year?
Yes... People started the revolution against the government in Sudan, that was early 2019. The government didn't like my song because they think that it brings people to the streets, and this is not allowed. And even before the song, they used to come to me, saying "Hey, you have to relax!" Because in Sudan, people go crazy after a show, they go in the streets, shouting the words of freedom that they hear in the songs. The music really touches them, Reggae touches them so hard because that is their life! It's not like here in Europe, you go to a concert, you hear the words of freedom and then you go back home and sleep. In Sudan it touches them! This is the daily life they are living, the same thing happening to them.
So, after releasing the song, after six days I got arrested by the government for one night, they were beating me, saying bad words, put the gun on my head saying I must stop... they wanted me to stop revolutionary songs. They said "If you play revolutionary songs again, you are not going to see the sun again!" That's a threat that they might kill me or put me in a jail forever. That was the 6th of January. I really didn't want to leave Sudan, but my woman here, she called my manager and told him the story "Hey, this guy is in danger and he doesn't want to leave!" So my manager just called me and said "Listen man, I got your ticket, you have to travel next week, you have to leave Sudan!" So I did. I wasn't even able to say goodbye to my mother, I just left. Now it's not easy for me to go back there.
I can imagine. I read about the massacre that happened in early June last year after a demonstration in Khartoum. More than 100 people got killed...
They killed friends of mine, people who used to come to my shows! It was a tough time, until now the Army is like this. They will never change. Same old story, they want to rule and control.
Let's hope that one day the government will change and create a peaceful environment. Your debut EP Alhamdo Lilah is all about peace and understanding. When did you start to work on it?
I've been working on each and every song since a while. If you go in my laptop or in my musical disc, you will find a lot of sessions that I've been working on. The finishing touches, that's what I decided in the time of Corona. I think it is really the best time to release something, because otherwise we gonna be on tour and we have no time to stay in the studio and focus on the thing. So I just decided since the beginning of the year, since Corona happened, to really focus on working on the EP and release those songs.
There are five songs on the album. The credits say that you are producer, instrumentalist, singer and songwriter for all of them.
(laughs) Yes, even DMF Records is my record label, I just started it to release my first album. I want to help the youths all over the world, especially from Sudan, to produce their music in the future. I will announce this in the coming month, that there is a record label, welcoming everyone, to support the youths.
What does DMF stand for?
It was actually my Rap name when I was young (laughs). People used to call me "Dangerous Man Forever" in the music, in a good way. So I said I don't want this name to go away, so let me just use it for my record label.
Why did you choose these five songs especially from the projects you mentioned?
I have over 60 open projects. I chose those five from them because I think where I'm coming from it's a tough place. A very very very tough place, and that's why I call the album Alhamdo Lilah which means 'I give thanks to God' that this album is out, that at least I made something after the ten years I've been in the musical experience. I chose the songs because of the message. Like, I'm Sorry Mama is a respect for the mother. We respect the mother so much in the country where I'm coming from! You said in the review the song doesn't say what she is worrying about... but you are a mother yourself, you know what it means! Sometimes as kids, as a teenager you don't listen to their advices. Like me, my mum used to give me advices, do this, do that, try not to do this, but we never understand it until we get old, so... there is a lot of advice she gave to me when I was young, but I didn't listen or maybe I was blind or I thought I'm old enough and I know everything... but the mother has the experience more than us! So the mothers see things we don't see. That's why I say "You gave me advices to lead me through my life, I took my own direction and now I'm paying the price." It's really a different culture there. For example, I learned myself how to cook in the last year, because my mother she never let me cook, she always brought the food to me! This song it means also a respect for the mother and love for the mother, and when you are away from her you will feel how much she is an important person in our lives.
So it's about the general worry a mother has about the well-being of a child? I can imagine your mother was worried about your choice to become a musician to in these circumstances.
In the beginning of my musical career, my family they didn't want me to be an artist. It was really tough and I had to fight my father because he thinks the music industry is a bad world, a bad place, from what he sees in the local music. Like, people smoking, drinking hard, doing drugs... for them, they didn't want me to do that thing. But I prove to them that this is not my mission, this is not my thing, I even don't smoke! I don't drink because of the culture where I'm coming from and because me myself I don't want to be involved in this. But now my father and my family they are so proud of what I'm doing.
That's great. There is also a love song on the EP, Still I'm Waiting. Is it about a long-distance relationship?
You know... people can understand it in a different way. Sometimes even when you are with someone in the house, he is 20,000 miles away from you. Everyone is going to feel that song in a different way. I wrote this song a long long time ago, maybe over 7 years or so. But now I just had to produce it and make it happen. It's just a love song, yes.
Moving On is more about looking into the future, getting your stuff together. Is it a motivational thing?
Yes. Actually, most of the songs on this album are about me and where I'm coming from. I mean, my culture, even the people in Sudan can feel the words I'm singing because they are coming from the same place. There is a lot of difficulties, a lot of things not making you go ahead, even to record an album is not easy in Sudan. That's why I'm saying I'm moving on no matter what's happpening, there is struggles, but I''m moving on, I'm going, I'm not going to stop.
Afaalk now, it's sung in Arabic, can you tell us what you sing about?
Afaalk means 'your actions', it's about what you do in your life. The main concept of this song is 'Look at what you're doing, it will affect the people even by just looking at someone in a way that they don't like'. And I say, what about your mouth talk? If a look can destroy someone, what about the words? It's going to destroy them more, so be careful what you are saying, be careful what you are doing. This song got inspired by real life, I'm just telling everyone to be careful what you are saying because you don't want the same thing happening to you. And at the end of the song I'm mentioning God, Allah, Allah to protect us and the Earth.
Me personally, I really like Arabic, I hope to learn it some day. It's very unusual in a Reggae context to hear lyrics in Arabic, but it conveys a very nice feel.
Thank you, I really appreciate that.
Do you work on collaborations as well?
Actually, this first EP I wanted to bring me, my musical experience, that's why I didn't want to work with a lot of musicians or other people because I wanted to show myself. What did I do all these years, what did I learn? I wanted to bring all this collection out in one album. And I asked a guitarist or a saxophonist to play the parts that I couldn't do.
I'm working on two other EPs now. One of them is Arabic, I'm really making that one for the people of Sudan because a lot of people in Sudan want to hear Arabic Reggae because there is not much of that. Also the music of the album is going to be UmReggaeyga, the new style of Sudanese Reggae. And I'm working with another company, Noba Records from New York for another EP, and that's really a different one again. There is a Reggae feel there, but also something different, a John Myers style.
What is your plan for the promotion of the EP, because at the moment you can not perform really, you can't tour?
I'm going to make video clips for the album, I'm working on that right now. I love making video clips, I make it by myself. Maybe for 2021, I plan to go on tour and making shows for the album.
Yes, I hope we'll be able to meet at festivals again and see you live and in person!
That's my aim, I want to hit the big stages, Summerjam, Reggae Jam and others. Thank you for your support, Reggaeville!