Two months ago Skin Deep attended an Alsarah & The Nubatones concert at Rich Mix that was sponsored by MARSM, an event company dedicated to promoting Arab music and culture in the UK. The concert was part of a series called Music from Egypt and the Sudan.
In a lot of ways, the event title is an ideal introduction to anyone who is unfamiliar with the music of Alsarah & The Nubatones. At its heart, the band’s project is a transnational one that attempts to resist the classification and disruption that modernity has inflicted on indigenous music. During the concert Alsarah kept reminding her audience – whether through political statements made in between songs or through the songs themselves – that while the Nubians are often spoken about as a dead people and civilization, the reality is that they are very much alive and thriving, as is their culture. Their disappearance and dislocation are really a product of modernizing processes like the drawing up of borders and building of dams. The band was a part of Aswan, a live concert album by the Nile Project, which pays tribute to that history — Aswan being a border city between Sudan and Egypt in which a dam was built in the mid 20th century, leading to the mass relocation of Nubians to cities in Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt.
But the band’s music is not strictly Nubian, or Egyptian, or Sudanese for that matter. Alsarah & The Nubatones draws on a wide array of musical influences from the broader East African coast. Their music, as they’ve often stated, is best described as ‘East-African Retro-Pop’, drawing heavily on the musical trends of Ethiopia and Zanzibar in the 1960s and 70s.
We had a chance to speak to Alsarah, though unfortunately not her band, after the concert at Rich Mix. Here’s our interview:
SD: A lot of people have sought to define your music as Sudanese, but you’ve actively sought for it to be defined as ‘East-African Retro-Pop.’ Can you speak a little about what that distinction means to you and for your music?
AS: Yeah, if you actually listened to that type of music, you’d hear the influence. There’s a track on the album [Silt] which is a cover of a song from Zanzibar. ‘Wad al-Nuba’ is based on a Zanzibari beat and rhythm, I just changed the words into Arabic from Swahili. The original recording is from the 1960s by an artist called Sharmila, accompanied by the Black Star Orchestra. There is a good quality compilation of some of her recordings called The Zanzibari Golden Age: 1901 -1965. The series has four parts and it is definitely worth buying the CD for the inserts, because it gives you a lot of photos and information.
For me, Zanzibar is a really important case as to why I actually came back to falling completely and madly in love with Sudanese music. I’ve always identified as African and black, but there has always been a conflict about that in my head. Because in Sudan there is a need to identify particularly as Arab. But we’re actually not Arab. Not even by a long shot. There are some people that have Arabic bloodlines, but that percentage is so small.
SD: There were a couple of moments last night where you made some really good political statements during your performance. In a way you could compare what you said about the Nubian experience to that of Native Americans, in that people appropriate their culture and assume that they are dead despite their culture being very much alive. You see this a lot in the use of Afrocentric references to ancient African civilizations, like people will often call an attractive darker woman something like “My Nubian Queen” in a film or in popular culture without knowing what a Nubian person actually looks like or that Nubians did not come from West Africa.
AS: The number of times I’ve been called that in real life is insane! Someone has to throw it at me almost on a weekly basis. I’m just like, I don’t know where you are coming from with that. It’s always presented as a positive thing, too. They think it is a compliment.
Whenever people say that to me, I say thank you, but just so you know there are about 40 million of me, and we’re not that exotic. At this age in my life, I don’t want to pick fights with people who have good intentions. They’re just trying to be nice. But people really do come out with some left-field stuff, and I just wonder, are you listening to yourself right now? ‘Cause you sound crazy. So, I’m just trying to come to terms with that idea of the “Nubian Queen”.
SD: It’s interesting that you say that because when I first read your band name I wondered if you were Nuba. You also had a song that mentioned Kadugli, which is right in the middle of the Nuba Mountains. But you don’t look Nuba, you look Nubian. Do you intentionally blur the distinctions between those two identities?
AS: I always call out the Nuba because, technically, the historical land of Nubia extended all the way from the North of Sudan and parts of southern Egypt to the Nuba mountains. The language of the people who live in the Nuba Mountains is the closest to Matuki out of any of the other tribal languages in the Sudan. Technically, and even ethnically, they’re still really close to us. We’re from the same bloodline. The further north you get the more mixing there is, with other factors coming in. In my family, there are so many women who are none Nubian marrying into the family. Or, like in my case, more than half of my family is actually Egyptian. My grandmother’s mother is part Turkish. But everybody just ends up being Sudanese, which is fine but also not fine. It’s fine for everybody to say we’re going to identify as this one unified thing, but we don’t need to pretend that none of the other details and spectrums of it are gone.
SD: During your set you spoke about how modernity produces people like the Nubians who cannot be categorized. What did you mean by that?
AS: This Nubian ‘issue’ was such an inspiration, it was the jumping board for the band because we could all relate to it so personally as immigrants. As soon as you take off roots, like permanently take off roots, towards somewhere else, doesn’t matter even if you don’t know where that one place is, you start to immediately shift and change. And that change is natural, that change is part of survival. I don’t think that change should be fought necessarily, it should just be consciously guided.
And then you have someone like me who gets asked, “Where are you from?” everywhere I go. I have an American passport, I’ve lived in Sudan and in Yemen, and I travel all around the world. If I went to Egypt, I could easily blend in if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. I’m just as likely to settle down here in London today as I am to go back to New York. And I’m also just as likely to go to Colombia the next year.
SD: Did you study these issues, like migration, colonialism and modernity and transnationalism, when you did Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University?
AS: Yeah, I did. But one of my issues with my Ethnomusicology course is that they didn’t focus on issues like reparations. We never addressed the politics of why a subject like it exists in the first place. Perhaps it was because my study of the subject was too general. I studied it as a BA at Wesleyan, which is very unusual and most people usually do it the Master’s and PhD level. My fieldwork was the only time that I got a chance to do indepth research. I actually did my fieldwork on Zār in the Sudan.
SD: I’m surprised your parents let you do that! Zār houses are usually treated with a lot of suspicion. Maybe their willingness to let you explore that has something to do with what you mentioned at your show yesterday, that you come from a long line of witches.
AS: I wasn’t kidding when I said that yesterday. That is the rumor about my mom’s family, the al-Nawari. I only found out this story from visiting my aunts while on tour. The story goes that women from that family are witches that wake up from the dead. Apparently this is because we are part Mur people. So we’re witches on the women’s line, which is why you’re not supposed to marry us. We’re not kind. We ruin people’s lives if we’re not happy. Oh, and if we have unfinished business, we will wake up from the dead to come back and sort it. When I was told this, I was like, yeah, sounds like me.
My mom is really amazing. She’s very supportive and I think she was a huge part of why I always felt comfortable being both Other and Sudanese, and not feeling like the two needed to be reconciled.
SD: But the Sudanese nationalist project is not one that is trying to be diverse and inclusive. The project is very specific in its desire to homogenise identity, which excludes a lot of people. This is why you have civil war.
AS: Exactly! This to me is why it is important to celebrate what you are and celebrate what everyone near you is.
SD: How did you meet the rest of your band?
AS: We all worked together in various manifestations. Rami and I used to work together in a band called The Sounds of Taraab, doing covers of love songs from 1940s, 50s and 60s Zanzibar. The band didn’t take off though ’cause, again, of this ‘authenticity’ question. Nobody in the band was from Zanzibar and people were like how dare you sing Zanzibari music? So, the authenticity question was addressed early on in my career.
At that time Rami was working on his Master’s thesis which was about Egyptian modernity and migration patterns and how that affected agriculture and food. So, we were talking about aghani al awda (the songs of return) a lot. I would talk about growing up with it and then he would talk about listening to the sounds and putting them in their historical context. Eventually he suggested we do a concert of his thesis.
And I told him that it would be great if we created a band! So that’s how it started, and then it evolved into many other sounds. Early on I thought we needed to add bits from Sudan and bits from other places to pull it all together. And then I started writing the songs. I do the majority of the lyric and melody writing and we all do the arrangements together. I wanted this next album we’re working on to be much more collaborative. We’ve actually carved out band creative time, where we spent weeks together, living together, jamming out, working on the songs.
SD: What was the process of making your album? Because you had to interrupt your recordings when you didn’t have enough money to complete the project, right?
AS: Yeah, it’s not an uncommon story for a lot of independent musicians. We just wanted to start this band, so I called up people I knew and asked, “Hey, do you wanna play oud? I don’t have any money. For at least two years, I got nothing for you.” You’re asking people for their free labour and at the same time, you need to be excellent, because my standards are high.
SD: Your sound now is also starting to transcend language in some ways. There were segments in your set where you just made sounds.
AS: Totally, I think music has always transcended language. To me, this idea that people can’t relate to music if they can’t understand the lyrics is ridiculous. That would mean there would be no instrumental music in the world. Throughout history people have loved music from different places. If anything will prove that to you it’s Bollywood. Bollywood has proven that you can get a universal fan-base that doesn’t understand anything that is happening on the screen, but will still watch mesmerized. I’ll put anyone in front of a Bollywood movie and two minutes later they are completely zoned in. To the point where I had put a friend in front of a film and after she said: “I have to leave! I have never been so mesmerized by a screen. I can’t stop staring. Things move so fast”.
SD: If we go back to what we were talking about with aghani al awda (songs of return), there is also another genre that you’ve brought to prominence, which is aghani al banat (girls’ songs). You’ve taken these songs out of the private sphere.
AS: This is why I am so into aghani al banat. Sudanese people categorize aghani al banat as aghani habta (trashy songs), or say that it doesn’t represent Sudanese music because the lyrics are so basic and simple. But these are the songs and the issues that women sing about, on a workday level. There are integral subjects in the different spheres of aghani al banat. It’s an umbrella term. Underneath it you have aghani al toom toom. You could even put al hakamat underneath aghani al banat in my opinion.
SD: What are al-hakamat?
AS: They are songs sung by women from Western Darfur that pump men up for war. They also include epics or praise-songs.
SD: It’s fascinating that you’re even talking about this, because a lot of the time these details get lost in national conversations about Sudanese music. Every Ramadan, you watch Al-Sirgador’s TV program in which he introduces the youth to the haqeeba (literally translates to ‘bag’ and is used to describe the canon of traditional Sudanese musics) which is very northern and Arabic. You didn’t have any of that yesterday, which was really refreshing. You introduced people to music from Nubia, the Nuba Mountains and Darfur.
AS: I hate the haqeeba. It’s very Arab centered and a lot of it draws heavily from just two tribes. That’s fine. But don’t make that my only national, historical treasure! This cannot and does not exclusively represent all of us. In my music, I don’t actually sing anything from al hakamat, but I do talk about it. I make sure to mention the fact that Sudan is not just one thing, and that is its magic. Why are we losing that? Why would I want to give that up for anybody?
SD: I think people see that as a cause of conflict: bringing together different groups whilst simultaneously having one group remain dominant.
AS: Especially when you know that the one dominant group became so undemocratically. People forget the military coup of 1989. We are not trying to pretend the Sudan is a democratic nation. They inherited this paradigm of governance that they are practising, but they were the ones who took it further. They put the pedal to the metal.
No one signed up for what is happening right now, you know? And the current regime has done such a good job of brainwashing people. The entire education infrastructure in the Sudan is highly militarized and you only learn about Sudanese history from the 1800s onwards, when the Mahdiyya comes around.
SD: Have you been back to Sudan recently? Because one of your songs last night was about telling your sorrows to the Nile and feeling like you want to go back, but there are all these reasons not to.
AS: The last time I went back was a year and a half ago. And every time I go back, I just remember why I left. But you need to go back. I can’t explain that need. Often when I do go home, I realise it’s not home anymore. And then I have to leave. Then a couple of years go by and I have to go back again. It’s interesting. It’s almost like a sickness.
SD: I think (home)sickness and ambivalence is a good way to explain the immigrant experience, moving through space and time not sure what you’re quite searching for. Junot Diaz once described the immigrant experience as time travel, which is kind of interesting to think about alongside our theme for our upcoming print edition: IMAGINING 2043. Maybe in the future there will be no borders and people will have stopped building dams. Do you have any last thoughts about that?
AS: I still can’t believe we’re building dams in 2016! Have we learned nothing?