Alsarah is a young Sudanese singer, composer and ethnomusicologist, based in Brooklyn, NY. Silt, her debut album with her group, The Nubatones, just came out on Wonderwheel Records, to critical acclaim and our great enjoyment and repeated office-blastings. We also severely enjoyed Alsarah’s Afropop Worldwide curated playlist, Khartoum Soundbites. Check it out! Our very own Sam Backer caught up with Alsarah before the album release show at BK’s Baby’s Allright, and got the lowdown on East African Retro Pop, The Nile Project, and Alsarah’s approach to music making.
All photos taken by Anthony Thomas at Washington, DC’s Tropicalia on April 28.
Sam Backer: We first heard you in the context of the Nile Project, so let’s start with that. Can you tell me about your involvement?
Alsarah: Well, the Nile project brings together musicians from different Nile basin countries to do a two, three-week residency, and then a couple of performances of material that’s created during that residency. And it’s a project that also has environmental, and I guess in a way, policy affiliations. It really seeks to readdress the entire conversation around the Nile, and who is involved in the Nile conversation. And the issues and concerns around the Nile, from education to policy to environment, to dams, to everything. Although there is, you know, a need to really re-evaluate the conversation around the Nile, and to involve the people of the Nile in it. I’m involved in the musical part of it, which brings together musicians every year. This is the second year that it happened.
Were you involved last time?
I was involved last year as well. Last year the residency was held in Aswan, Egypt. This year the residency was held in Uganda. Last year there wasn’t a tour, but we did a couple of shows around Egypt. But this year there was a whole East Africa tour. It’s a really cool project. There were 15 other musicians involved this year. There’s Sofie from Rwanda, Steven Sogol from Burundi, from Ethiopia we had Jorga Misfin. We had Salamnesh Zemene, we had Dawit, we had Endris. From Egypt we had Dina El Wadidi who’s really well known. Hazem Shaheen who is a traditional kaola player… and then there’s Kasiva Mutua from Kenya and Lawrence Okello from Uganda, Michael Basibu from Uganda. Dafaalla El Hag from Sudan and myself from Sudan as well. And I think that’s everyone!
Where does the funding come from?
Different factions. There’s no one funder. Every year it’s a struggle to make it happen. Very much one of those… They pull it together last minute. Mina Girgis is the co-founder of the project and the director of the project and Miles Jay is the musical director of the project.
I think it’s really interesting that the focus of the project is on the geography of the Nile rather than the national boundaries. It’s really cool.
Yeah totally. And that’s what I really love about the project too. The approach of it is very pan-East African oriented, which I’m really into. The idea of unifying the Nile basin regions based on that shared geographical factor. A common denominator like that, that’s really powerful. That could be–with respect to national boundaries- -a really powerful union of economies and allegiances. Really using, really thinking of East Africa not as a political figure only, but as a region in the world. Why are certain countries not part of the East African community? There’s a political union called the East African community—
And that’s Tanzania, Kenya…
Uganda, and Rwanda and Burundi as well. They’re considering–they were considering bringing in South Sudan, but I don’t know if they’re going to bring it in anymore. I just feel like–why aren’t Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan all part of that? I mean–We know why not. I’m saying, why can’t we really rethink of how they can be involved and how… I don’t know. There’s just a lot that can be done in the area. For instance, with economic exchange. There’s just so much wealth that can be had. And I feel like it all starts with people getting to know each other. And the fact is, when I worked with Sogo and Sophie, that was my first time ever working with any Rwandan or Burundian musicians. Why was that the first time ever? Why don’t we know anything about each other’s musical traditions? Why isn’t there a common music industry?
Do you see linkages in your traditions?
Totally, totally. There’s linkages in all of them–either common instruments or common rhythms, or common scales. And everyone also has their own unique take on things, that makes it sound distinctly from that place. But there’s still a commonality. And you really discover that doing things like the Nile project. Because we create an entire set, an entire performance every year. And we all participate in each others songs. So it’s like a giant band basically. And why is it in two weeks we’re able to pull together 15 or 16 songs that we create and that we orchestrate among ourselves. And that means there’s definitely something in common.
Do people come with songs already or are they group compositions?
It’s individual compositions and then group arrangements. So every person takes a turn bringing a song that they lead on.
Well that makes sense–group writing would be really tricky.
Yeah, that would take a year. No one’s got that kind of time!
So, let’s talk about the album, which is called Silt and is fantastic.
Let’s start with the title. Why Silt?
Why Silt? The springing board for this project was really conversations that Rami, my drummer, and I would have about migration patterns and the effects of certain political and environmental decisions on regions. For instance the songs of return. Which we sample some of in our album, actually. We do two covers of certain things: “Nuba Noutou” and “Bilab Aldahb.” So it’s from conversations about that. Hugh can relate to it as a second-generation immigrant, and me as a first-generation immigrant. All the stories that spring up in these songs really echo… echo familiar to us. And why don’t we hear these songs being performed anymore? In the U.S. at least. They are performed in certain parts of the world, but not here.
So we started talking about it and brought back memories of home, and listening–growing up on these songs and knowing them. For me, they were both from my childhood and revisiting them as an adult and how I relate to them as an artist. All those songs sprung up around the 1960s, with the building of the High Dam in Aswan. And they came out of the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Nubian people during that time period.
On both sides of the border, right?
Yeah, people on both sides of the border people had to leave. And a lot of them moved into the cities, a lot of them left the country altogether. So that single political decision effected an entire region, an entire people. and began an entire musical movement. It also began a change in speaking patterns, a change in musical patterns…A lot of different things happened.
And all of that was built around this idea of a dam that was there to control the flooding of the Nile, which was considered a bad thing. Mostly in the damage that occurs to material goods. And the question of how we harness the power of this flooding to make hydroelectricity. There was pros and cons to the conversation. You know the dam allowed allowed people to harness the power of the Nile in a way. But what flooding brought, which was crucial to the area, was a layer of silt that comes up with the flood and that was left behind after the water recedes. and that’s how people farmed because that whole area is actually a desert.
For thousands and thousands of years.
Yeah. For thousands and thousands of years. There’s not real significant enough rainfall that it could be relied upon for planting. So people used this silt, this new ground that comes in every year as the way they farmed. And so, this was this beautiful renewal, this beautiful rebirth that happens from something that’s too out of control, too jarring or too tragic. Which I guess could be thought of to reflect how we all came together as a band. Displaced, you know–migration for whatever reason.
How long have you guys been together?
Well, we made an EP of four songs that we put out in 2011 or ’12. And it was four songs off of the album. We put that out unofficially, we didn’t really put it out. And basically we were selling it at our shows and you could stream it online to listen to us. But that was all that we had. Its been very much a DIY project–we saved the money and we came together to put together the album. So it took awhile to get it out. But we did it and we did it all from people coming to shows and people buying our EP–and we took that money and we recorded everything in Mawena’s living room. And then we took it over to the Astoria Sound Works recording studio to mix and master with Camillo. Fantastic engineer.
So one of the interesting things about the album is that it’s a mixture of songs that you wrote and songs that are covers. I was wondering how you went about choosing the covers that you play.
Good question. How did we pick them? I don’t know if we have a system. I think what we do is that we’re always taking turns. We’re always bringing new songs to each other to listen to. We’re all avid listeners in general. Rami brings me songs, I bring him songs. Sometimes Haig suggests songs. But mostly, we kind of throw songs at each other and we see what we really feel the most. Sometimes I have songs in mind where I’m like, “I wanna do this song.” Like “Habibi Taal,” for example, which is the first track on the album. I was like “I want to do this song.” That was one of the first songs that I really wanted to do. Eventually, I came up with a set of songs I wanted to use as a springing board for the repertoire we build–that I felt really exemplified the sound that I was going for.
And what is that sound?
It’s Sudanese, but it’s wider than that. I called it East African retro pop. Because to me it’s retro, but it’s not quite traditional. It’s pop and it’s very much East African. It draws from all the sounds that I love from East Africa– from the taarab sounds of Zanzibar, to the music of Central Sudan, to the Nubian songs of return from Southern Egypt and North Sudan. And then the way I write straddles all of those, I think.
So, I have to admit that I don’t know much about Nubian Sudanese music, but I feel like the covers aren’t readily apparent to the listener. I had to check the liner notes to figure out which tracks aren’t originals. You guys clearly do a lot of reinterpretation.
That was the idea. I didn’t want it to be. I love covers. I hope people cover my songs. Covering songs is like giving people samples of what you like to listen to, and when you listen to it, and how you listen to it. I listen to stuff and then I hear it back this way, you know? Music has an active originality to it that really can be available if you listen to it, forget it, and then try to remember it.
It’s sort of like a DJ set, but an analog DJ set.
Exactly. It’s almost like a mixtape, but sandwiching originals in between covers. I always thought of Silt as the first album leading into the second album, which I hope will have more original material on it in a distinctly Nubatones way.
I’m really interested in you saying that it’s pop, because I agree, but it’s hard to characterize exactly why.
Well, because, what is pop? Pop is something that is popular. So, aghani banat in Sudan, for example, is the most popular genre. It is the number-one selling genre in Sudan. So, it’s pop. It’s mainstream. That’s what people buy in the stores, what you listen to when you get into cabs, when you get into buses. At weddings, that’s what you hear. It’s the music. So that’s pop. Because what is pop? Something that’s catchy, that you can follow with, and that everyone can easily relate to. Pop can be so many different genres. Anything can be pop. So it’s about having those qualities. And even in the songs that we write, they modulate in strange different ways, but a lot of them are based on grooves and on hooks. To me, that’s a quality that’s comes into both popular folk music and pop music. They’re not very far apart.
I know that you studied ethnomusicology. Do you think that a kind of ethno approach informs the way you’re thinking about this music?
Definitely. Everything that we learn informs the way we look at everything. So I can’t imagine how it doesn’t. But then a part of me is like, “Was I attracted to ethno because of my way of thinking already or did ethno inform it?” I think they fed into each other. My favorite thing about having gone the ethno route is being able to see how the Western world approaches “world music,” and how it really classifies what is considered ethnic enough or not ethnic enough, and what does that mean? And what are the categories allowed within the ethnic world? And what the fuck does the term “world music” mean? I really hate that term. I’m always like, “What does that mean?” Are you making extraterrestrial music? What the hell is happening? Anyway, back to my point, I think it gave me agency as a musician who doesn’t practice Western European music to see how I might be categorized, and to really reclaim how I would like to be categorized. And that’s why I put a good two, three years into thinking up the term “East African retro pop,” because I wanted to be able to pick a category for myself. “World” never really made sense.
Because it’s got a real retro vibe. It has a really late ’60s and ’70s vibe to the sound of the electronics in it that I like. And that’s something that I can sense. And also, even in sound structure, the idea of longer pieces–six, seven minutes–and sections. That’s part of the retro throwback.
For a listener in the U.S., who doesn’t have much knowledge of this music, I wonder if it might not sound so obviously retro. You said the word “traditional” before. I know that it’s not traditional, but some people might assume it’s more traditional than it is, maybe.
For me, it’s retro in the sense that in the U.S. in the ’70s, a lot of Motown and soul sampled from traditional songs, traditional gospel songs, traditional folk songs, taking that and rearranging it, and really doing it in a pop format. I think of it like that. It is traditional in the sense that traditional gospel is traditional. The kind of thing that Aretha Franklin did a cover of, for example–the way that she would take it from the traditional vibe to the pop vibe. But you still listen to it today, and it gives you that vintage feel, because the song is traditional, but the way the song is done is not traditional.
So it’s also about a rootedness.
Exactly. That’s what the “retro” is. It’s rooted in a cultural domain, but it would just be inaccurate to call it “traditional,” because there is traditional music. We can listen to it together. If anybody needs samples of real traditional music, I’ll point you the right way. But when you listen to that, you’ll realize that this isn’t really that traditional. You can always go to my Facebook fan page and my Twitter. I’m always posting samples. I’m a YouTube addict. I’m constantly putting up playlists and stuff like that of traditional sounds that I love listening to. And you can listen to it and listen to what I’m doing, and see the similarities–definite similarities–and see, also, the differences, and why I wouldn’t call it traditional pop. I would rather call it “retro pop.” The album’s aimed at everybody– number one: me. I just wanted to make an album that I wanted to listen to. I am getting tired of hearing it, though. I’m gonna hurry up and make a second one.
You have this really strong idea of an East African identity. Do you think part of what you’re doing with this album is bringing that to people who may not have heard it before?
Absolutely. It’s an intentional thing. That’s why I chose the covers that I chose, because I really wanted people here, who have no idea what the East African sound is, and, accurately so, because there is very little available in a compact format and with clear recordings. It’s hard to find ways to search unless you can speak Arabic and type things up, and you know the names already, or if you’re from that area. It’s really hard to have access to some things, so I wanted people to understand the kind of sound that I come from. If you just hear the originals without hearing any of that other stuff, you’ll feel very out-of-nowhere, I think. And I just wanted people to realize it comes from somewhere. And what that somewhere could sound like.
It’s interesting when you say East Africa, because when a lot of people think of East Africa, they think of bongo flava, or these more modern, current East African sounds. I’m just wondering if you connect that to your idea of East Africa.
Yeah. I think I could, but, to me, that’s a club sound. That’s the club sound of East Africa. That’s not even necessarily the entirety of East Africa. I think I would consider my club remixes that, but my own stuff–it’s just not the same genre. But if there’s an East African awards, I would want to be with them. I’m like, “I always want to go there. I want to qualify.”
What about lyrics?
Oh my god. I had this beautiful aspiration for making a PDF downloadable format of the lyrics in English translations, and I quickly forgot about it. That’s gotta be one of those things that I do once I have a manager. I would love to do that for people, though. You know what my solution is for people, who can’t understand? Just come to my show. I talk endlessly. It is so hard to shut me up in a show. Just come to a show. I’ll talk about the songs. You’ll feel like you know everything.
Do you think you could just pick one of the songs on the album and tell us about the lyrics?
I just recently wrote out the translation for “Soukura” for the person who’s doing the video. “Soukura” means “It’s Late.” The lyrics are [pauses] When you’re translating from Arabic to English, it takes a second. OK. “When the skies darken and the night stars twinkle, our secrets melt and pour… From our eyes, they melt and pour. The cowrie shells have unveiled what’s written. Our loved one’s destiny is to return.” So, that’s one verse. And then the second verse is “Without need for permission, without a sense of shame, what is forbidden is desired. Our secrets melt and pour. From our eyes, they melt and pour. The cowrie shells…” Same chorus again. The lyrics are kind of like that. Very metaphorical. There’s hardly ever any direct stories. I think of them like stories. I think of them like metaphorical haikus.
So it’s very much from a poetic tradition.
Yeah. And then some of the traditional stuff has very simple lyrics. Like “Jibal Alnuba” is “Oh my heart. Oh my heart. My loved one has traveled to the Nuba Mountains and left me. I wanted to send him a letter, and didn’t have a chance to send him a letter. My heart is breaking. My loved one has left me.” Then another one is “The cause for this fire. The cause for this fire. My loved one is the cause for this fire.” The folk ones are really simple, and I tried to choose really simple lyrics, because, for me, they tell very simple stories that are actually really relevant to what’s happening culturally. The reason why “Jibal Alnuba” became popular was that there were all these migrations that were happening in the Nuba mountains, and women being left behind, and loved ones going away to wars–these kinds of simple stories.
Clearly the songs of return are kind of poetic/political. Are songs that you’ve written connected to political events?
Some songs that I’ve done in the past were connected directly to political events. On the album nothing is tied directly to any one political event, but I do have a lot of things that are indirectly linked to political events, or they’re linked to consequences of political events, but nothing didactic.
Mid-early Dylan rather than early Dylan.
Can we talk about your personal history for a little? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Sudan. Then I moved to Yemen for three or four years. Then I moved to the States.
Where in the States?
Massachusetts. Amherst. A tiny town.
How old were you when you moved to Yemen?
I was eight when I moved to Yemen. And I was 12 when I moved to the States.When I was in Yemen I would spend summers in Sudan. Then when I came here, it took a while to get our papers straight, and to go from illegal alien to legal alien to permanent resident to being able to travel. Then I started going back to visit Sudan. I went back many times after that.
So you really grew up immersed in this culture.
Yeah. The first half of my life, I would say.
What was your first language?
So, you also released an album last year with Débruit.
Yes. November it came out, last year. It’s called Aljawal.
Can you tell me about that?
That was a totally different music-making experience. Débruit and I made Aljawal basically in a week. Well, no. We started it in a week. We planted 70 percent of it in a week, and then we finished the next 40-30 percent over a year and a half. When it came together, I was on my way back from a tour to Pakistan, and I’d always been a big fan of his, since he released Nigeria What years and years ago. I was like, “It would be great to be able to work with him!” So I reached out to him, actually, on Soundcloud in a private message, when he’d just dropped an EP. I was like, “Listen, I love the new EP. I love the new video. I do this kind of music, and I think you and I could do something really great together. I think we could do a track.” And he sent me a message back an hour later, being like, “I love what you’re doing. I would love to work together. I think we could do something great. Maybe we should do an album.” [Laughter] I was like, “OK. OK.” So he sent me a song via email– a sample of a motif he started, and I wrote something to it. And that became “Alrahal,” the first track on the album. That was the first one we wrote. And we started that way. Then, I was doing a tour of Pakistan and on the way back, I stopped in Brussels. We rented a house, and he moved his equipment in, and we worked every day for a week–writing together and him producing. And then, after that, he worked on it for another two years– really fine-tuning it while I was gone, because I was like, “I can’t be around anymore.” You have to finish it. Poor guy!
It’s really interesting to hear the albums back to back. Because you see the same influences going in totally different directions.
It’s interesting that you say that because technically I actually recorded the Nubatones EP before I wrote the stuff with Débruit. So I did this more rooted project already, and was already started with the Nubatones. I felt like, by the time we finished the EP, I really knew the sound for the album–what it was going to be. It was just getting the money together to do it. And then I met Débruit, and I thought that taking the sound there would be amazing. Especially with the way that he works, and the way his mind thinks about music. It’s really brilliant. Really really brilliant. He hears–it’s very electro-analog. You know what I mean? So his music felt really visual to me, and I was like, “I wonder what we could do if we combine those two sounds together.” And it worked!
Working at Afropop, you hear a lot of “We’re going to take this kind of music, but put beats under it.” Or, “We’re going to update this music this way or that way.” And one thing that really struck me about Silt is how much you made a pop record that doesn’t do that.
Thanks. I try. We tried. It’s definitely a delicate balance. I think it helps that everybody in the band has a very traditional grounding in their music background. I think I’m the most pop-oriented one in the group. Everybody else is just like, “What?” I kept being like, “Guys, I want to do a cover of ‘Tom’s Diner,’ but in Arabic. Wouldn’t that be fun?” And they were like, “What’s ‘Tom’s Diner’?”
I don’t think I know what “Tom’s Diner” is.
[Hums melody] What the hell? [Laughter]
I didn’t know that song had a name. That’s just 7th grade gym class.
Suzanne Vega! Nobody else knew it either. Everyone was like, “Who?” And then when Ke$ha came out, Rami and I would get into these heated discussions about her.
I’ve had a couple heated discussions about Ke$ha.
Heated discussions about Ke$ha. And Haig sitting in the middle of it, being like, “What is this Ke$ha thing you’re talking about? Is this a sound?”
Are you pro-Ke$ha?
We were just talking about the pros and cons of the Ke$ha viability, the Ke$ha formula in pop. And it just was amazing, because it would just be these random conversations that really only Rami and I were having. He’s the second-most in tune with pop, but still, his background is hardcore Turkish classical, Arabic, classical traditional gypsy sounds, rhythms– just hardcore traditional guy. And I’m like, “Hey guys, I want to do Madonna covers.” I grew up on the traditional stuff, and that’s definitely my grounding as well musically, but I keep up with the club scene, which is kind of funny. That’s why I think I never really fit into world music. I was just like, “I don’t get it. I’m trying to go out.”
I feel like the world scene is changing. There’s this generational divide between the older school who set up the infrastructure, and the younger people who run the blogs.
That’s so true. Yeah, that’s totally the scene now. You’re right. I’m like, “I follow blogs. I read them.”
From the blogs.
I’m from the blogs.
Greetings from the blogs.
In the cyber world. The interwebs.
What was the tour you were doing in Pakistan?
It was a tour with this group called the Fifth Element Warriors. It’s a hip-hop collective. I do all sorts of random projects. I was doing a musical-cultural exchange between Pakistan and the States. So, we did a tour of three cities in Pakistan, and did a couple of workshops. I got hired on that tour by a total accident. The singer couldn’t make it, and the director of the project had seen one of my shows in Chicago, and was like, “Dude, want to come with us? We’re going to Pakistan. Do you have a problem with going to Pakistan?” And I was like, “No. When are we going to Pakistan?” And I was like, “But don’t you need a hip-hop singer. You know I don’t do that, right? You are aware of this fact?” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, it’ll be fine. No one will notice.” And it was really cool, because we incorporated my songs–a lot of Sudanese pop songs, and I wrote them some new songs– into the set that we would build together. It’s a collective of dancers, artists, singers, and MCs and poets and DJs, so it ends up being this beautiful collage show. It’s awesome. We went to Pakistan. I was like, “I would to go anywhere. For the record.” I’m trying right now–if you know anyone, who gives funding for crazy projects–I have this dream of doing a tour of the ‘Stans on a bus.
All the ‘Stans?
All the ‘Stans: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan. And I would do flashmob concerts in small towns that no one goes to. I would have a sound system in the back of this bus that we would travel with, and we would set up shop in the middle of the square, do a one-hour concert, pack up and go. Next town. I need someone who will give me money and sit silently in the background while I execute this crazy trip. It would be so fucking fun.
Get some great cassette tapes.
Yo–my album’s out on cassette. I’ll be handing that shit out at these local markets. We’re going to make a killing, watch. On cassette tape sales. It’s going to be great. I want to do video coverage of this shit. It would be amazing.
How much does an old bus cost in the ‘Stans?
It’s not the old bus. It’s more the money we’re going to need for bribes– to bribe our way across places. It’s a lot of checkpoints and sound systems look suspicious, especially in giant buses. We’ll be fine in Uzbekistan, maybe. Tajikistan, maybe. As soon as we get to the border of Afghanistan, and then crossing borders in Pakistan, and we’ve got cases full of mics. We’re going to need power, so a generator. Giant boxes full of things that look like they could kill people. We look suspect, crossing the borders like that.
I feel the Kickstarter. “We have the bus. We have the musicians. We need $20,000 for bribes.”
Really. Really! The paperwork will cost a fortune. We’ve gotta take music where music’s not allowed. And then once I do the ‘Stans, I’m going to try to go between North Sudan and South Sudan without getting killed. We’ll see how that works.
Do you have any other projects in the works, besides your tour of the ‘Stans? A second album?
A second album–I’m working on that in my head only, still. There’s not an actual manifestation of that. I’m working on an English album–or an album in English–that will still somehow sound like East African retro pop. With Toshi Reagon, a folk musician, producer. I’m working on a project with a rabbi, doing reinterpretations of certain songs. Lots of things in the back burner. Let’s see what comes out.