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Alsarah tells of inspiration, stories behind her songs

Alsarah tells of inspiration, stories behind her songs

Set for GE Theatre performance with band the Nubatones
Alsarah tells of inspiration, stories behind her songs
Alsarah & the Nubatones.
Photographer: Provided

East-African retro-pop is slate to take over Proctors' GE Theater on Thursday. 

However, that description covers only a fraction of the music Alsarah & the Nubatones bring to the stage.

RELATED: More on Alsarah & the Nubatones

The Brooklyn-based band is led by the self-described, somewhat reluctant ethnomusicologist Alsarah. Here, she talks music, growing up as an immigrant, and what she has in store for the show at Proctors. 

Question: How long have you been singing and writing music? What got you started?

Answer: Music was always there for me. I have early memories of sneaking away with my mom somewhere and listening to tapes. I got a keyboard when I was 8 and when we moved to the States when I was 11 or 12, I joined a choir. That was when my interest really took on a manifestation. I finally had music lessons for the first time ever. So the choir was my first music experience with other human beings outside of my bedroom. But I didn’t actually consider being a musician, to be honest, until I graduated from university. 

Q: Why not?

A: Because I’m an immigrant. The conversations for us were always “you have to go to university so that you can get a job and not struggle.” We struggled when we first came here and my parents are very smart and very open. So when we first moved here they decided to both go back to graduate school, so we actually ended up all graduating from college at the same time. They had their Ph.D.’s and I got my BA. [My parents] are both academics, they’re actually both activists, which I think is why people confuse me for an activist. I was raised by two very devoted grassroots activists. I grew up in that world and I remember leaving the activist world, consciously actually, at the age of 20 because I wasn’t interested in political change [in] a systemic way. I’m much more interested in human change. 

Q: Do you feel like you’re able to stay rooted to your background through music?

A: I think for me music was always like a refuge, a place to feel complete and to feel whole, to feel like I didn’t have to explain myself and explore the world. My interest in music . . . in the beginning it was more an overall interest in ‘how do you manifest culture in sound?’ That was how I approached music. I knew that people were leaving prints of who they are in music, but I didn’t understand how they did it or why. So at first I was really interested in every kind of traditional music from around the world, so I ended up going to school for ethnomusicology to really understand the concept of the anthropology of sound. As I came into [performing/writing] music, I did a lot of projects that no one ever knew about that failed in the beginning when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up starting my own band because I realized that I wanted to hear some sounds that I wasn’t hearing anymore. I knew that in order for me to explain myself best it needs to be my own voice, not other people’s songs. 

Q: When you first started playing [with the Nubatones] in New York, how did the audiences react?

A: Our first show was this place called Alwan For the Arts. It’s this non-profit venue and we played with another band I was singing with called The Sounds of Taarab, where we did cover songs from the ‘60s through the ‘80s from Zanzibar and the Eastern Coast of Kenya. I wanted to debut my new band on that night, so that was our very first show. I remember the people there not really knowing what it is we were doing. [They were] like “What is this band? Are you Sudanese?” And we were like “It’s more like songs of return, you know? Half Sudan, half Egypt, but we’re really kind of drawing some things from East Africa.” The nuances of trying to explain to people what diasporic music sounds like; I was born Sudanese I’m going to die Sudanese but I’ve been to a lot of places in between.

Q: Do you often pick up musical inspiration from the places you [tour or visit]?

A: Yeah, I’m still doing a lot of touring, thank God. I’m always trying to learn something new and I always say that if you’re not [learning] from people and from things around you, you might as well be dead already. I don’t think there’s any place I shouldn’t draw music from because music is a circle, not a line and everything can fit inside. I’ve always believed that tradition is based on the concept of fusion. The concept of fusion becomes this dirty word in today’s world because, well, honestly because most people are ignorant. The biggest difference between appreciation and appropriation is knowledge; knowing who you’re taking things from and why and being appreciative of that. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by something else and appreciating something else. There is, however, something wrong with mashing everything together without any real knowledge of where it comes from. 

Q: A lot of your songs have really interesting stories behind them. What’s one story you might not have time to share with the audience at Proctors?

A: There’s this song called “Alforag,” that’s off of the new album. “Alforag” means the parting or the separating. I’ve always contemplated about the idea of missing because it’s something that I deal with all the time. I realized that missing is actually like a multi-dimensional space and the longer you’re away from home, you start to realize there are different phases [of missing]. There’s the first phase of missing something or somebody and you miss so much you think your being couldn’t possibly contain this amount of missing. The second phase of missing is when you become accustomed to the missing and it becomes almost normal. Then the missing becomes so banal and normal that it’s almost something you forget. You become afraid of losing the memory of missing. Once you lose that memory, it’s gone forever and [then] it’s truly gone because now you’ve changed forever. That was the headspace around that song and I don’t always say it because sometimes it feels too intimate to talk like that to people. 

Q: What can people expect to hear at Thursday’s show?

A: We’re going to be playing a mix of our favorites. From the first album, we’ll definitely be playing “Habibi Taal” and “Soukura” and from the second album we’re definitely going to be playing “Fulani” and “Salam Nubia” and “3yan T3ban.” 

Alsarah & the Nubatones

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 30
WHERE: GE Theatre, Proctors 
MORE INFO: proctors.org

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