Making East African Pop Feel at Home in Brooklyn
Alsarah and the Nubatones take Nubian “Songs of Return” in new directions influenced by the singer’s many moves
Don’t call Alsarah the princess of Nubian pop. That’s what The Guardian did in 2013, when it interviewed the Sudan-born, Yemen-raised, and Brooklyn-based East African retro pop singer. The publication lauded her “powerful voice and eclectic mix of north and east African tunes, as well as Arabic sounds and traditions.” Alsarah laughs when I mention the article.
“I don’t think I would consider myself the ‘new princess of Nubian pop,’ to be honest. I thought that was a little bit of an exaggeration,” she says. “While I appreciate the sense of drama around it—it really appeals to my sense of performance art—I definitely don’t consider myself that.”
More than a year after that interview, Alsarah and her band, The Nubatones, finally released their first album, Silt. The record received a favorable mention from NPR, particularly for its “deep rhythms, fluttering vocals, and serious grooves.” This past October, the band’s label released a remixed version of the record with cameos by Argentinian producer Chancha Via Circuito and Angolan producer DJeff. “Our album was very much a DIY project, because we kind of paid for it as went and we just stopped when we ran out of money,” says Alsarah. “It took three years.”
The album draws from the tradition of Nubian “Songs of Return,” a category of music that emerged after communities located along the Nile River were flooded and displaced en masse in the 1960s by the creation of the Aswan Dam. Nubia spans from Egypt to Sudan, but with the dam, large swathes of the region were submerged beneath an artificial body of water called Lake Nasser. Nubian “Songs of Return” are cultural expressions of remembrance and nostalgia for these lost lands—they profess sadness and regret over the mass displacement and resettlement of the Egyptian Nubians.
Certainly, much of Alsarah’s own life story is a narrative of displacement and migration. She was born in Sudan but her parents moved to Taiz, Yemen, in 1994 to escape the oppressive rule of President Omar al-Bashir. She was 12 when a civil war broke out in Yemen, and her parents moved once again to the United States, where Elgadi began singing in world music choirs. Although Elgadi has always been familiar with Sudanese tunes, she studied them formally and wrote her senior thesis on Sudanese Zār music at Wesleyan College. Now, the same themes of home and displacement that pervade the Sudanese musical canon feature heavily in Elgadi’s work.
“I’m very conscious of the movement of Nubian music and songs of return through time with the effects of, for example, the building of the dam,” says Elgadi. “That changed the soundscape of the music as people moved to different places and started making music with different kinds of people. Even the language of the music changes.”
But Alsarah takes issue with labeling her music as Nubian or Sudanese pop. Although much of it borrows from the genre of the “Songs of Return,” she says her music more closely resembles East African fare—“East African retro pop,” she calls it. It harkens back to a genre of music that was heard in many Sudanese and East African living rooms throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her music is only Sudanese insofar as she is a Sudanese herself. “That’s why I’m always protesting when people are like, ‘You’re a Nubian singer.’ I’m really not,” she says. “If I was a Nubian singer, I’d only sing Nubian songs. That would sound completely different than the rest of my repertoire.”
There are other labels, too, that draw Alsarah’s ire: “traditional,” for one. It’s a title, she says, that appears to be deployed in very specific contexts. “It’s a very Western-centered way of looking at things. When Janelle Monáe makes songs, she’s an R&B singer. She’s not a singer who’s making a take on a traditional form of American music,” she says.
Alsarah and The Nubatones are now based in Brooklyn, though they perform all over the world—this past summer, they played Egypt. But she says she has never felt at home anywhere as she does in Brooklyn, a borough that is thoroughly populated by people who’ve migrated from other places.
“Coming to Brooklyn has helped me embrace so much of being an immigrant and having roots somewhere and putting roots down elsewhere,” says Alsarah. “It’s a place where people have multiple homes.”