Former Giant Step staff member and singer Alsarah has gone on do some amazing things; Constantly on the go internationally and within Brooklyn, she’s enamored dozens of audiences with her vibrant music and dynamic stage presence. While her influences clearly draw from her Sudanese heritage, the frequent experimenter’s sound knows no bounds. Last month she released Silt, the debut album for her group, Alsarah & The Nubatones. Get a look into the rising star’s mind and what lies ahead in this exclusive interview!
Giant Step: What was the driving force behind you creating Silt? Where would you want it to reside in the greater musical dialogue?
Alsarah: I wanted to make an album that spoke to my experience as a musician. Something that both spoke to my roots as well as my present. I see it as being a part of the greater East African musical dialogue. A dialogue that I think needs to be heard internationally and not just in the region.
GS: Since many of your listeners may not speak Arabic, could you give us a rundown of some of the focal topics on Silt?
A: The over-arching common theme in this album is migration/immigration, and while that is never overtly addressed in a didactic sense, it is the common denominator. It is addressed directly sometimes in songs like “Bilad Aldahb” (The Land of Gold), which is part of the Nubian Songs of Return genre written by Ahmed Mounib. This song speaks of a nubian person’s longing for their home by the banks of the nile and their deep sense of loss with a repeating chorus that states “I am a human, and my address is the land of gold”. We also touch on it indirectly sometimes with songs like “Soukura (It’s Late)”, an original composition by myself arranged by The Nubatones that speaks of ‘secrets untold that must melt and pour out someday’. But we also flirt with the idea of this topic thru traditional girls music like the opening track “Habibi Taal” (my love come here) where a woman sings to her lover to come and be with her across all distances and different lands. Also, I’m working on a PDF of translations for all the lyrics of the songs that I plan on putting up on my website soon!
GS: How does being an ethnomusicologist inform your music making?
A: Well, I think the biggest thing is it put all my music in a larger historical context and allowed me to see myself as part of a larger story of music culture. It also helps me understand how the western world views the idea of ‘ethnic’ music and all the trappings that come with that gaze i.e. preserving traditional music in its purest format; what is authentic enough and why, etc. Once you see yourself as part of a living tradition but not its sole keeper, you are free to create new work within that tradition as opposed to just being a slave to the idea of preserving it.
GS: We had the pleasure of having you at Giant Step for a few years. How do your experiences working on the business side of music influence your approach to the music industry?
A: Honestly, it was one of the most valuable experiences I could ever have as a musician. Nothing can make you understand how the business works quite like being on the industry side of things. What’s really important and what’s not, the types of traps to avoid, who to trust or not and how to make that judgement call. All of that is nothing anyone teaches you as a musician; you are supposed to just learn it by trial and error, but working at GS for a few years has helped me avoid some serious mistakes so far.
GS: In your opinion, what qualities make certain music timeless?
A: I think music that communicates a past present and future is timeless music. And the most beautiful part of those qualities is the diverse array of ways to communicate them.
GS: As someone that seems to deeply enjoy experimentation and exploration, you’ve worked on an array of projects over time, including your recent release with Debruit. What’s next on the horizon for you?
A: There is lots brewing right now, so its an exciting time. I’m finishing up projects that were already started and starting new ones. Debruit and I are going on our first tour together in June around Europe and trying to plan an August tour in North America already. I’m working as the music producer on a documentary about war, music and identity in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions of Sudan where I traveled last year. We should have ready for release by the end of the summer. I’m also working with a few other producers and musicians making songs here and there that will be trickling out over the next few months. Another exciting project for me is working with folk musician Toshi Reagon on a new body of songs I’ve been writing but that’s still a long way from done, so we won’t talk about it now