One of our favorite artists on Afropop Radio is the East African Retro Pop band known as Alsarah and the Nubatones. They play traditional East African Instruments with a hiphop funky vibe. Alsarah & the Nubatones were born out of many dinner conversations between alsarah and rami el aasser about nubian ‘songs of return’, modern migration patterns and the cultural exchanges between sudan and egypt. A common love for the richness of pentatonic sounds, and shared migration experiences, expanded the conversation to include armenian – american oud player haig manouki- an and french born togo raised bass player mawuena kodjovi. Under the leadership of alsarah, the brooklyn based group’s sound grew into what they have dubbed as ‘east – african retro-pop’. Pop because of the undeniably contemporary take she brings to the music. East African because of the Sudanese — and Egyptian and Kenyan — influences. She sings in Arabic and draws from the region’s instruments, melodies and rhythms, with a particular emphasis on her Nubian roots. Her look reflects this too — combining vintage dresses, cat-eye makeup and a sort of Afro-bouffant hairstyle with a distinctly modern, even punk, sensibility. But the sense of yearning, a kind of ache for places that no longer exist, is perhaps most clearly felt in Alsarah’s lyrics.
Take, for example, the song that remains in high rotation on AfroPop Radio “Ya Watan”… “Ya Watan means ‘Oh Homeland,’ ” Alsarah says. The chorus, she explains, translates as, “Where is the time? Where is the homeland? Angry with the years that stretch back and throw pain in its face.”
“For me it’s about issues in Sudan from the moment I left it and how that is still so relevant. It seems to be just ricocheting everywhere today. You know, I feel like I’m watching everyone go through what happened to Sudan in 1989. The collapse of government, the coups. It just feels like it never stops.”
The song is also about trying to make peace with what has happened. “It’s like a lament to a love lost — and accepting that love lost,” she says. “I think I’m trying to reconcile myself. Like how can I love being Sudanese and hate being Sudanese at the same time?”
Alsarah was born in Sudan to politically active parents. When she was still a child a coup forced the family to flee to Yemen. Then, after civil war broke out in Yemen, they had to flee again, this time to Amherst, Massachusetts — all by the time Alsarah was 12. But please, says the singer-songwriter, don’t pigeonhole her as some sort of “refugee artist.”
“I was a refugee coming in. I know what it feels like when you first land somewhere and you don’t have any of the resources, you don’t know the system,” she says. But she notes that this was a long time ago. “I’ve had all these other phases of identity happen since then.”
Well, Alsarah, we identify and we welcome you to @AfroPop Radio