From battlefield to studio: the low-high story of dancehall icon Mr. Waar
He is a dancehall artist who engraved his name in South Sudanese history books by being the first musician to sing Jamaican slang. He was also recognized by the Jamaican dancehall hotshot, Konshens, for his lyrics. The City Review looks at the humble growth of Mr. Waar, the “Welcome to South Sudan” hit singer who rose from battlefield and became a recording artist under the tutelage of legendary musicians such as Wol Longar, who sang songs of poverty in 1980s.
‘Mr. Waar is known for singing about the “South Sudanese pounds” too. Here is his interview.
BOKA Jr: Good evening, thank you for honouring an interview with The City Review, kindly introduce yourself.
Mr. Waar: Well, my stage name is called Mr. Waar, and my real name is Akook Deng Arac. I was born in Awan in Weel Akook Maker, in Warrap State January 1, 1981, before SPLA went to the bush in 1983.
I joined SPLA as a child soldier in 1988 and after that I joined Ariath Makuei battalion. We were first accommodated in Yirol where we received military basic training. Early in the morning, we would be woken up to be soaked in water and go running around.
When we got a little chance to rest, we used to go to school; kindergarten. In 1993, I went to Kenya for studies. I did not complete Grade 1 in Kapoeta so I had to repeat it in Kakuma refugee camp in 1994. When I was almost to finish primary, I went to US as one of the lost boys from South Sudan.
BOKA Jr: When did you go to the US and how was life there?
Mr. Waar: It was on August 26, 2001. We were sponsored by the UNHCR and they took the children who lost their parents. We were told that after reaching America we would decide either to follow studies or work for ourselves. We were more than 26,000 lost boys from South Sudan and scattered to different states of America. I was based in Florida. When settled, I did vocational training in mechanical engineering in car engine and graduated in 2003 in a school called St Clement Jasco. I worked and did music at the same time. I did my first album called “Mr. Waar” in 2005.
BOKA Jr: Why did you choose Mr. Waar as your stage name?
Mr. Waar: I grew up during the wars, and also experienced hardships; I named myself so. It came out from the word ‘war’. I almost called myself as “war” because I was born during the war; fought and survived the war. But when I came to realise that people would mistake it; I put in right with creativity as “Waar” meaning a war survivor.
BOKA Jr: How did you discover your musical talent?
Mr. Waar: It was in the early 1990s. As from 1989, I saw some people using local musical instrument called Rababa which I liked to play a lot. In 1993 while in Kakuma, there was an artist who used to sing. I monitored him wherever he put his instrument and when he was away, I would steal the instrument and play it on my own. I even picked one of his good songs and practiced it.
BOKA Jr: How did you discover your talent and who inspired you?
In 1998, I heard traditional instrument and I was inspired and tried to play as well. When I got singers practicing, I would sit near them to listen and later practice alone. In 1997, I joined the Don Bosco band where I learned more about music.
BOKA Jr: What was your first song, your hit song and how was the journey to recording and promotion??
Mr. Waar: My song Mr. Waar which became the name of the album was produced in 2005. I don’t remember the name of the studio. We only paid little money and recorded our songs. Later after recording, I paid for marketing of my music and my songs went viral. I was the third South Sudanese to record an album in the US. The first guy was Emmanuel Kembe, followed by the late Nyankol. We produced our albums together in the same year with a fellow called James Ngong who is still in America.
The difference was that I made my album in Jamaican language which I learned in Florida because it is near to Jamaica; it takes only 45 minutes to reach there. I was the first South Sudanese to sing in this language and it surprised people. After that, I was invited to perform in almost every South Sudanese show in the US. Other South Sudanese artists who were there like Emmanuel Kembe, Dynamic, Yabba Angelos had also made a name but I had more popularity because of my style of singing in Jamaica.
BOKA Jr: So, did you meet any popular people?
Mr. Waar: Yes. I met many South Sudanese legends such as the late Basketball star, Manut Bol, Lul Deng and Aldo Ajou among other celebrities and leaders. I performed in their presence. But when I realized my role for my country, I came back to South Sudan. I composed a song called “randie” that says ‘everyone has a relative or someone who loves him’.
BOKA Jr: When did you come to Juba?
Mr. Waar: I came to Juba in 2018 and in 2010. I sang more songs such as Mama, I support Peace, and others. They were played on SSBC and radios. I also did a song about Juba International Airport.
BOKA Jr. So, could you describe your walk to fame within the country?
Mr. Waar: When we became independent in 2011, I composed “South Sudanese Pounds” and did a video. From 2010, to 2012 and 2013, I was very big, I mean I was popular in Juba. We usually went for performance in the city like at Nameless and Marcy which is now changed into De Space Lounge.
BOKA Jr: Have you ever been interviewed by any popular media?
Mr Waar: Yes of course, in March 2012 I was interviewed by BBC at Nyakuron in Juba by Sudan senior correspondent called James Copnall. In April 2016, I was also interviewed by Al Jazeera TV at Panorama in Hongkong, Juba.
In 2016 October, Konshens of Jamaica came to perform in Juba at Home And Away. I was the last person to sing and then welcomed him to the stage. And later said he only found one Artist in South Sudan who knows music, people asked him who? And, he said Mr. Waar because ‘he is professional’.
BOKA Jr: Tell us more about South Sudanese Pounds song. What made you sing that song?
It was the best money in Africa because it was valuable. I wanted to let the whole world know our currency. When I made the song it was trending online. If you search now you will get it, it is watched by many people.
BOKA Jr: Tell us a little bit about ‘Welcome to South Sudan’?
Mr. Waar: It talks about the beauty of South Sudan. Those who don’t know much about this country can easily understand the lyrics. It is a song for welcoming visitors. The sample goes “Beautiful land with beautiful people, welcome to South Sudan, Aaah welcome to South Sudan, I say Aah welcome to South Sudan. South Sudan is peaceful to all, you cannot be outcast.”
BOKA Jr: What’s your view about the economic crisis of South Sudan?
Mr. Waar: The economy is just bad and money is hard to get. Things which were bought at lower prices are now expensive, so we pray for God to help our president and touch the hearts of all South Sudanese leaders to work together. South Sudan is a rich country and should have not been so difficult to live in like this. Conflicts are threats to the economy.
But now highways are being constructed, oil is being refined here and companies especially for music [industry]are coming on the way- so we hope our country will develop and become a better place.
BOKA Jr: You believe music can promote peace, how does it do?
Mr. Waar: If you sing peaceful songs, you will promote peace. As a legendary artist with 27 years in music, I would like to advise my fellow artists to use music to promote peace and unite people. A person who sings is like a pastor doesn’t divide people. I recommend artists to sing to inform and educate people.
BOKA Jr: Tell us about your organization, how did you come up with that idea?
Mr Waar: Yes, I am the founder and director of I support Peace organisation founded last year on December 1, 2020, with a mission to promote peace. My vision is to preach peace every day. People should talk on radio and other social media platforms about peace across the nation that is the reason why some ministries doing peacebuilding were established to support peace activities.
As one of the youths in this country, I founded this NGO for peace which is now supported by many youths especially on social media like Facebook. It brings youths and draws national attention together. That’s also another way of supporting the government to promote development.
BOKA Jr: Who inspired you?
Mr. Waar: Someone who inspired me is called Wol Longar. I used to listen to his local songs. But when we went to the bush, we used to listen to Congolese music. I just got inspired.
When I was in US, I got attracted to this amazing language (Jamaican Patoa) because it has dominated the music industry in the world. I was quick to learn. Apart from this, I am also a songwriter. I write lyrics for artists and get paid accordingly to what one has in hand. I supported many other artists freely; I work according to their situation.
BOKA Jr: How many songs do you have?
Mr Waar: I have more than 100 songs, most of them in the Jamaican language because it makes words flow well. I learned it only in 4 years and in 2006. I came to South Sudan with 52 songs. I am a songwriter so any young artists can come to me to write for them lyrics.
BOKA Jr. What are the challenges facing the music industry and how can they be solved?
Mr Waar: Lack of musical industries to sign you as an Artist and promote your music. There are some gaps in the music industry. Those with talents are many but there is a lack of music market but people are willing to buy songs. They just cannot get them. We need a system where a music company signs you to a music record label, they organise everything that you can do even record for your free, they market your songs online and nationwide and your songs cannot be played anyhow on the radio or by people.
Such companies can make CDs and sell them. There are posters displayed at the shops, and people will come and buy. After the money is generated the company will take some and the artist plus the government also get something. They also sell online like for those in diaspora, websites can be created and the songs will be bought online. The company will then come with revenue collected and money is divided accordingly.
There should be copyright and it can be provided by private or government agencies to protect the contents of artists. They can sign you for 5 years and decide that your music cannot be played anyhow in the market.
Such companies also organize shows for the artists, accommodate them and provide feeding, transport.
BOKA jr: What is your message to the South Sudanese artists
Mr Waar: They should make sure each and everyone sings songs of peace because the country needs reconciliation and healing. This is why the ministry of peacebuilding was established to do peace activities.