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Album review: Alsarah & The Nubatones “Silt” (FRUK)

July 23, 2014

Alsarah and The Nubatones - SiltBeing tagged as “The New Star Of Nubian Pop” by The Guardian might seem like being presented with a useful marketing label but it also carries an implied burden of proof. Thankfully, the Sudanese born singer/songwriter Alsarah is smart enough to sidestep the issue by focusing on the music, describing the sound of Silt as “East African Retro Pop”, although this in itself is a pretty vague label.

Digging a little deeper, it seems that the music of Alsarah & The Nubatones is rooted in the ‘Songs of Return’ that began to appear after the mass displacement and resettlement of an estimated 50,000 people during the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam was built on the Nile, flooding the ancestral lands of the Nubian people. The theme of the music on Silt is a response of sorts to this displacement; its songs are about returning home and in its more reflective moments, the sense of hiraeth, or saudade – words which have no direct translation in English but which refer to ‘a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves’ – is almost overwhelming. Yet, almost paradoxically, the overall sound of the album is irrepressibly upbeat and infused with a sense of optimism and I’m reminded of the old aphorism about African American blues: it’s a sad music that makes you feel good.

That said, there’s a resoundingly positive vibe to the opening track Habibi Taal, with Mawuena Kodjovi’s loping bassline almost bursting from the speakers as close-harmony vocals and a range of percussion circle and soar, picking up the tempo to the song’s end. The polyrhythmic Soukura is driven by the riffing of Haig Manoukian’s oud, punctuated with vocal harmonies displaying both the Arabic and East African influences of the band.

 

Nuba Noutou makes good use of the pentatonic scale to create a reflective midtempo arrangement which is vaguely reminiscent of 1970s Western rock music, although it has a dynamic range against which many of those West European and North American musical epics pale into insignificance. Musical and cultural roots are foregrounded in the virtuouso oud solo which follows and segues seamlessly into the mournful Bilad Aldahab, which coalesces from a slow and smoky start to a brightly burning beacon anchored by an elastic, electric bassline.

The tempo increases again in Fugu (Shams Alhurria); a polyrhythmic fusion of traditional percussion and modern electronic sounds against which Alsarah’s vocals dance and weave. Rennat opens with a distant melody, accompanied by oud and hand percussion, before a strutting double bass and electric organ set the scene for a call-and-response vocal refrain which owes as much to Arabic musical traditions as it does to contemporary Western styles.

Wad Alnuba features a guest appearance by members of The Sounds of Taraab, with whom both Alsarah and Haig Manoukian have previously worked. Taraab is a particular form of music with its origins in Zanzibar and coastal East Africa and its fusion of African rhythms with Arabic and Indian popular music adds a wealth of timbres. I was particularly struck by how Ismail Butera’s accordion and Michael Hess’ violin, both instruments perhaps more often associated with European styles, merge so seamlessly with the other musicians without eclipsing or ‘shutting down’ The Nubatones’ sound. As an aside, some recordings of The Sounds of Taraab are available to download from the Free Music Archive and they’re well worth further exploration.

A steady pulse of percussion and a restless bassline underpin Yanas Baridou as Haig Manoukian’s oud meshes with Alsarah’s soulful vocals against a rich backdrop of heartaching harmonies before a shift in tempo kicks in, building the song to a powerful and stirring climax. Rami El Aasser’s playing shines in the brief interlude of solo percussion in Nuba Drums, which gives a tantalising insight into some of the sounds and rhythms of traditional Duff (frame) drums that are so fundamental to Nubian culture. Closing track Jibal Alnuba opens with a swirling synthesised drone which comes and goes throughout, the percussion is again prominent but Alsarah’s vocals are a joy to hear; soft and rich, clear and passionate, in many ways this track crystallises The Nubatones’ sound and brings the album to a satisfying conclusion.

Silt is a thoroughly absorbing record, full of sounds and timbres from a region of Africa too often overlooked by many. It’s a fearless and ultimately successful project that draws together many diverse musical strands to create a richly glowing sonic landscape which effortlessly dissolves the restrictive boundaries imposed by the all-consuming Eurocentric mainstream; that it does so in such a vibrant, life-affirming way is what makes it stand out from so much of the insubstantial ‘mall music’ which swamps our day-to-day lives.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (23 July 2014)

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