Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the US-based singer who is poised to bring Sudanese music to a wider audience (Photo: Maryam Parwana)
The US-based Sudanese singer Alsarah has more than just a powerful and engaging voice in her arsenal – she’s also an extremely well-spoken ethnomusicologist who knows her stuff.
Songlines first met Alsarah earlier this year as part of the Nile Project, which brought together musicians from Nile countries to address the cultural and environmental challenges of the Nile basin. Alsarah was a perfect fit for such a project. “In my shows I usually talk about the Nile, about water policy and the building of the dams, and how that really affects people and migration patterns.”
Migration is an important topic for Alsarah, who spent her childhood moving from place to place. Born in Khartoum, her family moved to Yemen eight years later to escape the political situation in Sudan and shortly after that to the US after civil war broke out in Yemen. “It came to the point where I felt like ‘immigrant’ was my number one identity… My entire adult experience is shaped by that, and so Nubian songs of return have always struck home with me.”
As well as the Nubian songs of return, Alsarah delves into the interesting world of Sudanese girls’ songs. She explains that the songs are “urban fusion music sung by women for women, about women’s issues. It’s considered lowbrow art in Sudan, but to me it’s the epitome of living folk music. The lyrics are forever changing and anyone has the right to adapt them. It’s an evolving urban folk culture, so that’s another genre that I love to draw from.”
Alsarah drew on this tradition for her latest project with French producer Débruit for the track ‘Jibal Alnuba’, a traditional medley of two girls’ songs. The track is part of their new album Aljawal, which allowed Alsarah to explore familiar territory: “The theme of the entire album is travelling – what it feels like to be a wanderer more than just a traveller. So a lot of the songs touch on that concept, from loving the freedom of being a wanderer to the nostalgia for home when you’ve been wandering for too long.”
‘Jibal Alnuba’ is the only traditional track, but the whole album sounds as if it could have been traditional Sudanese song set to a hip electronic soundscape. “I made a collage of traditional sounds for this album.” With a healthy respect for tradition filtered through a modern sensibility, Alsarah creates something fresh but timeless, which she calls ‘East African retro pop.’
“I had never heard of any Sudanese electronic club music that would be considered modern-day club music. I really wanted to create that and found my chance with Débruit.”