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Alsarah: The Sounds We Smuggle Inside Us

The lead singer of Alsarah & The Nubatones discusses her roots, music and her favorite childhood mixtape.

Charina Nadura Apr 27

Issue 235

When I first heard Alsarah’s voice on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” program, I was sold. Her soft but proud voice serenaded me in Arabic and I couldn’t care less that I didn’t understand the lyrics. Accompanied by a blend of electric and traditional African instruments like the oud and the goblet drum, Alsarah, also known as Sarah Mohamed Abunama-Elgadi, describes her sound as East-African retro pop.

At a time when immigrants are being vilified and scapegoated in Washington, the Sudanese-born Brooklynite proudly declares, “I am an immigrant, a self-identified one for life.” Her voice is all the more poignant given the turbulent times and, as I learned when we spoke this April, the turbulent past, it arises from.   

Charina Nadura: Alsarah, tell us about yourself. You’re from Yemen, but you were born in Sudan.

Alsarah: I was born in Khartoum. My parents were both grassroots activists. They did a lot of human rights and environmental rights work. They loved art and music. I grew up in a really educated and leftist household. There were curfews and on Thursday nights we would have these gatherings in the house with a lot of creative people. Then in 1989 the coup happened. And things got really tense for everybody in Khartoum, especially for people that were already politically active. My dad’s friends started to get arrested. So my mom got really concerned about our safety. She decided to move us to Yemen, which was wise because my dad was arrested shortly after that. He ended up sneaking out of Sudan about two years later to join us in Yemen.

It’s important for all of us to weave our story into the larger network.

And then there was a war in Yemen in 1994. They deported any foreign people working for foreign companies and NGOs like my mom. We ended up having to figure out where to go. We couldn’t go back to Sudan yet because things were still really crazy and that’s how we ended up in the United States.

How did that experience shape your worldview?

I am an immigrant, a self-identified one for life, but I’ve had my U.S. passport for many years now. I am a U.S. citizen, but the first question I still get asked is where’s your passport from. So this whole imaginary border crisis, I feel like it’s really important to talk to people, to bring forward the conversation of the fact that people move. It’s normal. It’s been happening forever. In fact, it is humanity’s first anti-poverty plan. You move somewhere else. Especially in America, being a place full of immigrants. To me, if you are not a person of the First Nations, you are a fucking immigrant.

The way we deal with borders now is really new, it’s no more than 200 years old. Before geographical things like a river was the end of your empire. A mountain was the natural border. And even then you crossed them as you pleased.

Borders are racist. Borders are a new form of colonization.

How did you feel when you learned Sudan was on Trump’s travel ban list last year?

The ban made me realize how important it was to do a lot of outreach work in the States and to start talking about being an immigrant really openly. There’s so many of us having these kinds of conversations. And it’s very healthy. You know, they always say, “Wherever there is poison, the medicine is right next to it.” I feel like that’s really what’s happening. There is a poison and not too far is the medicine.

Where does your interest in music stem from?

When I was a kid, my dad had this cassette tape that was made and recorded by this collective of writers, poets and musicians, and it was performed by a choir made up of singers from the Conservatoire of Music and the University of Khartoum. It was all anti-imperialist songs and know-your-rights songs. The tape wasn’t allowed to be in existence, so people were passing it around and I memorized that tape forward and backward.

How has your life experience of moving from Sudan to Yemen to the United States and settling in Brooklyn shaped your music?

It made me conscious of the fact that different peoples have different music very early on because I was literally moving from place to place listening to different music. And it made me think about certain questions. People would be like, “Who are you? Where are you from?” Normally a young child would not have to think, “Where am I from?”

Yemeni people wanted to know who I was. And moving to Yemen, it also made me realize immediately that I wasn’t an Arab because they did not consider me an Arab. It immediately made me the consciousness of the differences between Sudanese and Arabs — even though we speak the same language. I was confused because in Sudan I was Arab. Then, when I left Sudan, I wasn’t an Arab. “So what am I?” I wondered. The question started way early for me. I started listening to music looking for clues.

Tell me about your last album Manara.

Manara, which literally translates to “lighthouse” is about migration, movement and borders. Also, my personal story is part of it. Manara is a personal reflection about what it means to have a home, what is a home? Water is also a theme in the album because to me water is the oldest highway, it’s the oldest road and it’s still where a lot of us come for peace with ourselves.

You describe your music as East African retro pop. What does that mean?

I hate the term world music. I hate everything about it. So I refuse to have my music called just that. And when I was younger, I remember I used to read a lot of Audre Lorde’s work. She’s an amazing poet, philosopher and thinker — just a powerhouse overall. She had written something really interesting about the importance of self-defining and self-labeling. For her, the idea is, “If I don’t correctly label myself, I’m leaving myself at the mercy of somebody else to label me for me.”

That really struck me. If I deny myself the three-dimensional frame that I want, I am just going to end up being flattened out and pressed into something that I am not. I draw from a lot of East African sounds for inspiration. I’m a huge fan of Taarab sounds from Zanzibar and from Kenya. I’m a fan of Ethiopian traditional music, of Sudanese music, of Somali music. The way I reflect Sudanese and Nubian music is through a Pan-East African lens. That’s why I picked up that label. And my music is retro pop. It’s not traditional.

Your songs are all in Arabic. Do you feel it is important to sing in your native language?

Language is personality, it reflects certain traits in people. It shapes the way we sing even. I like it that my music is in Arabic because then I can send it to my aunts in Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

What role do you see music playing in shaping our society today?

It’s important for all of us to weave our story into the larger network. In a very honest way. And when you do that you give people the space to learn from your story so maybe they don’t have to go through the same thing or if they’re going through the same thing it helps them through it. But more than anything it’s a way to make sure that you feel remembered. It’s like as soon as you feel you’re remembered and you’re present and you are here, it immediately makes you feel like a part of something bigger and it makes you want to give back because you feel a collective responsibility.

This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

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Illustration by Lynne Foster.