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Lotus artists 2016: Alsarah's futuristic Sudanese sound

Her band the Nubatones plays Saturday at the Fest

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Lotus artists 2016: Alsarah's futuristic Sudanese sound

Alsarah and The Nubatones


For the last 23 years the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival has brought some of the greatest musicians in the world to Bloomington, Indiana for an unforgettable weekend of musical performance. This year’s Lotus Fest artist roster is overflowing with incredible talent, making the Lotus 2016 line-up one of the strongest yet. If you’ve never attended Lotus Fest, this year’s edition is a perfect introduction.

I spoke with four of this year’s Lotus performers to give NUVO readers a taste of what’s in store September 15-18 at this year’s Lotus Fest.

Sudanese singer-songwriter Alsarah released her debut LP Aljawal in 2013. Produced in collaboration with the surrealist French beat-maker Debruit, Aljawal offered listeners an exciting audio journey into a futurist landscape of Sudanese sound.

Alsarah followed Aljawal with Silt, an earthy collection of songs focusing on traditional Sudanese sounds.

I recently caught up with Alsarah via phone to discuss her brilliantly unique approach to creating a futuristic East African sound that firmly embraces the traditions of the past.

NUVO: You moved to the United States from Khartoum at age 12. How were you able to maintain a link with Sudanese music while growing up in the U.S.?

Alsarah: At first through my parents mostly. Once Youtube came about I sort of aggressively sough it out on my own. For the first nine years in America I was mostly able to maintain my link with Sudan through the music actually. While we were going through our migration and getting our paperwork together, we couldn't leave the United States.

NUVO: I first heard about you when the album Aljawal was released in 2013. That project was a collaboration between you and the French electronic music producer Debruit. Aljawal strikes me as a very experimental exploration of Sudanese music. I’m curious how the project came together. 

Alsarah: I was always a fan of Debruit's music. In my opinion he's a really brilliant composer and producer. I just randomly reached out to him through the Internet. I had just started my project with the Nubatones and we had only recorded one song. I sent that song to him and said “I’m really interested in working with you, I think we could do something really unique together with Sudanese music.” In my head I thought maybe we would make one song — if he even called me back.

I was really happy that he actually reached out to me. He was really interested in the music and on while I was on tour in Pakistan I ended up meeting with him in Brussels on my way back to the U.S. We rented a house and banged out the project over a period of two weeks. He worked on it for another year after I left and then we put it out. It was just one of those random moments.


NUVO: I love the Aljawal album and I also love Silt, your 2014 debut LP with the Nubatones. I was a bit surprised when I first heard Silt, as the sound is far more traditional than Aljawal. Tell me about the transition in your sound between those two LPs?

Alsarah: Silt for me was really important to make. Interestingly enough I started working on it around the same time I started the Aljawal project with Debruit. They happened simultaneously but were released a year apart.

Silt was independently produced by myself, so it was kind of difficult to fund in the beginning. For me making Silt was just as important as making Aljawal. It was really important for me to establish the roots from where I come. For me, I don't see a difference between traditional music and pop or contemporary music. To me they're all extensions of the same thing. I think of music in general as a circle with all these things being different points within the circle.

Working [on] Silt was very natural. It was about setting the grounding and foundation for where I come from musically and all the things I love about that sounds. Which, for me, were the rocking parts of it, as well as the traditional sounds in it.

The album was about 50 percent original songs and 50 percent traditional songs with our own arrangements. For me it was about making an album from which I could jumpstart my own sound. Because I was working on a really local level, I never thought it would go beyond the boundaries of New York when I made it.

NUVO: You just released the first single “Ya Watan” from your upcoming album Manara with the Nubatones. Sonically, “Ya Watan” sounds like you’ve found the meeting point between the diverse sounds heard on Aljawal and Silt.

Alsarah: Like I said I made Silt so I could make the second album Manara. For me it's been about the real blending of all the different sounds in my brain. I'm a global child, I've moved around my whole life. My brain has all these sounds in it, which are all parts of my soundtrack. I actually think the synthesizers and keys we added are very retro, they're very retro synth sounds.

NUVO: In addition to your amazing solo work, you’ve also been a part of the fascinating music collective known as the Nile Project, which has brought together a diverse group of musicians from across East Africa. Tell us about your work with the Nile Project.

Alsarah: Doing the Nile Project was really exciting for me as a musician from East Africa woking in the diaspora, and living in the diaspora, and being part of the diaspora. One of the biggest challenges for me as a musician has always been getting access to other East African musicians and working with with them and having access to my own community.

A lot of the issues that Africa in general is going through, East Africa specifically, is much more than just politics. The political things are happening because of geographical reasons, cultural reasons, environmental reasons - there's a lot going on. The Nile Project as an idea was about addressing all those issues. So I was really excited to join them on the couple tours I did with them back in the day.

Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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