Alsarah: The New Princess of Nubian Pop
We first came across the Sudanese singer, songwriter and ethnomusicologist Alsarah this spring when she performed in Nairobi together with the great Kombo & Afrosimba. We were immediately spellbound by her powerful voice and eclectic mix of North and East African tunes as well as Arabic sounds and traditions. Our introduction to Alsarah made us embark on a fascinating and still ongoing journey of discovery into old Nubian and Sudanese music. We are now eagerly awaiting the release of Alsarah & the Nubatones first full length album later this year but luckily the waiting time got a bit shorter when Alsarah agreed to have a chat with us about her recent travels across East Africa, the reception of her music in Africa vs. the US, her lyrics and her many side projects. So now, meet Alsarah, the new princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro.
You have been traveling extensively through North and East Africa this year. From Egypt and Sudan to Somalia and Kenya. What inspiration have you picked up on the road?
Oh that’s a tough one. Traveling is one of the most inspiring experiences for me, and so to have been able to travel all over North and East Africa so much recently has been like a blast of fresh air. The best part about being an immigrant (which I consider myself still) is going home and seeing it with an outsider/insider eye… it teaches you more about yourself and your assumptions of who and what your people are, than anything else possibly could. So it is hard to pinpoint exactly what inspiration I’ve picked up, but suffice to say I am plenty inspired.
This spring you performed at the first music festival in Mogadishu in more than 20 years. How was it?
The music was very well received. People in Mogadishu are hungry for music, ALL types of music. They are hungry for the world. So it was a very positive experience. The audience was engaged and uninhibited. They even stormed the stage a few times to make sure they got their dance on with the bands.
How is your music received in the US as opposed to in Africa?
Well in the US I often have the experience of getting audience members who are avid music listeners but have never heard East African music before, especially Sudanese music like mine, so I think of my concerts as partly educational and try to do a lot of explaining in the middle. When I have performed in Africa I have noticed that people instantly connect with the music and the overall sound even if they have never heard music from Sudan before. There is a familiarity there that I don’t need to explain, which means I can just focus all my energy on revving up the band because the crowd doesn’t need to be guided through the musical experience quite as much.
You are involved in numerous initiatives that go beyond the music such as The Nile Project and WISE Muslim Women. What motivates your engagement in these endeavors and how do you see it complementing your musical efforts?
I actually see these endeavors as part of my music. I sing about migration, voluntary and forced, I sing about people the world likes to ignore except when speaking of them in the past, and I sing about what it means to yearn for home. I also sing about survival and love and joy, which is how people continue despite policies that change the course of their existence. So I see these initiatives as part of the musical culture.
How do you see your background in ethnomusicology influencing your music?
Well, I think it has made me able to look past rudimentary ways of viewing music, i.e. I like it or i just don’t like it, and look deeper into the background and culture of a musical movement. So over all it has made me hyper conscious of music as a 3 dimensional cultural being.
What do you see as the main features that distinguishes Nubian music from the related Sudanese or Egyptian music tradition?
The rhythms, the frame drums, the type of metaphors used when singing in Arabic, the language when not singing in Arabic, and for a lot of the more recent works after the high dam was built in the 1960s also focus on the subject of returning home.
Who are some of your favourite Nubian or Sudanese singers?
Well, Nubian specifically I am a huge fan of Hamza Al Din and Ahmed Munib. Sudanese overall I’m a big fan of Abdel Gadir Salim, Rasha, Gisma, and Nur AlJilani just to name a few.
Ethiopian music has experienced quite a revival in the past decade. Do you see a potential for a similar revival of Nubian pop music?
Totally, in fact I see a similar revival for all of East Africa in general. I think Africa overall is the new future and the next wave in art and music.
Do you have any album plans – with the Nubatones, alone or side projects?
As a matter of fact I do. The Nubatones are gearing up to release our first full length album at the end of this year, and I also plan to release a project with French producer Débruit later this year. Stay tuned for more on that via my website and facebook page.
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