Searching for a place to lay down your roots is a recurring theme in the work of the Sudanese-born singer, songwriter and ethnomusicologist behind ALSARAH & THE NUBATONES.
Born in Khartoum to human rights activist parents, Alsarah was forced to leave her birthplace at eight years of age, when she relocated to Yemen with her family. After civil war broke out in her new country, they moved to the United States where she has resided from the age of 12. Labelled the new princess of East African retro pop, Alsarah and her band The Nubatones have released two albums, Silt in 2014 and last year’s Manara. Both praised for their harmonies and rich pentatonic sounds and arrangements, the albums combine Nubian music from 1960s and 1970s with Eastern instrumentation. Alsarah speaks to Cath Bore about the sense of home in her music, from her home in New York.
How did moving to America influence your music making, and did the place itself inspire you in musical terms?
I wasn’t dealing well with regular school. Being an immigrant kid, being an African kid, there was a lot of harassment being a foreigner, having an accent and learning English. So, I ended up cutting classes a lot and ending up in the public library. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the public library I don’t even think I would speak English. I would spend all day reading, for free, because I couldn’t afford to buy books. And they had this huge enormous music listening section and I just spent my life there. I would browse through music from every part of the world. From there began a deep love affair with collecting. That library gave me such a massive amount of music, right in front of me.
Around the corner from the library was a used record shop so I would go back and forth between them, looking up countries and songs and if I couldn’t buy something from the record shop I’d look for it in the library. I could dive into the idea of different cultures sounding differently and what that really looks like.
Both of your albums with The Nubatones, Silt and Manara, carry themes of home, a sense of nostalgia for times and places in your past. And you’ve stated that returning to the East African sound is your way of going home, in a way.
The entire birth of The Nubatones was inspired by the concept of the songs of return. I was coming back to those songs, I’d heard them growing up in Sudan and going to visit my family in Egypt and I hadn’t related to them on such an emotional level until living in the States as another form of immigrant. These songs were all about feeling like an immigrant in a strange land but you don’t know why you feel that way. You want to go to a home you can’t go to anymore and will never go to. I visit home a lot and each time I’m aware that I can’t live there anymore. And how do you go home if you don’t feel 100% at home anywhere?
There’s a definite sense of loss in your albums, a sadness, but real optimism too, and a celebratory feel in many ways.
I think people think of nostalgia only as a sad thing. Nostalgia is a complex set of emotions. My music doesn’t only live in nostalgia, it remembers things while looking forward. For example, Silt is about the mud we came from, and Manara is the road we’re trying to take. Being an immigrant is not a stand-still thing and I’m still wondering, is it a permanent or temporary condition? I know being a refugee is a temporary condition, although some places force people into situations where being a refugee can be almost become a permanent situation. It should be temporary so that all that’s left is living, living in a different way, putting down roots. That used to be a really common thing: they’d [immigrants] have songs about home, or whatever you can remember, some things to be sad over but be really excited about your future. And that’s the whole purpose of music!
You’ve also said that The Nubatones grew out of a shared sense of being an immigrant.
New York is a small scene for people who want to do music not in English. There’s this thing about the world music scene I’ve noticed globally, it’s beginning to shift now but any music that’s not in English has to spend much of its time proving to people that it’s not traditional, and it doesn’t want to be traditional. You’re just a singer-songwriter like any other singer-songwriter, because no one who practices music comes out of a vacuum. You have to come out of a tradition of some kind.
Rami [El-Aasser, percussionist] and I would have these supper clubs. I would go to his house and he would come to mine and we’d cook for each other these elaborate meals and we would play a ton of music and talk and dissect and talk and dissect. There’s so many sounds that were invented by immigrants that we think of today as tradition but that were not traditional, and, in fact, [were] invented by immigrants in a sense because they just wanted to visit home through the music. At the same time, it will always be different, because music is like a bowl of water: it will constantly shift to reflect what is around it. Even if you’re playing the same song on the same instrument – you put two different people behind it, and, even if they are reading the same notes, and it will sound different.
That is the magical thing to me about living in New York. That being in the diaspora and being an immigrant was normal. Not just normal, but you can thrive in it. New York is a city of immigrants that have been there for multiple generations and are proud of that. And the richness of the city is because of that.
How is your music received in the US, especially your live shows?
It’s really interesting in America because I believe that the world music scene only lives on the coasts, the East Coast and the West Coast. It’s really difficult to do non-western music in the middle of the US. There was a reason Trump was elected: America is a conservative place! The coasts have always been incredibly diverse places because that’s the nature of ports.
The term ‘world music’ is problematic, don’t you think? The way it lumps together all genres and musical styles, from contemporary pop to traditional, under one single, non-descript banner.
It’s hugely problematic. It’s important to question it, to say it out loud so that we start to shift it. At its core, it’s inherently racist. It is based on exotification. It assumes there is normal music and that ‘the other’ is world music. And it’s bizarrely inaccurate! Everything in the world is world music, unless Western musicians aren’t making world music and they are aliens from outer space and no one told us.
What can we expect from your show in Liverpool at the Arabic Arts Festival?
You can expect some storytelling on stage, you can expect to have a good old time, you can expect to dance, you can expect to learn a thing or two and not even notice that you’re learning. We’re making learning fun again!
Alsarah & The Nubatones play Sefton Park Palm House on 16th July as part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Manara is out now on Wonderwheel Recordings.