Music by VICE

Alsarah Explains the Magic of Her East African Retropop Love Songs

The singer of Alsarah and The Nubatones discusses her new album 'Manara' and shares the video for single "Ya Watan."

by Zachary Lipez
25 August 2016, 2:14pm

Photo by Nousha Salimi, courtesy of Alsarah and the Nubatones

On a recent afternoon, I met with Alsarah, of extremely excellent “East African retropop” outfit Alsarah and The Nubatones, at Bunna Café, a vegan Ethiopian restaurant in Bushwick. Questions of authenticity, in 2016, are both the trees of the forest and the wind that blows through said trees, so if you want to discuss the validity of vegan Ethiopian food, eaten while talking to a Sudanese/Nubian/American self-described “immigrant everywhere” about her retro yet entirely modern music, feel free to do so. As I approach all such concerns, I remove myself as an outsider and just will tell you the food was delicious and Alsarah was great company. She is a thoughtful but animated speaker, and, although she would spend a lot of time throughout lunch discussing decidedly heavy shit, she would punctuate said heaviness with peals of laughter and hand movements that suggested, “what are you going to do? The world is the world.” Or more succinctly: shrug emoji. Her earrings, it should be said, were boss as hell.

“I have a hard time not speaking about my life,” Alsarah told me at one point, discussing the tension of writing about the political versus the personal. “This is why I wanted to write my own songs. I wanted to talk about my personal story because I felt there wasn’t anyone else talking to me about it. It really is that simple. I do sing love songs. I sing a lot of love songs. But I also sing about how I have to go to the special room when I go the airport. My body is the intersection of politics whether I want to fucking deal with it or not.”

Watch the premiere of the band's new video "Ya Watan," directed by Maryam Parwana, and featuring Alsarah and he sister and bandmate Nahid, below:

Alsarah was born in Northern Sudan. Her parents are both political activists, so they were forced to leave Sudan when Alsarah was eight. They lived in Yemen until the brief-but-not-brief-enough civil war in 1994 forced the family to flee. Alsarah’s mother still had time left on the contract for the organization she worked for, so, unable to return to Sudan on account of both parents being on wanted lists, they settled in that golden bastion of surface liberal thought, Amherst, Massachusetts. Having grown up an hour away from there, I suggested that Western Massachusetts was a beautiful a place to grow up in and a nicer place to leave. Alsarah was measured in her response but didn’t gloss over the fact that being an adolescent, Sudanese, new girl in the Northeast wasn’t so easy. It is a part of the country, after all, where people like to let a person get to know them before they let that person know how crazily racist they can be (excepting Boston, where they’re real proud and upfront about it).

“It was not… fun,” she said. “I learned the language pretty quickly on, but it took two or three years. Amherst is a nice liberal town. As far as small town America it could have been a lot worse but it was… not nice. People here do [racism] in such a nice and subversive way. It takes a while to figure out that someone is not your friend. So that betrayal is so much deeper. I would much rather someone just not like me right off the bat… Eventually I just embraced not being friendly.”

After studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan, Alsarah moved to Brooklyn and, after a brief stint with a band she formed that did mid-Century Zanzibar love songs, started The Nubatones. Their first album, Silt, was very much true to the name Alsarah has given the genre she plays, the aforementioned East African retropop. The album was, while decidedly funky, still 50 percent traditional songs, the generation of past music that “vibrated within” Alsarah ever since she was able to find it.

As a young woman “getting into the older music was about getting answers,” she explained. “It was pre-Google. I couldn’t Google the music we grew up on. I couldn’t find it. I listened to what my parents had. I became frequenter of used record stores. I first consumed traditional music from all over the world mindlessly, just mindless searching. Just looking. How can people sound like their culture? What does that mean?" That exploration of and appreciation for tradition on the first album was a step toward a larger vision.

“I made the first album to make this one,” she reflected. “I was thinking of this album when I made the first album. I knew that the first album set the foundation. The Silt that we come out of. I needed to set the ground for where we were coming from.” The “this one” she refers to is the newest Alsarah and The Nubatones album, Manara, out September 30 on Wonderwheel Recordings. The sound is not worlds away from Silt, but there are multiple electronic flourishes, harmonies that sound decidedly modern, and found sound interludes that Alsarah labored over for in a “very, very methodical process” that took months.

Photo by Carlos Ramirez, courtesy of Alsarah and the Nubatones

“Some of the interludes are a combination of found sounds I recorded in Egypt, street sounds and stuff like that, and live sounds of just us playing songs and combining the two together,” she explained. “The album is meant to be listened to from end to end. Every song is a turn in the road and that’s how I envisioned it with the interludes.” The hoped-for effect was to approach cohesive works like Dark Side of The Moon or Musicology. When I told Alsarah that my girl and I had heard elements as diverse as Fleetwood Mac to Goldfrapp, she bemusedly approved: “I’d love to be in the room to hear what other people hear. There should be that room in the music for it to sound like what it needs to sound like to you.”

Manara was written over the course of weeks spent in the town of Asilah in Morocco. Alsarah rented a house for the band (which includes Alsarah on vocals, Nahid on additional vocals, Rami El Aasser on percussion, Mawuena Kodjovi on bass, and Brandon Terzic on Oud) and they “just hung out by the sea for two weeks. Jammed every day cooked and ate together.” Being too much a perfectionist or benevolent dictator to fully embrace the “let’s go upstate and record a record” aesthetic, Alsarah took the material collaboratively written and workshopped the songs live for months before taking the band into the studio for the record, which she produced herself.

All but two of the songs on Manara are originals and one of the two “traditional” songs, “3yan T3ban,” is actually a song written by three young women Alsarah met while visiting the Yusuf Batil Refugee Camp in South Sudan. The multitude of themes on the album—selfhood, identity, modernity and the modern world—all addressed in Alsarah’s native dialect of Northern Sudanese Arabic, are not easily summed up. Alsarah writes abstractly, focusing on creating “songs that are more about states of being” and thereby address a fluid range of topics.

“We [in the band] were talking about a lot of things we were dealing with,” she said. “That entire ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe. The entire failure of the world in respecting people’s humanity. We are collectively failing each other. We are failing in the name of concepts and not realizing the one concrete fact, which is our humanity. This last year was a lot. A lot. This constant feeling like there’s nowhere left where there’s water. Like you’re about to become a waterless desert. All these short-term memories, this amnesia. Nobody remembers how this area raped this area and this action leads to this action and there’s consequences and ripple effects.”

There are potential creative drawbacks to playing music in America that takes such stances, though. I had stood in line for an hour the week before—in front of Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio—to see The Nubatones perform at Lincoln Center. This type of more academic performance setting, while a valuable educational tool and financial lifeline for non-English language music, can sometimes lead to a vibe that makes a performer feel “like some postmodern Venus Hottentot,” Alsarah mused. The thinking goes, “‘Let’s put you on display and learn about Africa through you.’ Some people embrace that role, and it’s an important role as an educator, but it’s not a role for everyone.” While shows like the one at Lincoln Center are reputation-building highlights, Alsarah’s eyes brightened while discussing the more tactile pleasures of playing Brooklyn club C’mon Everybody.

In such a setting, where dancing is encouraged, Alsarah’s version of “retropop” might seem more fitting. But I was curious about the insistence on the “retro” tag, given that the new album, while sounding timeless, doesn’t feel like a throwback. It seemed potentially self-defeating to me to use this label, but, as in all things, what the hell do I know.

“It’s still descriptive because I still need to land somewhere,” Alsarah said. “Your sound defines you. You don’t need to explain it. It should be explained in the music. But people don’t look at it that way. I would love to live in that world, a world where they don’t ask about my outfits and where as a girl I don’t need to prove certain things. That’s a magical lovely world. But if I don’t choose a label for myself, someone else will. And they’ll choose something worse. I had to have this moment with myself a few years ago where ‘you can bitch all you want about this but either you pick it or you have some other white man pick it for you.’”

This is inarguably true. As anyone who’s written or read a band bio before can tell you, if you don’t set your own definitions, some idiot on a keyboard will be more than happy to step up and call you post-whatever or, god help us all, “chillwave.” Best to get ahead of the curve. And it’s not like the term “world music” is any good, I mused.

“I fucking hate it more than anything,” Alsarah confirmed. “It is the most ridiculous term ever. It is totally non-descript. It literally says nothing.”

Photo by Nousha Salimi, courtesy of Alsarah and the Nubatones

Over perhaps a few too many day beers for my fragile ecosystem, we discussed her cultural influences, from early favorites (Bollywood, Egyptian pop, Fairuz, Michael Jackson) to later inspirations (Rasha’s Let Me Be—“I can’t tell you how powerful that album was for my generation.”). She shared her appreciation of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and, when I admitted that I don’t read much beyond Twitter, she helpfully conceded, “Just read the first 600 pages. You’ll get the drift.”

Before we left the restaurant, I asked Alsarah about the concept of “songs of return,” a Nubian musical tradition that emerged in the wake of mass displacement in the 1970s. I was curious what that meant in terms of both the displaced within Sudan and the larger diaspora—those who make their way to, say, Brooklyn.

“There’s continuations in the same step, the same concept,” she said. “The Nubian community was displaced from its original home in the name of modernity, for the building of dams, so electricity could be made, and from there, since they were moved from one area to another they sort of had to either assimilate or just die off, become invisible in history. The story of migrants is the same. It does not matter what country you come from, the story of being a migrant, of being in the diaspora, has similarities for everyone… You start coming up with this reality versus your concept of what your culture is, and how it freezes in a certain moment, in a certain memory. As soon as you leave, you freeze your life, your home, in that one space and you carry that frozen moment with you. You can come back years later and [the country] has changed; it did not wait for you, and you have changed.”

It would be glib to turn this experience into some overblown metaphor about Alsarah’s musical evolution, but it might be fair to wonder, in such a context, a bit about the history her own music might have, as it trades in both the personal and the larger fluidity of memory, both collective and singular. Music can be powerful and necessary in each of those regards, I pointed out, asking how the album should be considered.

“I think of it as a soundtrack for when I’m old, maybe a touch senile,” she replied, laughing as soon as the words left her mouth. “I can put on my old music and remember my life.”

Manara is out September 30. Pre-order it here.

Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.

New music
Alsarah and the Nubatones
Ya Watan
East African retropop