Tarig Ahmed Abubakar: He was my friend
by Opiyo Oloya
Tarig Ahmed Abubakar: optimist, saxophonist, band-leader and founder of Toronto's AfroNubian Band. Born in Medani, Sudan in April 4th 1964, died in a tragic car accident on way to Khartoum Airport on Monday, January 26 1998. Survived by his father, mother and three sisters and three brothers.
It is difficult to speak in the past tense about Tarig Ahmed Abubakar, the man who arrived in Canada penniless in 1986, scratched enough money to buy a saxophone and went on to found and lead Canada's premier African dance band, the AfroNubians. He is too fresh in the memories of many who experienced his whirlwind musical energy and bubbly friendship.
Born on April 4th 1964 in Medani, Sudan, Tarig grew up in Dem, on the outskirt of Khartoum. "It was a hard place", recalled Tarig, "but there was harmony, love and support."
I met Tarig some time in 1993, I forget the date now. He was living in a run-down area of Toronto. But he was full of energy, ready to show me his music and practically bursting with ideas of where he wanted to go. We became very good friends.
I still recall the afternoon of Saturday, October 8th 1994, when Tarig walked into the studio to show me his spanking debut CD. He was ecstatic, beaming from ear to ear. When we sat down for the live show, Tarig wanted to talk about his new CD. But I would not let him because I wanted to hear the story of how he became a musician. After much badgering on air, he gave in and told me the whole story. Here, is the gist of what he told me that day.
His loving Islamic family wanted him to complete his studies and make something of himself, but Tarig, always restless, had other ideas. One day, at the tender age of thirteen, he saw an ad in the local paper calling for kids who wanted to learn to play saxophone. Tarig used his lunch money, a meagre ten cents to take the bus to the audition. He was accepted and, without the knowledge of his severe father, began to learn the saxophone from a Korean instructor.
For three years, he hid his passion, going hungry at lunch in order to save enough transport money to go to practice his saxophone. When his family finally learned, via a local TV network what he was up to, Tarig was by now playing in a local band. His father threatened to break the saxophone, but relented when Tarig's mother pled for clemency.
In 1986, Tarig left home with a one-way ticket to Cairo. He was not sure where he would end up, but he knew he had to go somewhere. He ended up joining Ali Hassan Kuban, a renown musician famous for his modern Arabic ballads. For two years, he performed in night clubs and local venues, but his heart ached to get out to the bigger world.
The opportunity came in June 1988 when he left, yet again with a one-way ticket for Canada. He arrived sans his baggage at Mirabel. Lacking money and without a clear destination, he set off on foot from Mirabel for the long trudge to Montreal. He was rescued by passing motorists who gave him a lift to a Montreal's African club.
It was not long before he was on a train to Toronto, again, with a one-way ticket. Once in the big city, he supported himself washing cars and doing odd jobs. All the while, he laid foundation for his musical journey. In September 1992, Tarig assembled together a group of musicians from diverse cultural background and called the group AfroNubians. The band performed its first gig on October 9 1992 at a small Toronto club.
By the time of his tragic car accident last week in Khartoum, the rising star from Sudan had ventured beyond the desert sounds of his birthplace, successfully establishing himself as a multi-cultural performer and an ambassador of pure good-will. With little else except his ability to make friends everywhere he went, Tarig released three great albums beginning with the 1994 album "Tour To Africa". Two other albums followed in quick succession, the "Great Africans" (1995) and "Hobey Laik" (1997).
Loyal to his friends to a fault, Tarig insisted I write the sleeve notes for the last albums. He would call in the evening to see how I was doing. "Hey, you have got the word man, you can do it", he would say with his characteristic deep guffaw.
But there is more to the story. In between recording sessions, Tarig took his music to Canadians. First, he hit the airwaves on campus radios and the CBC where he managed to get himself a spot across from Peter Czowsky. If a DJ did not have one his CDs, Tarig delivered it personally. An indefatigable worker, Tarig could also be seen around Toronto delivering promos for his next gig.
Yet, as if that was not enough, he had to push harder. Soon his face began to appear in major Canadian newspapers including two feature articles in the Globe and Mail between 1995 and 1997.
But for Tarig, the sweetest joy was being on the road, performing live on stage. As the lead singer for the band, Tarig's flowing white jelabiya and multi-coloured cap became his calling cards. On stage, he was alive as he bellowed encouragement to his musicians and belted tunes in Arabic. Everywhere he appeared, joyous layers of Afro-urban sound set people into a dancing frenzy, never mind that few understood the Arabic lyrics.
Even as he embarked on the fateful journey back to visit his motherland, Tarig knew he had opened a window of beautiful music which, like an African rainbow in the soft evening sun, straddled many hills and cultures. Optimistic to the end, Tarig said, "My music is like the beautiful aroma of a well blended Arabica coffee, I want it forever enjoyed around the globe by everyone."
Sadly, this time he bought a return-ticket, but he never returned.