Alsarah & the Nubatones
Weaves musical magic, entrancing audiences
Sudanese musicians Alsarah & the Nubatones uniquely fuse traditional and contemporary influences to create a fascinating hybrid that has entranced audiences around the world.
A YouTube comment about one of her hypnotic songs sums up her universal appeal: “I don’t normally go for this, I’m more of a Swedish death metal kind of guy,” wrote Gravecactus. “But this was ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL.”
The glowing comment elicits laughter from Alsarah.
“That makes me feel really good because I also have an affinity for Swedish death metal,” she says. “I love death metal. It speaks deep to the angry parts of me.”
With lyrics sung in Nubian and Arabic, Alsarah & the Nubatones have released two critically acclaimed albums, “Silt” and “Manara,” the latter translates as “light” or “beacon.”
Sounding modern and nostalgic, timeless and new, Alsarah’s potent songs address migration, survival and yearning for home as well as affirming love and joy.
“Alsarah & the Nubatones have a sound that flows like silt through your fingers one minute and starts a fire beneath your feet the next, a gravity and structural integrity that makes them sound like they’ve been together for decades longer than they have,” praised a PopMatters review. “On ‘Manara,’ classic East African pop sounds blend with subtle electronics, creating a unique fusion that further cements their status as the future of Nubian music.”
Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Alsarah was born in Sudan and lived there until the age of 8. Her parents were human rights activists, who escaped their homeland in the late 1980s, seeking political asylum in America to avoid being killed after a successful coup by Omar al-Bashir — the only sitting head of state wanted for genocide and war crimes.
“When we first moved to the States, we moved to the small town of Amherst, Mass.,” she recalls. “We were the only East Africans in the entire town. Music for me was very much a refuge, and a good place to relive memories. We were in between paper work for a few years, so we were actually trapped. All artists write about their lives, so I write about mine.”
Later studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, she wrote her senior thesis on the female Sudanese sect, the Zar, who use music to exorcise spirit possession.
Passionate about performing her homeland’s music in the West, she founded the Nubatones with her sister Nahid in 2010.
Nubia is one of the earliest ancient African civilizations, dating back at least 2,000 years. The area of Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt is home to the Nubians, the ancient people who built a flourishing civilization along the Nile. But with the building of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam came the flooding of Nubian villages to the north and south, and an exodus of refugees poured into both countries.
Today, many of the children and grandchildren of that displaced generation form a diaspora scattered around the world who tell their story through poetry, song and music.
“I’m a big lover of traditional music, but I knew I didn’t want to practice traditional music,” Alsarah explains. “I believe that all music comes from traditions, and all artists come from a tradition of music. It’s just that the world we’re in and the politics of it tell you that certain traditions are centered as ‘norm’ and other traditions are centered as ‘exotic other.’ This music is unique to my tastes. My taste is part Sudan, part Brooklyn, and bridging everything in between.”
Reviewing one of her albums, France’s Next Liberation noted: “Her voice evokes the aura of a Sudanese queen. Her music speaks of immigration, by choice or by force, and goes from electronic to Nubian-inspired ’70s pop music to North African Arabic music.”
Many of her songs are rich in poetic metaphor, and one of the most poignant, “Ya Watan” (“Oh Homeland”), talks about a kind of familiarity that grows from living together.
“Companionship has died in the family courtyard / Lonely not even time aware of its passing,” she relays the song’s lyrics. “The trees have dried up to nothing / The trunks splintered and broken / Where is the homeland / Where is the time / Angry from years that stretch and hit it across the face with pain / Your blood runs like rivers of salt / While I die of thirst next to you.
“I tried to drink until I imploded / Crying the bitterness that cannot be swallowed / My love for you, just like companionship and the trees has become waterless / We go together in search of rain.”
Alsarah wrote the songs for “Manara” while spending time by the sea in Morocco. The one exception, “3yan T3ban,” she “learned from three girls I met at a refugee camp (in South Sudan) when I was working on a documentary ‘Beats of the Antonov,’ about war, music and identity. I was collecting songs and music for the documentary. They wrote it themselves. They were 11, 13 and 15, and it’s a simple love song written in the style of aghani al-banat (traditional ‘girls’ songs). I wanted to do it as an ode to them, in the hope that one day I can go back and give it back to them.”
Besides impressing with her intoxicating music, she is a vibrant presence with a distinctive dress style that emphasizes bold multi-colors.
“It’s definitely my own thing,” she notes. “I don’t like obvious in terms of dress style. I wanted something that visually for me was a combination of both the past and the future. Because I’m not traditional, but I’m traditionally inspired, the idea of the clothes is that they have echoes of being vaguely from Africa, but you’re not quite sure where or even if. There’s nothing too obvious, so it was a deliberate creation in terms of a look.”
The Nubatones include Alsarah’s sister, Nahid, on backing vocals, oud player Brandon Terzic, percussionist Rami El-Aasser and funky bass player Mawuena Kodjovi.
“He’s a legendary bass player in France and West Africa — the heart and soul of the band,” she reports.
As far as a mission with her music, she explains: “My first mission was to put Sudanese music on the map. It was already on the map, and then we went through a dark period with sanctions. My ultimate mission is my musical work, but also it is redefining the concept of world music for people and what that means, and how false of a term that is and how inaccurate. My most important mission is to be happy.”
Interviewed while spending tme in the Canary Islands, she’s been composing songs for a new album.
“By the time we come to Hawaii, we’ll have most of it done,” she says.
Perhaps she might include some English vocals?
“I might be ready to some day at least open that door,” she suggests. “Before, I was adamant about not doing it, mostly as a personal principle. Why can’t we sing in Arabic? Why not?”
Once viewed as Hawaii’s answer to the Beatles, when Kalapana’s debut album was released in 1975, island radio stations played almost every song on a regular basis.
Forty-four years later, the iconic band’s music is being re-released with a box set and a greatest hits collection. “Black Sand: The Best of Kalapana,” compiles 20 of the group’s best loved songs including “The Hurt,” “Nightbird,” “Naturally,” “(For You) I’d Chase a Rainbow,” “Black Sand” and “Songbird.”
Digitally remastered from the original tapes, the CD comes with a 20-page booklet covering Kalapana’s career.
The nine-CD box set “Kalapana: The Original Album Collection,” features the group’s first seven albums, along with three albums previously never released in the U.S., as well as a 40-page booklet of liner notes and archival photos.
Best Buddies Hawaii will host a “Holiday Friendship Jam” from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku featuring Amy Hanaiali’i and Kanekoa.
Proceeds will help support Best Buddies Hawaii programs, which assist youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Maui schools along with young adults with Down syndrome, autism, Fragile X, Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and other disabilities.
* Tickets are $20 for students, $30 for general admission and $40 VIP, which includes a Wai Bar after-party with drinks and heavy pupu. To reserve tickets online, visit www.bestbuddies.org/maui-friendship-jam.