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The music of Alsarah & the Nubatones transcends borders, cultures

The band that’s heading to Chicago for two performances at the World Music Festival came together out of a collective love for Nubian ‘songs of return’ and the traditional music of central Sudan.

Alsarah — who fronts Alsarah & the Nubatones — draws heavily on the music of East Africa, especially from the retro-pop era of the 1960s and 1970s.
Alsarah — who fronts Alsarah & the Nubatones — draws heavily on the music of East Africa, especially from the retro-pop era of the 1960s and 1970s.
©Nousha Salimi

From a young age, Alsarah, who fronts the Brooklyn group Alsarah & the Nubatones, found refuge in music.

She was born in Khartoum, Sudan, where her parents were academics and activists. During the country’s 1989 coup, the family fled to Yemen. It was a short stay. When civil war broke out there, they fled again, landing in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Alsarah was 12 when she found herself in this very foreign, largely white, rural countryside.

“I spent a lot of time living in my own head,” she says. “Music quickly became an escape. It became my way of going home.”

Now, years later, the 37-year-old singer, songwriter, bandleader and ethnomusicologist (she has a degree from Wesleyan University) has forged a career with ties to her background, bringing a fresh sound to world music.

Alsarah & the Nubatones came together out of a love for Nubian “songs of return” and the traditional music of central Sudan. The music also draws from other sounds of East Africa, especially from the retro-pop era of the 1960s and 1970s.

“That was the inspiration of the project when we first came together,” Alsarah says. “Really focusing on the idea of internal diasporas and external diasporas and where culture meets and documents all of those. And then being immigrants and diaspora kids we quickly started to write our own original music.”

Besides Alsarah on lead vocals, the Nubatones are Nahid (keys), Rami El Aasser (percussion), Brandon Terzic (oud) and Mawuena Kodjovi (bass, trumpet).

“We are deeper into our sound than ever, really exploring it and not being afraid of it. We are trying to be brave about the direction we want it to take,” Alsarah says of Alsarah & The Nubatones.
“We are deeper into our sound than ever, really exploring it and not being afraid of it,” Alsarah says of Alsarah & The Nubatones.
©Nousha Salimi

The band’s most recent album, 2016’s “Manara,” which translates to “lighthouse” and deals with the emotional impact of leaving home, was a result of a residency in Morocco, according to Alsarah, who sings in Arabic. The band had been touring in Europe at the beginning of the European refugee crisis.

“I could easily have been that person on that boat,” Alsarah says. “ ‘Manara’ was the soothing soundtrack I wanted for that movement.”

The band is working on its third album, featuring songs inspired by the revolution in Sudan that began last December and ousted ruler Omar al-Bashir in April. While the military and pro-democracy movement have been maneuvering for power, Alsarah sees hope that a door has cracked open.

“Seeing this happen on such a big level has really reaffirmed for me the idea of the global tribe,” she says. “We are deeper into our sound than ever, really exploring it and not being afraid of it.”

Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited will play at 9 p.m. Sept. 28 at Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited will play at 9 p.m. Sept. 28 at Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave.
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OTHER ACTS

Some other highlights of acts who are performing at the World Music Festival Sept. 13-29. Performances are free and take place at venues around the city. For a complete schedule, go to worldmusicfestivalchicago.org.

  • Ragamala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music6 p.m. Friday-8 a.m. Saturday, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. The festival begins with its customary all-nighter under the Tiffany dome, focusing on the beauty and power of Indian ragas.
  • ¡SÚBELO! — A Celebration of Pan Latin Music and Culture — 3 p.m. Saturday, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. Puerto Rico’s Pirulo y La Tribu combines Nuyorican salsa, Afro-Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba; Centavrvs’ “electronica regional Mexicana” has made it one of the most popular indie bands from Mexico City; and Los Wembler’s de Iquitos are cumbia pioneers from Iquitos, Peru.
  • Lucibela — 7 p.m. Saturday, The Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. Cape Verdean music is a beautiful thing. With her enchanting, effortless vocals, Lucibela carries on this tradition, filling some of the void left by the 2011 death of the great Cesaria Evora.
  • MABANG!5 p.m. Sept. 20, Ping Tom Memorial Park, 1700 S. Wentworth Ave.; 7 p.m. Sept. 21, DePaul University Holtschneider Performance Center, 2330 N. Halsted St. MABANG! blends folk and traditional music from southern China with rock, reggae and ska, with a wide variety of Chinese and Western instruments, ethnic singing styles and vocal harmonies.
  • Lankum — 7 p.m. Sept. 20, Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave. This Irish quartet that’s been called “Dublin folk miscreants,” performs murder ballads, drinking songs and poetic originals about the world’s social ills. It’s potent music with a lasting effect.
  • KOKOKO!9 p.m. Sept. 21, Chop Shop, 2033 W. North Ave.; 2 p.m. Sept. 22, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento Ave. The members of this collective from Niger are fans of electronic music. Unable to get their hands on the proper instruments, they create their own from the junk they find in the street, creating explosive dance music.
  • Gamelan Cudamani6 p.m. Sept. 27, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St. One of Bali’s most respected ensembles, Gamelan Cudamani performs a diverse repertoire of music and dance with astonishing technical precision.
  • Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited — 9 p.m. Sept. 28, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave. One of the best-known artists in world music, Thomas Mapfumo in known as “The Lion of Zimbabwe” and has championed African culture and causes. He is a legend.

Mary Houlihan is a freelance writer.