Alsarah: a voice that transports Sudanese heritage beyond its home-country (VIDEO)

May Sélim, Monday 1 Sep 2014

While preparing for her second album to be released in October, New York-based Sudanese ethnomusicologist, singer and songwriter Alsarah shares her music journey

Alsarah performs at El-Genaina Theatre (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Alsarah's flawless voice touches on the African folklore and traditional Nubian songs of the 1960s and the 1970s, as she performs this rich musical heritage in a novel way. A young Sudanese singer and songwriter, Alsarah graced the stage of El-Genaina Theatre during the last Hayy Festival and her voice will not be forgotten any time soon.

Today Alsarah lives in New York, and it is there that she joins her musical creativity with a continuous journey through Africa. "I was born and I will die in Sudan and everything that happens in between is a long story. “As an immigrant, this is my true identity," comments the young artist.

Alsarah's relationship with the Egyptian audience goes back to the Nile Project, a music initiative which launched in 2011. The project, which is made up of 11 artists from the countries in the Nile basin, was formed with the objective to create ethno-cultural links and educate youth through music. It is within the Nile Project that Alsarah participated in a concert in Aswan and then in Alexandria.

In July, accompanied by her band, the Nubatones, Alsarah performed in Cairo for the first time. The concert kicked off the Hayy Festival, organised by Cultural Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thakafy) at El-Genaina Theatre in Al-Azhar Park. On that evening, the singer gradually freed herself as she gave her heart and soul to African rhythms. She opened her performance with a slower tune before fusing traditional Arabic and Sudanese melodies in Roddo Al-Salam (Answer the Peace). In Qarrab Liya Habibi (Approach My Love), she danced ecstatically, energizing the stage and the audience.

Alsarah's songs talk about love, relationships and a sense of nostalgia. But on a deeper level she often uses the lyrics to sing about her home country, evoking migration and the return of Nubians to their native land (following the flooding of their lands after the construction the High Dam which forced their displacement). It is in those events that Alsarah found her voice, style and purpose.

Her band Nubatones, which was formed in 2010, consists of members representing different nationalities. "I did not aim to create a band consisting of Sudanese from Nubia. We're friends gathered around one theme and songs. All four of us immigrated to the United States. Rami Al-Aassar is an American percussionist with Egyptian origins. Bassist Mawuena Kodjovi is originally from Togo while Haig Manoukian – who died in April of this year – was Armenian," Alsarah still finds it difficult to come to terms with passing of Manoukian.

In a post on her website, shortly after Manoukian's death, Alsarah wrote a touching note: "Haig took me under his wing, saw beyond everything to my core and the passion that boiled in it for music, and taught me the real meaning of being a musician (which for the record they don’t teach you in music school). He was a friend, a mentor, a bandmate, and the most influential musical presence in my life."

In our conversation, she goes on to elaborate about the Nubian musical heritage that inspires her: "I remember one day I was chatting with Rami [Al-Aassar]. I talked about the songs of the Nubian migration. These were the songs of my childhood and the legacy of my parents. I wondered why today we no longer find anyone who would perform these songs. I wanted to listen to them again so I decided to do it myself. Thus following eight months of rehearsals, music selection and arrangements, the Nubatones were born.

A travelling legacy of Sudanese music

Although Alsarah is currently working with the Nubatones on their second album, it was not too long ago that she was struggling to make it as a musician.

Born in Sudan in 1982, Alsarah did not stay in her home-country for long. When she was only eight years old, due to political turmoil, her family was forced to leave Sudan for Yemen. After a failed coup in Yemen, in 1994, her family had to move again, this time to the United States where a new world of music opened up in front of the young music lover. Without hesitating much, Alsarah decided to study ethnomusicology, and become a professional singer. During her studies, she performed with several groups, where her voice was particularly appreciated especially when she sang in Arabic.

After graduation from Wesleyan University, Alsarah moved from the Middletown, Connecticut to New York. "My parents lived in a region filled with several universities. My mother is a university professor, my father, a human rights activist," she clarifies.

Initially, Alsarah's parents were worried, thinking that their daughter chose a difficult career. Not to mention that rest of her family in Sudan and Egypt, often refers to her as "crazy Sarah." Sarah is her real name to which she chose to add the particle "Al.”

"I always dreamed of having my own island that I would call Alsarah," she jokes.

In New York, the young Sudanese woman moved from one experience to another. Despite the lack of resources, she fought for her survival always exploring other musical horizons. She has worked in restaurants, private companies and sung in English and Arabic.

"Still, I did not want to be the girl of Sudanese origin who sang with an American style. I wanted to be myself," she recalls those days.

Things began to change when she started singing with Sound of Tarab, a band from Zanzibar.

"Tarab is part of a musical genre popular in Zanzibar, mixing African rhythms and Indian tunes. Alsarah stayed with the band for two years until it was dissolved. It is during this time that she met Rami Al-Aassar.

Following Sound of Tarab, Alsarah began broadening her experience with techno sounds. In 2013, she worked with the French DJ and synthesizer Débruit with whom she released album Al Jawal (Eternal Traveler). The album helped Alsarah to bring her voice to larger audience.

"Contemporary music is not only about techno and electronic instruments. And though some people think that the traditional and folk music is stagnant, we can always infuse it with fresh air. Through my work with Débruit, I wanted to revive those songs."

The Nubatones new album is called Silt.

As such, Alsarah hoped to release two albums in parallel, considering them representatives of her musical identity. Nonetheless, she had to follow the rules of the market, and launched them a few months apart one from the other.

In Al-Jawal (2013), she takes us on a voyage through Sudan while in Silt (2014), Alsarah looks through her origins in the rest of the world. "Silt is a self-financed album which introduces Nubatones the world. The recording of this album cost us two years of savings."

In October, Alsarah and Nubatones will return to the studio to record their second album. Meanwhile, the singer continues her musical tours, during which she takes her listeners on many distant voyages.

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