SUDAN/USA: Manara - Alsarah and The Nubatones
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Alsarah guides her listeners down a stream of emotion-filled waters
Once again on Around The World In 200 Albums we find ourselves not only exploring the music of a new nation, but also learning about the culture, as well as the plight, of another minority group. This review presents an apt opportunity to find out about the Nubian people. The Nubians play a crucial role in our knowledge of human history, as they are thought of as one of the first cradles of civilization. This is because they are believed to originate from the earliest inhabitants of the River Nile valley. The Nile is integral to our understanding of their culture, and thus the music of Alsarah and The Nubatones.
“Alsarah’s voice perhaps could be equated to the river itself as it often flows beautifully, filling those listening with hope and energy.”
Before we get into more detail about the Nubian people, it is important to note why Alsarah’s music is particularly shaped by the complicated political and artistic region of Sudan that she hails from. Alsarah herself is not only a singer blessed with a particularly unique voice, she also is an ethnomusicologist, whose childhood was somewhat shaped by the challenges of life in Sudan. What’s more, Alsarah, as well as her sister, Nahid, who provides luscious backing vocals on the album, seem to have inherited the desire to speak out against injustice from their parents, who were human rights activists. At the age of eight, Alsarah had to flee to Yemen during the 1989 coup by future president and dictator Omar al-Bashir to avoid being killed as dissidents, before then fleeing Yemen to the United States due to the 1994 civil war.
Bashir repeatedly crops up as a source of constant fear experienced by the Nubian people in their recent history, as his regime wished to build a dam which would flood all the Nubian villages. Not only would this mean losing their homes and livelihood, which are almost entirely dependent on the agricultural possibilities that the water source brings that enables the Nubians to cultivate a wide-range of produce, but would risk the total destruction of their culture which is so entrenched with the land they have harvested and protected for a vast amount of time. The recently overthrown Bashir’s plans would have triggered the second displacement of the Nubians in recent times, as many villages were flooded in the 1960s due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam; the Nubian diaspora, which saw many forced to relocate to countries like Uganda and Kenya, is a major theme within Alsarah’s music.
Though they are mostly practicing Muslims, flooding of the Nile would certainly effect many Nubians’ practice of their traditional beliefs regarding the notion of the ‘spirit of the Nile’ which many believe to have life-sustaining powers. Alsarah’s voice perhaps could be equated to the river itself as it often flows beautifully, filling those listening with hope and energy. The title-track itself Manara (which means ‘light and radiance’ in English) emphasises the life-force of the river with the undercurrents of running water that can be heard behind her vocals. Yet, whilst it might sound like Alsarah’s music is simply a homage to Nubian culture, for me that would be far too simplistic an interpretation of the album. Singing both in a Nubian language as well as in Arabic, the record clearly is an attempt to bridge the gap between her culture and those they feel oppressed by. A perfect example of this is the opening track Salam Nubia.
Furthermore, whilst Nubian displacement is clearly somewhat a tragedy, she seems to emphasise the importance of integration with other cultures, showing off other musical influences which she perhaps picked up in the United States, most notably blues music. The album has a somewhat moody feel to it at points, yet a vast number of styles are adopted throughout. For example, Alforag is a soft ballad filled with Oriental inflections, Albahr has a plinky-plonky groove that makes it almost indefinable and the breath-taking oud that features in 3roos Elneel makes it sound almost like a desert rock classic. Whilst, Alsarah self-describes her music as ‘East African retro pop’ I personally feel it is difficult to categorise it as such, as it jumps around so much. One just needs to listen to the difference between my favourite track 3yan T3ban a tribal-sounding song, which features a beautiful call and response section, to the synth-prog of Ya Watan that immediately enters after a short interlude. Overall, the music is full of ambition which for the most part achieves what it sets out to do. For this, as well as the sincerity and emotion with which it is played, I would suggest that Alsarah certainly succeeds in using the music as a medium to gather attention and raise awareness of the issues faced by her special culture.