The rhythmic beats of Alsarah & the Nubatones echoed through the basement of St. Matthews Church on Thursday, Feb. 15. The East African retro-pop group, currently based in Brooklyn, performed for a small yet engaged crowd as part of their tour of Baltimore sponsored by the Creative Alliance.
Earlier in the week, the band had performed on WYPR and at a number of Baltimore schools, including the Baltimore School for the Arts and Baltimore City College. Their next performance before returning to New York City would be the following night at the Creative Alliance building.
The Creative Alliance organizers set the Thursday event at the church in northern Baltimore in hopes of attracting the immigrant communities in the area. St. Matthews is known for housing The Immigration Outreach Service Center, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting these communities.
While the crowd was smaller than expected, there was a group of Sudanese families in attendance who brought a potluck dinner to the space.
Connecting the setting and the performers, one of the themes of the night was immigration and discovering a sense of home and personal identity. Alsarah, the lead singer of the group, was forced to flee her native home of Sudan and relocated to Taiz, Yemen, when she was eight years old.
After conflict began in Yemen, she and her family moved to the United States where she began her musical training. She later attended Wesleyan University where she studied music with a concentration in ethnomusicology. She brought the Nubatones together in 2010 through a mutual love for Nubian music, though Alsarah and her sister Nahid are the only Sudanese members of the group.
The band has since released two full length albums and toured in venues across the world. Their recent January tour included stops in France, Switzerland and Italy. Recently, one of the founding members of the group, Haig Manoukian, passed away, leading to the addition of Brandon Terzic on the oud.
The band consisted of Alsarah on lead vocals, her sister Nahid on backing vocals, an electric bassist, an oud player and a percussionist. Alsarah and Nahid’s powerful, soothing vocals complemented one another as the pair swayed and clapped in perfect harmony throughout the performance.
The set was a combination of both original and traditional songs, sung in a number of languages found in the North African region, including Arabic. One song was even performed in an ancient Nubian language that had been suppressed during Alsarah’s childhood in Sudan.
Another one of their songs was dedicated to a group of young girls the band met while visiting a Sudanese refugee camp. The girls taught Alsarah the song, which they had written, and the Nubatones created their own arrangement to perform at their live shows. This visit was documented in a 2015 film titled Beats of the Antonov which explores the role of music within the refugee communities of the Blue Nile region.
Throughout the set, Alsarah paused to address the crowd in both English and Arabic. She discussed the constant questioning of her identity and her desire to embrace the many intersections of herself. At the end of this interlude Alsarah declared that she had “found a way to go home in music.”
The limited crowd was energetic throughout, smiling and clapping and calling out to the band in Arabic. At one point, two men danced up to the front of the stage and snapped along to the beat.
Their performances throughout the week were part of a larger program curated by the Creative Alliance through a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The “Nisa/Women” program, nisa meaning “women” in Arabic, celebrates the artistry of female artists and comedians with roots in Muslim communities in the U.S. and around the world.
These artists will perform and participate in conversations with students at Baltimore City schools and audiences at the Creative Alliance.
The dialogue is focused on challenging prevalent stereotypes and building a deeper understanding of the diverse Muslim cultural world. Other performers include Zainab Johnson, a stand-up comedian and actress based in Harlem, and Arooj Aftab, a young singer from Pakistan.