‘People have weapons, but it’s to celebrate!’ Jantra, the Sudanese keyboardist making wild party music

In his first ever interview from wartorn Sudan, Jantra explains how he hacked hardware to create melodies that send dancers into a rapturous frenzy

The name of Sudanese keyboard player Jantra translates as “crazy”, and sure enough, his gigs are wild. “Sometimes a fight will happen and I have to take a break so everyone can calm down,” he says. “The crowd goes crazy but I take pride that the energy the music creates lets people have such a good time.”

During slightly less energised passages, people swarm around him, filming his incredibly animated and agile fingers gliding across his Yamaha keys. It was through one such YouTube video that Vik Sohonie – a crate-digging obsessive born in India and now living in New York and Bangkok – came across Jantra and set about tracking him down to record him for his label, Ostinato Records. The result is one of the best releases of the year. However, given the civil war that has been raging since April in Sudan, which has left key services such as the post non-functional, Jantra doesn’t even own a copy.

He is often without a phone or internet and has never given an interview before. However, a nephew of a colleague linked to Jantra’s label lives in the same town, Gedarif, and has been able to get questions to him, translate them and send them back.

“Times are very tough,” Jantra says. “You cannot move around the country easily and there are fewer gigs for me, but life goes on. Things are calmer here in Gedarif but the world should pray for Sudan.”

Jantra in DarGoog.
Jantra in Dargoog. Photograph: Ostinato Records

Synthesized Sudan: Astro​-​Nubian Electronic Jaglara Dance Sounds from the Fashaga Underground is a collection of very distinct and regional dance music; a riotous concoction of cosmic keyboard wig-outs, looped melodies, chopped rhythms and lively yet hypnotic beats. “Jaglara” means improvised, while “Fashaga” refers to a disputed area in rural Sudan near the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia. It’s here you’ll find Jantra playing street-side raves, parties, weddings or hennas (stag dos) for hours on end, sending people into a state of rapture.

“If there’s one memory I will take to my deathbed, it will be the party we went to in a small village called Dargoog,” says Sohonie. “Jantra was playing these hypnotic loops, sending people into a literal trance. There’s no alcohol there but people were going crazy. Someone pulled out a sword and was waving it in the air and then somebody else pulled out a handgun. He let a shot off, firing a bullet hole into the tent’s roof, but the beat was so loud you could barely hear it. No one was fazed by it – this is the kind of frenzy that’s being created.”

“People have weapons but it’s to celebrate, not to harm anybody,” says Jantra. “This energy allows me to keep playing. Sometimes up to eight hours non-stop.” His music pours out of powerful custom-built Sudanese sound systems, via keyboards that have been customised at a specialised market to incorporate Sudanese timbres. “I make the rhythms, tones, percussion, everything,” Jantra says. “Everything is on a USB but if you plug that into a keyboard that has not been made to work for Sudanese music, it will not sound the same.”

Sohonie may of course be biased, given that his label is releasing the record, but he’s bursting with passion about the music coming from this territory. “New York, London, Chicago, Berlin – these once great citadels of electronic music – are not where the most innovative music is being made,” he says. “It’s being made in places like Sudan, in rural areas by largely unheralded acts.”

The making of the record was not without its challenges. The team arrived in the country in 2021 after a military coup, with soldiers in the streets, major roads and bridges blocked, and power cuts for hours at a time. Also, due to Jantra’s unique style of playing, sticking him in a sterile recording environment was not going to work. “I cannot sit in a studio and just play,” he says. “I have to be surrounded by the right crowd.” He doesn’t have songs per se, instead playing constantly improvised, ever-shifting music. “I just play,” he says. “I never learned to make songs – I just go in search of melodies.”

This meant a unique recording approach was required to capture the intensity and spontaneity of Jantra’s music, with the crew staying up until 4am extracting the individual melodic patterns, rhythms and Midi data from his keyboard as he performed at places such as the gun-toting Dargoog party.

While Jantra is still without a vinyl copy, he has managed to listen to it on YouTube. “It is an honour,” he says. “Praise to God that my music can travel outside of Sudan and that people know we are making special things in this country.”

And, according to Sohonie, this is just the beginning. “He’s got more albums up his sleeve,” he says. “Every show he plays, he produces new melodies on the fly. He reminds me of the footballer Ronaldinho because every time you saw the man play football, he did something different. He freestyled his way through his entire career, and Jantra is the same.”

• Synthesized Sudan: Astro​-​Nubian Electronic Jaglara Dance Sounds from the Fashaga Underground is out now on Ostinato Records


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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