Talking Story With Alsarah

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Alsarah is a singer/songwriter, bandleader and a somewhat reluctant ethnomusicologist.  Born in Khartoum, Sudan, she relocated to Yemen with her family before abruptly moving to the USA, finally feeling most at home in Brooklyn, NY where  she  has been  residing  since 2004. She is a self-proclaimed practitioner of East-African Retro-Pop music. Working on various projects, she has toured both nationally and internationally.

With her main outfit, Alsarah & the Nubatones, she has released two full-length albums titled Siltand Manara. Alsarah also released an album with French electronic producer Débruit titled Aljawal, and she was featured on the Nile Project‘s  debut CD, Aswan, named in the Top 5  must-hear international  albums by  NPR in 2014.

In between albums, Alsarah works with the Sudanese artist collective Refugee Club Productions on a variety of projects including the critically acclaimed documentary Beats of the Antonov.

I caught up with Alsarah at her home in Brooklyn, via Google Hangout. This printed interview was edited for clarity and length. To hear the full, unedited audio interview with Alsarah, click on the SoundCloud file below.

I’ve read that you and your band are self-dubbed makers ofEast African Retro-pop. Can you define that genre?

There’re hundreds of music categories, especially for African music. I feel like I’m not very nuanced… basically two categories… Afropop or world music… and I’ve felt always that both those labels don’t really have any meaning and are not specific at all. For every nation in Africa within itself there’s so many genres of music so, if you reduce all of that to just something that vague, it made no sense to me. I think the entire concept of world music, as a concept, is inherently like… Neocolonial because it places the center as the West as the center of norm, and everything else is abnormal. Anyways for me, my music is Sudanese, and Nubian inspired, but it draws from a lot of other East African influences. I grew up listening to a lot of Ethiopian music, and, so for me it draws from a lot of other East African influences in terms of flavor as well. The music I make, while it is inspired by traditions, it is not traditional.

Tell me about your band the Nubatones and how they came together?

The band came together in 2011 or 2010.  It started out as a conversation between Rami El Aasser and me. He’s the percussionist in the band. We’ve been friends for years and worked together on other projects in New York City. Both of us being immigrants… we were talking a lot about Nubian music… those conversations were the springboard to start a band.

Are there any unfamiliar instruments that we’re going to hear at your show next week?

 There’s an oud [a short-neck lute-type stringed instrument – played by Brandon Terzic], and a variety of little percussions that we’ve put together.

Is this your first tour of Hawaii?

It is, and I’m very excited!

Who are some of the contemporary musicians you listen to – who’s on your playlist?

There are so many different people I listen to. I feel like the world is full of beautiful musicians and music, there’s like an endless amount of inspiration. At the moment I’ve been listening to Dina El Wedidi. She has a new album called Slumber. There’s also this Korean band called SsingSsing, and I’ve been listening to a lot of Memphis Minnie recently. There’s this new album by a Kenyan producer named Blinky Bill… So, let’s stop there. My list is deep!

What’s your current music project and when can we look forward to it?

The Nubatones and I are working on some new stuff and gearing up towards working on recording our next album, our third album. We’re hoping to record a part of the album in February but we’re not sure. We’re trying to showcase maybe one or two new ones when we get to Hawaii.


The internationally acclaimed Alsarah & the Nubatones make their Hawaii debut at the Kahilu Theatre Friday, December 14, 2018 at 7 pm. Tickets can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Kamuela

To Learn more about Alsarah and her music, please visit her website: https://www.alsarah.com

Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Nousha Salimi.

Thanks to our readers who submitted questions for this interview.

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