Traveling through Modern African Sounds: Silt by Alsarah and the Nubatones

By Daniel Garrett

Alsarah and the Nubatones, Silt
Executive Producer Alsarah
Wonderwheel Recordings, 2014

“Traveling is one of the most inspiring experiences for me, and so to have been able to travel all over north and east Africa so much recently has been like a blast of fresh air. The best part about being an immigrant (which I consider myself still) is going home and seeing it with an outsider/insider eye… it teaches you more about yourself and your assumptions of who and what your people are, than anything else possibly could,” said the marvelous Alsarah to Addis Rumble’s writers Andreas Hansen and Karen Obling for the newspaper The Guardian/Guardian African Network (September 24, 2013). The Sudanese singer-songwriter, bandleader, and producer Alsarah has lived in Yemen and America (Brooklyn); and she is a modern woman bringing Nubian music something special. Feminism? Soul? A history of diverse traditions? All of that and more.

On the great album Silt that bears the music of Alsarah and her band the Nubatones, a band featuring percussionist Rami El Aasser, oud player Haig Manoukian and bassist Mawuena Kodjovi, “Habibi Taal” has a gorgeously taut rhythm that somehow soothes. An eastern dance sound with a strong woman’s lead voice and a chorus, “Soukura (It’s Late)” contains a music break and a shift then returns to its original sound before quickening. Alsarah has an attractive, strong, unique voice, powerfully expressive in “Nuba Noutou.” After the “Oud Solo,” Alsarah is joined by a male voice on the longish “Bilad Al Dahb,” a somewhat downbeat spare song with its own vivid quality. The rhythm is sustaining.

Alsarah was born in Khartoum, the central city of Sudan, a dry, hot place, a land of petroleum, iron, and gold, a troubled land; and it is a wonder to have and hear music inspired by that war-torn country, which has been brutally contentious for much of its existence—civil wars of region, religion, ethnicity, money, and power, finally leading to a break between north and south. It remains a location of great violence. Yet, Alsarah sees hope in culture but she is not encouraging a static view of culture, but a dynamic, evolving view, one that accepts the better possibilities of modern life.

Alsarah is not alone in that ambition, though it can be a contested ambition: some people like the old stories and the old ways and fear change. They dream of a return to an ideal past that never existed and cannot exist, human nature being what it is. Modernity is a more plausible hope. “We should be able to advance modernity as an idea and movement with some unity in spite of the multiple voices that have shaped it over time,” Olufemi Taiwo writes in his manifesto Africa Must Be Modern (Indiana University Press, 2014; page 32). The Nigerian intellectual Olufemi Taiwo makes an argument on behalf of a society of knowledge and law; of ethics, logic, science, and individuality; of personal fulfillment and public purpose. That is the work of nations and of individuals. It is the work of culture—and of musicians such as Alsarah, who are likely to be more accepting of her opponents than they may be of her. “We do not respect individuals because we love their choices or agree with them or even find them agreeable in the least. Indeed we are required to respect them more so when we hate their choices and are repulsed by who they are or what they do. Respecting them for their sheer membership of the human species is what marks the modern age,” said Taiwo (page 46). Olufemi Taiwo went on to say, “What does it mean to free the mind and cultivate it? In liberal education, the recipients are put through their paces by being exposed to the best and finest that the human mind has produced through the history of human civilization” (page 86).

“I sing about migration, voluntary and forced, I sing about people the world likes to ignore except when speaking of them in the past, and I sing about what it means to yearn for home. I also sing about survival and love and joy, which is how people continue despite policies that change the course of their existence,” Alsarah told The Guardian in September 2013. On her album Silt, “Fugu (Shams Alhurria)” is thundering; and “”Rennat” is dramatic, moody. Performed with Sounds of Taraab, “Wad Alnuba” has a large sound, and is wonderfully arranged. There is more great rhythm and singing in “Yanas Baridou,” with a varied structure as the song stretches out, with appealing, dynamic string work. The drum solo “Nuba Drums,” a short piece, has a rich sound; but there is a choral sound and full arrangement on the closing “Jibal Alnuba,” and, as before, the music is dense, rhythmic, intense.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.