Alsarah: Sudani Soul Singer

Alsarah. Photo by Carlos Ramirez
When one mentions Sudan, many things come to mind: a decades long civil war, the genocide in Darfur, and most recently, the South becoming independent from the North to form its own nation. But amongst all the trial and triumph the region has seen, Sudan has always been a place that brings forth incredible music. From the traditional sounds unique to various regions to more contemporary popular songs, Sudan's musical legacy is one of diversity and depth. And from that rich tradition comes Alsarah, a contemporary soul singer whose music is steeped in the traditional sounds of Sudan and influenced by music from various regions of Africa, the Middle East, and the United States.

Born in Sudan's capital city of Khartoum, Alsarah and her family left Sudan when she was 8 years old, and then spent 4 years in Yemen before coming to the United States in 1994. Alsarah began her musical training at age 12, and attended the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School in Massachusetts before going on to earn a degree in Music from Wesleyan University with a concentration in Ethnomusicology.

Alsarah and the Nubatones. Photo by Carlos Ramirez
Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Alsarah is a rising star on the world music scene. She sings with Sounds of Taraab, a band playing the traditional music of the Swahili people from Africa's eastern coastline. Taraab is a blend of African, Indian, and Arabic musical styles.

Then there's Alsarah and the Nubatones, a band that blends "a selection of Nubian 'songs of return' from the 1970s through today with original material and traditional music of central Sudan."

Alsarah has also been involved in Sudan's struggle for free and fair elections, lending her creative talents to the cause with the single "Vote" featuring Sudanese hip hop artist Oddisee. The single was released as the Sudanese people took to the polls to vote for Southern Sudan's independence from Northern Sudan.

Recently, I asked Alsarah about the secession and what she hoped it would mean for Sudan, and about how her music and message is received there.

July 9th 2011 is the historic day when South Sudan gains independence from the North. What do you hope this event will mean for the Sudanese people? What changes would you like to see occur in both the North and South?

I'm so happy for South Sudan, this marks a really momentous occasion for them. I wish them nothing but prosperity and hope we can all work towards a Pan African vision of subsaharan Africa especially. I hope
this also marks a radical change for the North with a democratic and fair election in the not too distant future. The current regime is nothing but an oppressive machine perpetuating hate in its wake, depleting the already drained resources of the country and pouring it into their private bank accounts in Switzerland. Talk about babylon...

You are considered a somewhat controversial artist in Sudan. Why is that? How do you feel about it?

Am I controversial? I have to confess that I don't actually consider myself to be radical in any way shape or form. I'm just stating the obvious as far as i'm concerned and echoing what many other Sudanese activists and citizens are saying too. Many of my songs are about love and about being open to it regardless of ethnic or religious difference. In Sudan these days even that is controversial if i don't present it with a hijab over my head and a sense of coyful shyness for being born a woman that apparently should be an inherent part of my
gender role. I think the reason most people in Sudan think I'm controversial is because I won't present myself in the mainstream way, and that is confusing in any society I suppose. But in Sudan when you do that people are quick to try and say you can't possibly be would be amazed how many people from Sudan try to pretend i'm from somewhere else (Ethiopia is a popular choice, Uganda I've heard too)

Photo by Carlos Ramirez
What's next for you creatively? What projects are you currently working on?

Creatively this is a very exciting year for me. I'm sowing the seeds for a lot of new things I hope to come out early next year. I'm working towards creating an English language recording project with an amazing singer/songwriter and producer, Toshi Reagon. I think this will be a really exciting step for me artistically, allowing me to show a new depth of my work that I don't get to share very often. It will mark a new beginning for me. I'm also setting the ground work for a recording project with my current band The Nubatones with whom I'm having so much fun on stage these days.

Alsarah's live performances are electric, so if you have the chance to catch this woman on stage, don't miss it. Alsarah will be performing at the 7th Annual Arab American Heritage Park Festival at Prospect Park in Brooklyn on July 17th, and Alsarah and the Nubatones will perform at the 17th Annual Arab Cultural Festival in San Francisco's Union Square on October 1st. For more on Alsarah, please visit her website.