Sudan-Born Songstress Explores Intersection of Culture, Migration, and Music

Dec 10, 2018

Alsarah & The Nubatones perform at an impromptu kani ka pila (jam session) in Palolo.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Sudanese singer Alsarah is known for her powerful voice and eclectic mix of what she calls “East African retro pop.” She and her Brooklyn-based band The Nubatones are in Honolulu for a week-long residency at Shangri La. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

Singer, songwriter, and ethnomusicologist Alsarah was born in Sudan to politically active parents. After a coup, her family was forced to flee to Yemen. Then when civil war broke out, they fled to the United States. Many of her songs are reflections of identity and survival.

Alsarah (front) and the Nubatones. From left to right, French-born Togo-raised bass player, Mawuena Kodjovi; oudist Brandon Terzic; vocalist Nahid; and doumbek player Rami El Aasser.
Credit Alsarah & The Nubatones

“Well you know as a Sudanese person, we grapple with our own…with our own identity issues, in terms of how we want, you know how we’re trying to represent and how that’s presented a real crisis for my people and my community. We’ve been basically in one civil war after another since our independence from colonization because we try to colonize our minds with this concept of what we’re supposed to be like, right?” says Alsarah, “So leaving that and becoming an immigrant in another space, and really looking at your identity from an outside perspective gives you the tools to be able to look at all places from like a big bird eye view.”

Alsarah now calls Brooklyn home. She and her band The Nubatones will be the first interisland Artist in Residence for the Shangri La Center for Islamic Art, Culture and Design. The band will perform and meet with groups on Oʻahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island over the next week.

Alsarah looks on as local musicians jam with her band the Nubatones at an impromptu kani ka pila in Palolo.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“We’re trying to redefine as many different narratives as we can,” says Asad Ali Jafri is the Curator of Programs at Shangri La, “I think these ideas of borders, and migrations and music and stories are something we can all relate to and this is why I think it’s important to have them here right now and for us all to have kind of have these conversations at the same time.”

Liberia-born singer and Hawai'i resident Kahnma shares her talents with Alsarah at the kani ka pila gathering.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

This is Alsarah’s first visit to Hawai’i. Jafri teamed up with the local non-profit organization The Pōpolo Project to host a kanikapila with local musicians and community members in Pālolo.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have Alsarah and her band here because um this also gives us another window into the rest of the world,” says Akiemi Glenn, Executive Director of The Pōpolo Project, “For a lot of black people a lot of our history is a history of movement and being connected in that movement, having roots as we move and being able to share our art and culture with people around the world. What do we do in Hawaiʻi that makes us feel like we’re connected? Especially this time of year. We kani ka pila (informal jam session).”

A captivated audience rise to their feet to dance at the kani ka pila gathering.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“It was the most spectacular, progressive gathering of people willing to explore the colonization of their mind and then willing to break through that to take on new concepts and embrace all the stories of blackness throughout the seas,” says Alsarah, “Oh my god.”

Alsarah & The Nubatones perform tonight at the Blue Note Hawaiʻi at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. They will also be perofrming on Maui this Thursday, December 13, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center; and on Hawaiʻi Island on Friday, December 14, 2018, at 7:00 p.m. at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea. For tickets and more information, visit ShangriLaHawaii.org