By: BILL ODIDI
A unique musical experience is coming to Nairobi this weekend during a concert by a Sudanese singer and songwriter who performs Nubian music combined with a range of contemporary influences.
Born in Khartoum, Sudan, Alsarah relocated with her family to Yemen at the age of eight before moving to the US in 1994. She began music by taking piano lessons as a child, joined a choir and eventually studied ethnomusicology at university.
She has been part of the Nile Project, which brings together artistes from 11 countries to make music that combines the region’s diverse instruments and languages. In 2013, she spent a two-week residency in Aswan, Egypt with other musicians in the project followed by another fortnight of performances around Egypt.
Her song “Salam Nubia” from the album “Aswan” named after the city where the live sessions were recorded was positively reviewed by world music publications like Songlines.
That same year, she travelled to Mogadishu and performed at the Somali Sunrise Concert Tour, the first music festival in that country since the conflict began in 1990. Alsarah released her debut album “Silt” with the band the Nubatones in 2014 with all the songs solely produced by her.
The idea for the band came from conversations between Alsarah and percussionist Rami El Asser about Nubian ‘Songs of return.’
These are songs that sprung up after mass displacement and resettlement of hundreds of thousands in a region of lower Nubia. This region went under water after Egypt built Aswan High Dam to control the flooding of the River Nile in 1970.
Armenian-American oud player Haig Manouki-An and Mawuena Kodjovi, a bass player born in France but raised in Togo were roped in to join the group.
“I sing about migration, voluntary and forced, I sing about people the world likes to ignore except when speaking of them in the past, and I sing about what it means to yearn for home,” Alsarah told the Addis Rumble publication in 2013.
In their concerts, the group talks about Nubian music before and after the construction of the High Dam and the effects of geographical and political changes on the music.
The group’s sound grew into what they call ‘East-African retro-pop’ a sound that is a throw back to the hazy sounds of 1960s and 70s Nubian music with its Eastern instrumentation, soaring vocal melodies, and pentatonic arrangements. Yet the music is truly funky and contemporary with elements of funk and jazz as you can hear on songs like “Soukara” (Its late).
According to Alsarah, Nubian music is distinguished by the rhythms, the frame drums and the metaphors used when singing in Arabic.
She draws inspiration from other Nubian musicians like the Egyptian “father of Nubian music” Hamza el Din and legendary oud player and singer Ahmed Munib. Other influential singers are Sudanese musicians like Abdel Gadir Salim, Rasha, Gisma and Nur Al Jilani.
“Silt” has received plenty of international acclaim in the world music circles. A second album containing remixed versions of the songs on “Silt” was also released last year after the group worked with producers from Argentina, Angola, Central African Republic and Cape Verde to add a global edge to the music.
The current tour to promote the album in different parts of the world has taken them to concerts in Hungary, Portugal, France, UAE, Morocco, Egypt, Sweden and Lithuania.
With such an extensive touring and music-writing schedule for the next two months, the band is using Cairo as their base for the tour.
This is the first time Alsarah is here with the Nubatones though she has been to Kenya on previous occasions and says she looks forward to appearing before the “amazing crowd” in Nairobi.
In 2013, she performed at the Blankets and Wine festival and in 2014 she was here with the Nile Project at the Safaricom Jazz festival. She says that whenever she performs in Africa then people instantly connect with the music and the overall sound even if they have never heard music from Sudan before.
Nairobi-based group Afro Simba Band who performed with Alsarah during her visit to the city in 2013 will be the opening act at this Sunday’s show.
The group that plays a lively fusion of jazz with Mijikenda cultural music will be performing songs from their upcoming album “Pandizo.”
A new band Yellow Light Machine will also showcase their music that is a wide mix of Jazz, Neo-Soul, and Rumba.
The concert takes place at Alliance Francaise on August 2 at 7pm and advance tickets are on sale at the venue for Sh1,500 and Sh2,000 at the door.
This article was first published in the Business Daily.