Alsarah & The Nubatones is an International music collective out of Brooklyn, New York. They came together out of a collective love for Nubian music and a genuine belief that Soul transcends all cultural and linguistic barriers. Inspired by the pentatonic scale they blend a selection of Nubian ‘songs of return’ from the 1970s-today with original material and traditional music of central Sudan. KGNU’s Joel Davis caught up with Alsarah for a wide-ranging global conversation.
KGNU: You’ve moved around quite a bit. You were born in Sudan?
ALSARAH: Yes, I was born in Sudan and left when I was eight. Then I went to Yemen and left there when I was 12 and came to Massachusetts.
KGNU: How did you wind up in Massachusetts?
ALSARAH: Totally random. My Mom wanted to take us somewhere where they had a really good public education system and where she could go to University.
KGNU: It’s interesting to me, since you left Sudan at such an early age that you still seem to have such a strong connection to the traditional music.
ALSARAH: I’ve always been into traditional music in general, from different parts of the world. Even when I was younger, this love affair started much earlier on. At first it was indiscriminate. I was into traditional music from anywhere in any part of the world. But then slowly my interests started to hone in to certain regions. But I also always went back – all the time! When I was in Yemen, I would be in Sudan for four months out of the year on holiday. So even though I left young there was a big going home that would happen a lot. My parents were both big Sudanese activists. So, there was always a very pro-Sudan spirit in my house. It wasn’t one of those houses that was big on assimilation.
KGNU: So, your Sudanese identity remained strong even though you weren’t always living there.
KGNU: Are there a lot of musical influences from Sudan, or anyone in particular whose music has influenced you?
ALSARAH: For me, one of my biggest influences is a very modern singer. Her name is Rasha. She’s the one who really introduced me to the idea of being a Sudanese female singer that writes your own music. Because that to me, before, wasn’t really something I thought of or considered. Mostly because people down played so much of the traditional music that women wrote that it wasn’t highlighted in the forefront of my mind. But Rasha was one of the singers who really brought that home to me. The idea of taking traditional women’s music from the sphere of unsophisticated art and moving it to a place of independence, to music that could be controlled by its own creator. And then I started looking at the entire tradition of women’s music in Sudan and Sudanese music in general, and what was in it and what was not. Because it’s a very male dominated musical culture, especially recorded music. And there’s a very strong division of low brow art and high brow art with women’s music being placed firmly in the category of low brow art. So, Rasha caused me to focus on Sudanese music specifically among the many traditional types of music that were swarming around in my mind. But there are so many musicians who have influenced me. Hamza El Din… it’s a long list.
KGNU: Do you still visit Sudan? Is it still war torn or are things settling down?
ALSARAH: It depends on the region that you’re in. If you’re in the capital Khartoum, you don’t notice the war that’s been going on for a really long time – there’ve been several different wars that have come and gone. But somehow it never really hit Khartoum so the people there seem to be somewhat unaware of how really war torn the rest of Sudan is. But I try to go back. I went back last year to the refugee camps in the Blue Nile area because there has been a lot of tension and warfare happening there. I’m working on a soundtrack for a documentary and I was gathering field recordings out there. So they’re very aware of how bad it is, but the rest of Sudan doesn’t seem that aware of them. So, to answer your question, Sudan is war torn depending on where you are standing in the war.
KGNU: I’m also curious about your evolution as an immigrant who started studying music when you arrived in the United States at the age of twelve to being a recording artist for the Wonderwheel record label and being remixed by artists like Nickodemus or Spy from Cairo. How did that happen?
ALSARAH: Well, when I moved to the States when I was twelve, I didn’t speak English and my Mom wanted me to get involved with as many extracurricular activities as possible to help me socialize with people better. And I was already into music, I had already started this very strange hobby of collecting tapes (laughs) at that age.
KGNU: What kind of tapes?
ALSARAH: Any kind of tapes! I just liked tapes. But it had to be a tape from a country I didn’t have. So my whole goal was to have a tape from every country in the world. I started doing that when I was about nine. I was in Yemen still, and I liked to go to this used book store, like a little comic book store close to my school. I would go there after school and I would buy a used book. Right next to it was a tape shop. And the guy had all original tapes and then he had, like, bootleg tapes that he would sell for really really cheap. So, I worked out a deal with him where I would go buy these bootleg tapes for really cheap and if I didn’t like them I could return them and get another (starts laughing) bootleg tape instead! And we kind of worked out this like trade deal. And I had the same trade deal going with my little book store comic book guy, so I could return the books and take other used books instead. It was a really good barter system that I had going. So it was like my version of a public library membership!
KGNU: (laughing) The bartering power of a nine year old girl!
ALSARAH: Exactly! I’m kind of surprised that they all humored me, but that’s cool that they did. So, I collected tapes and when I moved to the States I joined a choir that they had. I really liked it, because it was the only class I didn’t need to speak English for and also because the choir director liked to teach songs in other languages like Italian, Latin, and since to me, not speaking English, all Latin sounds were the same, so I kicked ass in that class. I was like, you know? I can imitate anything and hence began my hobby of imitating songs in other languages. So it started there. And then my ESL teacher, her husband was a piano teacher and he offered to give me free piano lessons. Then my Mom switched me to a performing arts high school. She noticed that I was heavy into the arts and not so much the other classes. I would cut school, but I would cut school and got to the library because they had a World music section, and you know, it’s harder to punish a kid for cutting school and going to the library! So at the performing arts school I got deep into World music, they had a world music choir. My biology teacher was also a bad ass fiddler. I just stumbled into a very strange experience in Massachusetts. The more I talk about it the more I realize how lucky it was and how different it was from most childhoods. Then I joined a Summer World music camp and there I heard about this magical word – ethnomusicology. So I started searching for a university that offered classes in ethnomusicology and I found that there were only two schools that let you study that field as an undergraduate – one in UCLA and one in Wesleyan University. So I went to Wesleyan and studied ethnomusicology. At the end of the four years there I decided that I didn’t want to pursue ethnomusicology as my career. Because what I learned was that it’s all about dissecting music, not about making music. So, I moved to New York to try being a perform and eventually met up with this group doing traditional music of Zanzibar and Kenya from the 40s through the 80s. That all brought me back around to the idea of fusion and tradition and where fusion and tradition intersect, and that took me back to looking at music from Sudan and central Sudan. Also, I began looking at Nubian music from south Egypt, and north Sudan. That led to me trying to start the Nubatones. So all of these musicians I had worked with on other projects started to come together. The scene in New York is really small. The people who play different instruments and play different music are not very many so we all end up knowing each other or crossing paths at one point or the other. So we all came together and just started putting together our repertoire.
KGNU: Well, it’s interesting because it’s one of the reasons that your music has really stood out to me. Because you’re really mining that terrain of bringing the traditional in with the modern and coming up with really kind of a new tradition.
ALSARAH: Thank you. The idea of toeing the line between traditional and modern has always been an interesting thing to me. I’ve always thought, why think of traditional as this thing that needs to be preserved, or at a stand still, instead of looking at it as an ever living ever evolving thing? Why think of it as traditional with beginning period, ending period, closes off, new thing starts – you know?
KGNU: Exactly, what the tradition it just sits in a museum and gets dusty and you look at it through a glass or across a velvet rope? It’s not supposed to grow? It’s a living thing! The people are still alive, the cultures are growing and living in this world, and so it makes sense that the traditions should evolve.
ALSARAH: Exactly. Yes. But you know some people are just obsessed with this idea of preservation and finding something pure? Refusing to accept that there’s nothing really pure anywhere in the world no matter how remote or far away you go. People have wandered from one end of the Earth to the other. And they’ve all met each other at one point and things have seeped into each other’s traditions. And so for me, I’m much more interested in traditions that have come out of different traditional people together, you know?!?
ALSARAH: You can stay rooted and look forward!