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World Music Features

Emmanuel Jal

By Robert Nolan
Published July 25, 2006

Hope, as much of the world now knows, is a rare commodity in Sudan, a country plagued by decades of civil war, ethnic violence, political turmoil and poverty.

When Rachel Nyaruach decided to walk from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum to Ethiopia in search of her long lost brother, Emmanuel Jal, she didn’t have much hope they would ever be reunited. Hope, as much of the world now knows, is a rare commodity in Sudan, a country plagued by decades of civil war, ethnic violence, political turmoil and poverty.

Upon her arrival in Addis Ababa, however, Nyaruach received some unexpected good news: friends said her brother was now a famous hip-hop artist in Nairobi, Kenya. She drove her there to meet him. “When she arrived and smiled, she had teeth like mine, the same dimples,” Jal says of the encounter. “I just knew instantly it was her.”

She’s now a backup singer in his band.

Such is the recent fortune of Emmanuel Jal, one of Africa’s most beloved and rising hip-hop sensations. A former child soldier in the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the now 25-year-old Jal has flipped the script, and currently holds the unofficial portfolio of Sudan’s musical ambassador for peace. It is a role he embraces on his debut solo album Gua and the recently released Ceasefire (Riverboat Records/World Music Network), an unprecedented collaboration between Jal, who hails from southern Sudan, and renowned musician, composer and peace advocate Abdel Gadir Salim, a northern Arab.

Jal spoke with GLOBAL RHYTHM just days after the implementation of a peace deal in Sudan between the predominantly Christian south and mostly Arab north, tentatively putting an end to 20 years of civil war that have left more than two million dead and even more displaced (though as of this writing, atrocities continue in the western Darfur region). Jal says events in Sudan, and in his own life, “are just falling into place at the right time,” beginning with the African chart-topping hip-hop single “Gua,” which appears on The Rough Guide To The Music Of Sudan, and continuing with Ceasefire.

“After we made a hit comes peace,” he says with an air of mock righteousness.

Jal’s manager, Peter Moszynski, a writer and aid worker for 25 years in Sudan, believes Ceasefire “symbolizes the entire peace deal.”

If reuniting with his sister, aiding peace in his homeland and making hit records weren’t enough, Jal had another reason to feel enthusiastic. He had just returned from a crowd-moving performance at the Eden Project Live8 concert in Cornwall, part of a last-ditch effort by the event’s organizers to get more African acts on the bill. Rubbing elbows with continental giants like Youssou N’Dour and Kanda Bongo Man, Jal’s performance reportedly stole the show. “From the broadcast engineers to the DJs and organizers, not to even mention the fans,” Moszynski says, “he just blew them all away.”

After watching the show via streaming video and listening to Ceasefire, it is easy to see why. Jal’s deliberate yet soft-spoken rhymes, delivered in vibrant mix of Arabic, English, Swahili and Nuer, straddle the border between the African and Arab world. Though serious-minded, Jal is engaging, even playful, on stage. He is a born performer. Bolstered by the high-pitched vocals of Jal’s “sisters” and Gadir Salim’s string compositions, it’s not surprising tracks like “Aiwa” and “Gua,” both of which Jal performed at Live8 and appear on Ceasefire, have become dance floor anthems to peace throughout East Africa.

Jal is a first-class charmer, a young man whose magnetism, sincerity and survivor instinct have allowed him to overcome a lifetime of extreme adversity. Indeed, Jal’s almost epic journey from soldier to rap star make the trials and tribulations of even the hardest emcees seem docile by comparison.

Born in a small village in southern Sudan, Jal lost his mother at an early age, and was recruited by the SPLA for schooling in Ethiopia. The camps, however, were little more than staging g