Stepping onto a Khartoum stage and launching into their first song, The Nightingales — Sudan’s best-loved girl band — still raise whoops and cheers from adoring fans, 45 years after their debut.
Sisters Amal, Hadia and Hayat Talsam were known in their 1970s heydey as the “Sudanese Supremes” for their stylish bobs, matching dresses and their soulful ballads, changing the image of female artists in Sudan forever.
Their outfits may have changed a little — at the January concert in Khartoum, the sisters appeared in long robes and loose headscarves — but the audience’s adoration has only increased, with fans dancing and singing in front of the stage.
Their vintage brand of Sudanese pop, songs of longing and youth blending elements of folk music with their driving vocals aim to show the world another side to Sudan.
“We want to travel the globe and offer our art to all the peoples of the world,” Amal said after the concert at the family home, sitting beside her sisters.
“We could show a beautiful side of Sudan to the outside world” said Hadia, the oldest of the sisters, grinning.
Although they haven’t got round to planning their tour, they do have some prior experience.
– ‘Vibrant period’ –
The Nightingales were formed in 1971, when a family friend came to their home in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city, to ask their father if he could pick three of his seven daughters to perform a song he wrote.
The trio performed so well that they made the arrangement permanent and they were picked to tour Sudan with president Jafer al-Nimeiri, a socialist-leaning army officer who seized power in 1969.
“It was a very, very vibrant period for culture and art,” said Hayat, the quietest of the sisters.
Amal said she was 15, Hadia 17 and Hayat just 13 years old when they started touring, building a region-wide fan base.
But in socially conservative 1970s Sudan, not everyone was pleased at the three young women travelling unaccompanied and singing and dancing in front of crowds.
But the sisters won acceptance by force of character and with support from their family.
“The Nightingales changed the way people looked at female artists in Sudan,” said Hadia.
The group did nothing to change their looks and even appeared on the state broadcaster performing their songs.
Other female artists had preceded them but their music had been more traditional.
Neighbours, friends and even some relatives criticised their father for their on-stage and television appearances as their fame grew.
“Our father wasn’t interested in any of that and he used to encourage us a lot,” Hadia said proudly.
“We were able to stand firm and fight back against people who were against us and our progress and our presence on stage proved that there was nothing wrong with it,” Amal added.
By the 1980s, the group had cemented their reputation as one of the country’s best loved groups … but Sudan itself was changing.
Nimeiri grew increasingly paranoid and repressive toward the end of his 16-year reign, declaring sharia Islamic law in 1983 and igniting another civil war with southern rebels.
– ‘Better than the Supremes’ –
The Nightingales kept playing but in 1988, with all three married and other commitments, they played their final concert in Khartoum.
Amal and Hadia left for the Gulf with their families, before moving to the US, while Hayat stayed in Khartoum.
The next year, now-president Omar al-Bashir seized power in an Islamist-backed coup and his military authorities imposed a curfew that lasted for years, putting limits on musical performances.
But in 2007, Hadia and Amal performed in New York’s Central Park at a festival of Sudanese music and people urged them to return to Sudan for a full reunion.
Apprehensively, Hadia and Amal returned the next year and organised a concert with Hayat at the officers’ club in central Khartoum, unsure whether their fans would remember them after 20 years.
When they arrived, the streets were jammed with expectant fans.
“The only thing that changed was they liked it much more and it was a huge success,” Amal said.
Now, the Nightingales tour Sudan when they are all in the country together, drawing hundreds of spectators of all ages to their shows across Khartoum.
They have lost none of their glamour, singing in matching outfits, with performances punctuated by mid-set costume changes — and a quick cigarette break.
Amal, Hadia and Hayat are confident they can win more fans abroad and are keen to arrange their tour.
And would the comparison with the Supremes help draw foreign crowds in?
“Honey, we’re better than the Supremes,” Amal shot back in American-accented English. “We came to their country, but they never came here”.