Sudanese-American Singer Alsarah Mixes Complexities of Immigration with Retro Sounds of East Africa | KCET
Sudanese-American Singer Alsarah Mixes Complexities of Immigration with Retro Sounds of East Africa
The music video for Alsarah & The Nubatones’ “Soukura” takes place entirely within an austere, chapel-esque house, with features like the finer points of some remembered dream. There's the tapestry of stained glass that greets Alsarah as she enters, rising just out of focus; the intricate wallpaper that forms the backdrop as she dances in a blue dress; the stately chandelier that sheds light on the chest she carefully opens — then backs away from — near the end of the video, moving back through the passages of the house.
“The different hallways and the different rooms in the video are like different paths in mind – or your memories, if you will,” Alsarah explains.
When translated into English, Alsarah continues, “the words of the song basically go, 'When the skies darken / And the stars twinkle / Our secrets melt and pour.’ The song is about exploring a forbidden space, or an uncomfortable space. Allowing yourself to go into that place.” While much of Alsarah’s music deals with the ever-unfolding complexities that arise from dislocation and immigration — ideas that have impacted Alsarah throughout her life — “Soukura” is something more specifically personal. It’s about revisiting moments kept locked away, and about having the peace of mind not to dwell on them.
The song’s full title is “Soukura (It’s Late),” and that parenthetical fits nicely with the rest of the album, too. “Silt,” the 2014 debut record from which “Soukura” is taken, is rich and serene, like a cup of coffee at midnight. Alsarah is accompanied by buzzing, earthy oud, a tumbling bass line, and polyrhythms cooly beaten out on hand drums. Like sediment, the record shifts over varying rhythms and modes; Alsarah’s voice is clear and soulful as she approaches melodic sensibilities that nod to many of the interrelated traditions of East Africa.
Alsarah, who currently resides in Brooklyn, creates music — most recently on "Silt"'s 2016 follow-up, “Manara” — that draws inspiration both from the sounds that encompassed her own Sudanese upbringing and from a broader tree of East African music, ranging from the buttoned-up Ethio-jazz of Ethiopia to the Indian-inspired Taarab of Zanzibar.
Alsarah immigrated to Yemen from Sudan as a child and then, at the age of 12, to Massachusetts. She later studied music and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. When she went about crafting her current sound, she thought less about preserving “traditional” sounds — so often the modus operandi of so-called “world music” — and more about her own roots and tastes. (“World music,” by the way, is a term Alsarah abhors — she calls her music “East African Retropop.”)
“I wasn’t necessarily interested in preservation, or covering things,” Alsarah says. "We really wanted to make a sound that reflected all the members of the band, that reflected all of us as well as our journey and our sound. I didn’t want to make a Sudanese band, or a Sudanese sound.
"I was born Sudanese and I will die Sudanese, but in between, we’re navigating things,” she adds. "And music is a reflection of that."
“Manara” is largely an expansion of the sound of “Silt,” an evolution of the band’s sound that envelops its earthiness and stretches it toward the ether of the skies. "I made “Silt” so I could make “Manara,” Alsarah says. "I wanted to make sure that first we set the foundation for where we come from sonically, so it would make sense when we built on that."
“Manara” is more fluid and free-flowing than the band’s debut album, lifted by moaning trumpets and humming electronics, broken up by interludes of radio static and bits of the album’s penultimate track “Fulani.” “3yan T3ban” mixes a field recording of three girls chattering — residents of the Yousif Batil refugee camp in South Sudan, who taught Alsarah a version of the song while she was visiting.
“Manara” passes vividly through the territory of immigration and borders — concepts that directly inform Alsarah’s work. “I try to make the record as honest and reflective of our experience as possible,” she says. "The whole band is immigrants — we all have our migration stories.
"The concept of borders — it intersects on physical bodies," she continues. "People forget that, that the concept of the nation states and borders and who’s allowed to go and come back is actually manifested on people."
It’s a perspective that highlights both the cruelty and absurdity of the conversations — about who is allowed in, and who isn’t — that currently dominate our public discourse. "Migration and movement are as old as time. People have always moved. But this idea of locking doors, now, is —” Alsarah pauses. “It’s interesting that we’ve come to this place, where we’re at such an intense crux of globalization, and now we seem to be petrified of it."
This is, of course, very personal territory for her. "As a black woman who is Muslim, and an immigrant, who was illegal at one point and became legal, my body is the criss crossing of a lot of these ideas, of these rules and laws,” she says. "They come crashing down on my real life. For me, it’s not an esoteric, far-away thing."
“Manara” is an alchemical work that, like the world itself, contains few clean lines, branching out and embracing voices from all corners. Alsarah's music has been described as traditional, but it resists that label because of this instability, reaching into all kinds of traditions and sounds to establish common ground.
To that end, I ask Alsarah about a personal favorite — her 2013 collaboration with Brussels-based producer Débruit, “Aljawal,” in which her voice is juxtaposed against vintage samples and clanking industrial beats.
"Electronic music has a deep history that to me also has a folk-like quality,” she says. "It’s really reflective of a certain post-industrial era, and the collapse of certain things and the rise of other things. It’s almost like a kind of urban folk art. They meet really beautifully in the same circle of music in my opinion, and I think they naturally feed into each other.” It’s the kind of meeting that is very much at work in her own music as well.
Alsarah’s newest video, for the “Manara” song “Ya Watan,” was directed and edited by her frequent collaborator Maryam Parwana, who directed and edited the video for “Soukura" as well. Where “Soukura” was confined to the metaphorical spaces of the mind, “Ya Watan” shows Alsarah and her sister Nahid surveying a dried-up, dying landscape.
“I wanted to reach an otherworldly space,” says Alsarah. “The idea of needing to leave a home because it is dead, or dying, or waterless. It’s the idea of being in search — that no-man’s land, that other world.” It’s the kind of searching that imbues “Manara” throughout — a search for home, but also for new connections, both musical and spiritual.
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