A love story that transcends culture and faith lies behind a new collaborative album from Shihad’s Jon Toogood.
Built on the bones of music made by Sudanese women, The Adults album Haja features a who’s who of powerful female voices including Aaradhna, Estère, Chelsea Jade, and rapper Jess B. It spans genres and continents, and tells stories of identity, place, and female power.
So how did this self-proclaimed bogan from Wellington come to make this body of work?
The genesis of Haja is a love-at-first sight romance that began seven years ago at a music industry after-party. Dana Salih had come along on a whim with a friend. She had no idea who Jon Toogood was, and had never heard of his band Shihad.
“She came up to me and went, ‘You look interesting', I breathed out this sigh of relief and went: "There you are", and I can finally breathe out, and relax, and be myself." Jon says "I found my best mate.”
The daughter of a former U.N. diplomat from Sudan, Dana was in her last year at the New Zealand College of Chiropractic.
“The fact that she was Northern Sudanese and Muslim and a diplo-brat who’d been brought up all around the world, didn't matter to me. It was just like, ‘There you are’.”
Dana totally flipped Jon’s view of the world.
“I had to be challenged about ... my stereotypes that I had of people who were religious, religion, ideas of what I thought Muslim women were like.
“I had this idea that they were basically – before meeting Dana - that they were all sort of in the background, wearing niqab, like you see in Saudi Arabia...”
Jon is the singer for enduring New Zealand heavy rock rock band Shihad. They came up with the name 30 years ago, after misspelling the Arabic word Jihad, which they’d heard in David Lynch’s film Dune.
Jihad - a holy war or struggle - is a word used frequently in the central religious text of Islam, the Q’uran, and has become more familiar around the world with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
When the band attempted to break into the U.S.A in 2002, there was a climate of fear, fuelled by 9/11 and the War On Terror. Their American management advised them to lose the name Shihad, so they changed it to ‘Pacifier’.
The new name only lasted two years, until regret over the decision saw them proudly reclaim the name Shihad.
Jon is a lyricist who’s always taken aim at institutions, systems, injustices and social ills. He’s written songs about capitalism, violence, bigotry and religion.
There’s one song that complains about door knocking missionaries, another about the futility of religious differences. Ten years ago he wrote ‘Waiting Round For God’ a song he described as a "hymn for non-believers".
Jon was brought up in a secular community. His ideas about religion were formed by “watching TV evangelists take money off poor people, and buy their third jet” and “seeing people blowing themselves up, and killing innocent people in the name of religion, and hearing the words ‘Allahu Akbar’.
“And it's like, ‘Well, if that's religion, I don't want anything to do with that.’”
“I always considered myself a pretty staunch atheist humanist, working on the idea that I would do to other people what I would expect to be done to me. If someone was in need I would help them because I'd want someone to help me if I was in trouble. But I didn't need God to do that. I didn't need religion to make that decision.”
But meeting Dana has changed Jon’s attitude toward religion, and he isn’t someone who does things by halves.
“If I was gonna marry a Muslim, then I had to do the right thing.”
Rock star turned Adult
You can sense the change. He doesn’t smoke or drink. He wears a suit sometimes. His eyes and smile seem wider than before. He’s confident playing solo acoustic gigs – something the Jon of ten years ago probably wouldn’t have done.
Talking to Jon Toogood, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. He’s oozing excitement over his new project, breathless and firing off expletives, and clearly smitten with his new life, two young children and gorgeous wife.
The guy has always been passionate and hyperactive, but this time he’s jumping out of his seat like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch.
The love of a great woman and two little ones will do that to a man. The 46 year old has made a big life change, and it suits him.
“Having children totally changes your life, and that's definite ... they've become a bigger priority than my music in a lot of ways. They're also a physical manifestation of this musical project. They're from two different worlds. They're literally half Sudanese, half Kiwi. And that's the record I've made as well.”
He doesn’t want to talk about his conversion to Islam too much, but he does admit this:
“I think as a singer in a rock and roll band that's had their blinkers on, and very ambitious, it's actually really healthy for me to, five times a day, go, ‘It's not about you, dude,’ and be thankful for what you've got. That's basically how I do it. Yeah.”
Jon Toogood and Dana Salih married in 2014 in the city of Khartoum, Northern Sudan, where the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet. It’s a place that has both Arabic and African cultures running through its veins.
It took a bit to get through the bureaucracy. The couple wanted to amend the traditional Sudanese marriage contract to reflected their equal partnership. It made front page news in Northern Sudan and “they debated it on television for about a week”.
“I think because I was a rockstar from New Zealand, on the other side of the planet, it was like, 'Oh, what is happening here?'"
“I'll tell you what, a lot of females were very happy about it, because the traditional marriage contract means that if a woman is unhappy in a marriage, she can't divorce the man until he gives permission.
“Our one was like, 'Oh, if Dana is sick of me, she can just get rid of me,' which is fair enough."
Their wedding photos show a glowing couple, Dana in traditional red Sudanese toub and Jon with a taqiyah on his head, in a red and white Jalabiya. You can’t see them, but he wears traditional black markoub snakeskin shoes, and she has intricate floral henna patterns painted on her hands.
Embracing a new culture
The Sudanese wedding ceremony lasts three days, and includes rituals that pre-date Islam’s arrival in Sudan. On day three, Dana performs a traditional Sudanese bridal dance for her new husband - just him and about 300 women in the room. Though he’s focussed on his wife, the band is capturing his heart and making his body move as well.
“My wife was doing this amazing dance, and I'm like, ‘I can't believe how good this music is. What is it?’ And it was this music called Aghani-Al-Banat, which literally translates to "girls music."
With only percussion and voices, the band are making music Jon compares to “a brand new MIA track” or “a new Beyoncé track, if she got the right producer.” The beats are infectious, and the melodies middle-eastern modal.
It reminds him of hip-hop, and of punk, too, in a weird way, and all he wants to do is give it a killer bass line: “Just out of curiosity, musical curiosity. I could hear basslines, and I could hear guitar lines, while they were playing. I was like, 'Man, that sounds amazing.'"
Aghani-Al-Banat is written and performed exclusively by women. Song subjects span love, sexuality, politics and economics. It’s inherently feminist and revolutionary, arising out of Sudan’s colonised history from Sudanese ex-slave women.
It’s still performed by working class women, but has been co-opted by the educated classes for weddings. It isn’t played on radio or TV, because “Aghani-Al-Banat doesn't fit what the [Islamic state’s] idea of … [how an] acceptable Sudanese Muslim female should act and behave... But it means that they can say things the girls who get played on radio can't.”
The leader of the band at Jon and Dana’s wedding is a revered musician called Gisma. She trained under one of the most famous composers in the genre – a woman named Hawa al-Tagtagah.
Hawa al-Tagtagah fought against colonialism in the 1940s and 50s, writing “songs to rouse the Sudanese men to stand up against the colonisers”.
“I think at first, they thought I was joking when I was going, ‘I love what you do', cause I think a lot of males maybe just go, ‘Well, that's their thing,’ in Sudan… it's not their main interest. There's other forms of music. But for me, I was like, 'This sounds like music I would listen to, personally'."
Putting it all together
Later Jon organised a recording session with Gisma’s band. He did it to satisfy his own curiosity, never intending it to reach public ears. He took the sessions back home, and added those guitar and basslines he’d heard in his head.
“Then all of a sudden, we had a baby, and our first son, Yahia. I didn't touch music for almost two years. It literally knocked us for six. It turned our world upside down. And I was not being creative. It was all about our baby.
“And then when we finally got used to being parents, I had a listen to it and went, ‘Oh my god, this music sounds fresh as fuck,’ right? So I've got to do something with it.”
He didn’t want to be the face of the music though, and initially thought about making up a “bullshit story about going to Sudan, getting married, but finding some young DJ called Yahia, who's making contemporary versions of Aghani-Al-Banat”.
Toogood’s record label Warners didn’t buy it, suggesting instead that he use the name The Adults – a collaborative project he’d launched in 2010, and insisting he sing on at least two of the songs.
The first, self-titled Adults album was a veritable New Zealand music supergroup. Julia Deans, Shayne Carter, Anika Moa and Ladi6 all have songs on it. It was also a way for Jon to extend his musical language and keep things exciting and fun for himself.
Jon says it was him “literally throwing all the rule books out and going, ‘I hope this works.’” He says this collaboration is an extension of that idea, “just on a global scale.”
His musical palate has changed in the last five years or so. Rock and roll records aren’t impressing Jon Toogood at the moment. He listens to a lot of hip-hop.
“There's a genuine grievance, and they're actually saying ... they are speaking truth to power. And they're saying shit that needs to be said, but everyone's too afraid to say it.
“I didn't want to do another shouty, shouty, I'm angry record. I wanted to do something that celebrates the world that I want to live in, which is a world … [where] flags don't actually mean shit. Religions don't separate us. And gender doesn't separate us. In fact, it makes us stronger.”
Bringing it back home
Enter Devin Abrams. Formerly sax and synth man with drum n bass band Shapeshifter, he’s been focussing on production lately - solo as Pacific Heights, and for chart-topping pop group Drax Project.
“It was a good sales pitch” says Devin. “Jonny's very similar to me. We're both very hyperactive human beings, very much are filled with passion and enthusiasm.”
Initially they just wanted the featured vocalists to be female, and they approached Aaradhna, Estere, Chelsea Jade, Miloux and Jess B. But ideas kept being thrown in the pot. They were introduced to Hamilton rapper Raiza Biza, and chart-topper Kings.
Kings knocked off his track in three hours, but all the others who’d agreed were incommunicado for months.
In the meantime, Jon had booked a trip back to Khartoum, to get approval for what they’d made from Gisma.
“And I was going, ‘I think I've just wasted all this money, because I had got no one singing on this record apart from Kings,’ and on the same day, after two months of not hearing from them, Chelsea [Jade] sent me something, and Raiza sent me something. On the same day, both were genius.”
It was hard to track down Gisma, but on the last day Jon was there, she turned up at the house saying “Play me it.”
“Man, I was shitting my pants. I was literally going, ‘I hope she likes this music,’ because I've put everything into it, and I've done it respectfully. Well, what I thought was respectfully. And I've done it to the best of my abilities.”
Thankfully, she liked what she heard. The album title, Haja is a respectful term for an older, experienced woman. A reference to Gisma and her band.
Jon is doing a Masters degree at Massey at the moment, studying the cultural significance of Northern Sudanese music.
He says that Haja is no less political than Shihad’s 2014 album FYEY, which had songs about the sellout of freedom and privacy, the global free-trade market, and growing inequality.
“It's mere existence basically proves that whole nationalistic flag-waving bullshit that separates everybody actually makes people weaker. There's no boundaries. Not boundaries of gender, race, religion. We just got together and made some music.
Catch THE ADULTS* live this September:
Saturday 1st September Wellington - Meow
Friday 14th September Christchurch - Blue Smoke
Saturday 15th September Auckland - Powerstation
*feat. Jon Toogood, Estere, Raiza Biza, Ben Wood & Emily C. Browning.