TVD Recommends: Alsarah and
The Nubatones at
Tropicalia, 3/28

If East African retro pop is your thing then you need to check out Alsarah and the Nubatones immediately. If you like good music you should do the same.

Their debut record, Silt, was released March 11 on Wonderwheel Recordings, which is run by NY-based producer and frequent ESL collaborator, Nickodemus. It’s a record largely influenced by Nubian folk songs (Songs of Return) from the region of northern Sudan that was flooded after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. The flooding caused a massive exodus of people from their ancestral homes and consequentially a loss of identity for a culture. Alsarah and the Nubatones are finding new ways to sing the songs of the Nubian Diaspora.

Alsarah hails from Sudan originally. Her heart and soul are rooted in Nubia, a region along the Nile. Like a river whose waters eventually reach distant lands, her journey has led her to a degree in ethnomusicology and brought her to the shores of Brooklyn, where she and the Nubatones are based. The band is an only-in-New-York kind of multicultural phenomenon that includes members with roots in Egypt, Togo, France, and Armenia. Alsarah’s confident and sensual voice takes center stage but the stage itself is buttressed by a tasteful blend of pentatonic harmony, virtuosic oud playing, and Nubian rhythms.

Alsarah and the Nubatones have selected to only play a handful of album release dates for Silt. This Friday, March 28, they bring their East African retro pop to Washington, DC for a performance at Tropicalia. We were able to get Alsarah to take a few questions from the Vinyl District in anticipation of her arrival to the nation’s capital, what she calls “Little East Africa.”

Can you give of a brief bio of your life that’s brought you to this moment? The Cliff Notes. Curious about the region of Sudan where your family is from and how you got into music. Also how you were led to study ethnomusicology?

I am originally from Khartoum, Sudan. My parents are both professional activists and academics and their work against the regime and on human rights issues is why we had to leave Sudan in 1991 to go to Yemen. In 1994 we moved to the US where a brief civil war broke out there, and my parents decided to continue their higher education here in the States, so we settled in Amherst, MA and all became students at the same time.

I went to a performing arts high school where I joined a world music choir and started really exploring folk music from different regions of the world. I became obsessed with my studies and went on to pursue a degree in music with a concentration in ethnomusicology and then moved to NYC in 2004 to become a musician after deciding that I wanted to practice music rather than study it from afar.

Where did you study ethnomusicology and what was your focus of interest? Do you teach now?

I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I don’t teach right now. Maybe one day when I’m older and have something useful to teach to the world.

As an artist and anthropologist there’s that intersection of art and anthropology. It seems a natural progression for someone like yourself to experiment with traditional forms in structuring your own work. Does this apply to you in any way?

Absolutely. I see music as a part of a larger tradition and I’m aware of the structures around that tradition, so when I make art I am very conscious of where I stand within these structures. I want to define the label I fall into on my own terms so its crucial that I know where I come from and what I want (or more importantly what I DON’T want), and my education has really helped with that.

What led you to Nikodemus and Wonderwheel Records? Where was your group’s new record recorded and were you going for a “live band” feel or more as a production unto itself?

I met Nickodemus via my friend Erik Schenider who used to work for Giant Step (a former NYC label and music marketing company) after I finished the album. We recorded four songs off the album at Astoria Soundworks Recording Studio, and the other seven at Collective Studio (my bass player’s personal studio at his house). We were definitely going for a live band feel, we made this music live first before taking it to the studio so we decided to record it with the same integrity it would have at a live show.

Tell me how the individuals in the Nubatones came together?

Rami El Aasser (percussion) and Haig Manoukian (oud) and I all go back many years and working on many projects together. The idea of the Nubatones came out of lunch/music hangouts Rami and I used to have together where we talk about Nubian migration patterns in the turn of the 20th century and into the building of the high dam. We would also listen to tons of music from that part of the world and talk about which songs we loved and why. Songs of migration and return really resonated with us. From there I was like “we should perform some of these songs!” and we called up Haig to join us, who I had been working with since my very first professional gig in NYC in 2004. A few months into it we met Mawuena Kodjovi at a gig he was playing and we immediately hijacked him into the band.

Can you briefly describe your involvement in The Nile Project and WISE Muslim Women?

The Nile Project is a project bringing together musicians from the Nile basin countries to change the nature of the dialogue around all things related to the Nile River: musically, culturally, environmentally and eventually politically. I’m not actually very involved in WISE women. I ‘m just listed as a member of their directory as an example of Muslim women doing their thing.

Is this your first time performing in Washington, DC? Why was it important for you to have our record release party here? DC has one of the largest Ethiopian communities outside of Ethiopia. Have you ever encountered any cross-pollination with Ethiopian music and the Nubian music of Sudan?

No, it’s our second show in DC. We did one a few years ago at the Kennedy Center. The DC area has the largest population of Ethiopians, and also the largest concentration of Sudanese people in the US. It’s a no brainer for me to want to come out and do a show there. I consider it the East-African hub of America. There has been a lot of cross-pollination between Sudanese and Ethiopian music for many many years. Our pentatonic love affair goes way back.

Can you cite some influential Western music? It can be related to African sonic diaspora for sure. But any stuff that might surprise us?

I am a huge fan of Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Grace Jones, Betty Davis, Prince, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Erykah Badu. Also from the indie scene, folks like Little Dragon, The Dirty Projectors, TV on the Radio, to name a few.

There’s so much emphasis on “branding” and style over substance in the current cultural climate with music. In spite of the busy hum of social media and “trending” topics what do you feel like is the purpose of music for mankind? Why does mankind make music, the essence of it? The Afrocentric-leaning blog, Okayafrica, seems to have done so much to get humans to hear and learn about sounds from East Africa, West Africa and beyond. Their “brand” seems to resonate with a larger demographic. Why is that? What is the nerve they’re hitting?

Music is a sonic history of our humanity from its most simple experiences to its most profound. That’s why governments target “controversial” music when they are on a mission to erase a particular storyline from the social fabric, and why they also use music to implement a new storyline. We humans have always needed to record our story in one way or another, and music is one of the most organic ways for that documentation.

Branding is very important in life, but there needs to be a product behind it. Africa is the past and the future, it is both product and brand in one. The world has always looked to Africa for inspiration, in the past it wasn’t cool to point to it as the source of inspiration so people just stole from it, but now it’s finally cool to say “Africa is the future.” Okayafrica was ahead of that bandwagon, so when the train turned the bend they were already there and set up. They understood that a brand with deep roots is like an old tree. It won’t get knocked over very easily.

Do you feel a sense of “mission” or responsibility with your music? If so what is your vision for your current trajectory?

I don’t know about a “mission” per se. I am just seeking to add my story to the sonic history out there so I am just trying to stay true to my life.

Alsarah and The Nubatones’ debut album, Silt, is available in most formats (even cassettes!) here.

Alsarah and The Nubatones perform at Tropicalia in Washington, DC on Friday, March 28 with DJ Underdog followed by Pura Vibra Fridays with Congo y Castro. 

Doors 8PM$8 advance | $12 at the door

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