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Alsarah & The Nubatones

By Alison Hird

Sudanese-born singer songwriter Alsarah heads the band The Nubatones. They sing in Arabic, are inspired by Nubian "songs of return" but have coined their sound East African Retropop. Alsarah talks to RFI about their new album Manara (Lighthouse), its stories of movement and migration ... and mermaids.

Alsarah is Sudanese born, raised in Yemen, and now based in Brooklyn, NY: the product of at least three cultures. And it shows.

“I’m a distinctly modern creature, a child of the diaspora,” she says, “we’re a cosmopolitan people that live in a global world so it’s natural you look like the environment you want to reflect.”

Nousha Salimi

While she’s proud of her Nubian roots (the ancient Nubian people built a flourishing civilisation along the Nile in Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt), the band’s music (Nahid (vocals), Mawuena Kodjovi (bass), Brandon Terzic (oud), and Rami El-Aasser (percussion)) goes far beyond.

“I prefer to call it East African Retropop,” she says, “because we don’t make strictly Nubian music. My music is a reflection of all the different parts of me. That includes Nubia, Khartoum, my love for music in Zanzibar, my love for Nairobi, for Cairo. All of that East African sound.”

Songs of Return

The retro part comes from a genre of music heard in many Sudanese and East African living rooms during the 60s and 70s known as Nubian “Songs of Return”.
This body of songs emerged after communities located along the Nile River were flooded and displaced in the 60s by the creation of the Aswan Dam.

“It caused one of the largest displacements of Nubian people in their history,” says Alsarah. People resettled in Khartoum, Cairo and other cities in the Arab world.

“In Cairo, a lot of musicians started writing songs themed around the idea of going home or the idea of home that doesn’t exist anymore. These concepts of nostalgia and me also being an immigrant [meant], I could really relate to it on every level. Not just being Nubian but also having another immigration experience with it.”

The singer knows a lot about moving around. Her parents, human rights activists, left Sudan when Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989 and moved to Yemen. It was there that she opened her ears to many different kinds of music.

“I started collecting music from Algeria and Morocco, India, and figuring out that different places have different sounds,” she says. “Understanding that at a young age made me want to learn more about different kinds of music.”

When civil war broke out in Yemen she moved to the US, aged just 12.

The migrant’s journey

The themes of home and displacement run through the band’s second album Manara (Lighthouse).

“Manara means the lighthouse and it’s sort of the idea of this journey we’re on, the idea of transit and transitioning,” she says. “Being a migrant is a journey.”
The title track begins with sound of waves lapping against the shore.

“As the sea takes us, Manara is the lighthouse anchoring our journey,” the liner notes read.

DR

The gift of a song

Another notable song is 3yan T3ban. Alsarah learned it while visiting the Yusuf Batil refugee camp on the border between North and South Sudan where tens of thousands have fled fighting in the Nuba mountains.

Alsarah went there to collect songs.

“They have a whole body of songs, everybody there seems to write a whole lot of music.” Including young girls.

“I learned the song from three wonderful little girls, Mouna and her friends. These girls wrote the song and they taught it to me and I really wanted to make an arrangement on our album as an ode to them.” 

 The Mermaids

Alsarah studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, where she wrote her thesis on Sudanese Zār music.

“Zār is a spiritual sect that is matriarchal and matrilineal,” she says. “It uses music to induce trance to deal with issues of possession.”

She further explores her interest in women in the song 3roos Elneel (Bride of the Nile).
It was inspired by a traditional song into which she wove an old Nubian myth. The magic is strong, through far from demonic.

“It’s a really playful song for me,” she says. “We used to say that the Nile would flood up every season because the Nile gods were angry and lonely. And so the villages along the banks would sacrifice the most beautiful maiden to be the new bride of the Nile. I always found this story hilarious, because if you meet Nubian women you know that’s not gonna happen. We don’t get dumped into rivers!”

The myth got Alsarah wondering where the old wives ended up.

“I thought maybe they just kind of swim away and live in these matrilineal kingdoms underneath the sea and maybe that’s where mermaids really come from. Maybe Nubian people also gave us mermaids.”

Nubian New Yorker

NY is home for the moment and Alsarah says she’s found an open-minded, enthusiastic fan base, ready to soak up the Arabic language. But she has ambiguous feelings about her native Sudan.

“My relationship with home is really complicated, very much based on a lot of anger and rejection.”

So it was important to also celebrate the loving and joyous side of her country in the song Salam Nubia.

“It’s a kind of greeting song, I think of it as that first feeling you have after a long time of parting, that joyous moment. This song is about the joyous moments of home.”

Alsarah and The Nubatones are in concert on 11 October at Flow in Paris. Follow the band on facebook

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