A Gorgeously Bittersweet Middle Eastern-Flavored Album and a Brooklyn Show from Alsarah & the Nubatones

by delarue

Underscoring the bittersweet beauty and lithely kinetic songs on Alsarah & the Nubatones‘ debut album, Silt, is the tragic loss of oudist Haig Magnoukian, one of the most soulful players ever to grace a New York stage. But the core of the self-described “East African retro pop” group – frontwoman Alsarah, percussionist Rami El Asser and bassist Mawuena Kodjovi – lives on, with an upcoming free show on Oct 7 at 7 PM at Bric Arts, 647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place at the southern tip of Ft. Greene, right around the corner from BAM.

On the album – streaming online here – the band blends an early 1970s-style Middle Eastern-flavored Nubian sound with elements that reflect its members’ global background (Alsarah, for example, was born in Sudan and came to the US via Yemen). The vernacular lyrics often reference a longing for a home now gone forever, which makes sense since so many Nubians were displaced by the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt right around the time this style of music was at the peak of its popularity.

The album’s opening track, Habibi Taal sounds like a slinkier, bluesier take on vamping Moroccan gnawa music: the band takes it out with a fullscale sprint to the finish line. They amp up the funk factor on Soukura (It’s Late), a Middle Eastern groove with call-and-response guy/girl vocals, Alsarah in especially captivating, hazily seductive mode. Nubia Noutou has a trickier rhythm, Alsarah’s signature blend of warmth and wariness, and incisive variations on a dancing oud theme.

The album’s most poignant moment is the bristling, broodingly expansive Magnoukian oud solo that follows and then leads into Bilad Aldahb, a dusky lament lowlit by El Asser’s stately frame drum work. Then the band picks up the pace with the hypnotically bouncy Fugu (Shams Alhuria) and its droll wah-wah synth accents.

Rennat begins as a dirge and then morphs into a scampering psych-folk groove with blippy organ. The catchy, anthemic, soaringly swaying Wad Alnuba features Alsarah’s previous band, accordionist Ismail Butera‘s similarly slinky, frequently haunting Sounds of Taraab. Yanas Baradou has a camelwalking desert rock groove underneath unexpectedly airy vocal harmonies. El Asser’s playfully suspenseful, crescendoing drum solo introduces the final cut, Jibal Alnuba, a lively vocal-and-percussion piece. It’s good to see this group back in action, with a sound that’s as rustic as it is in the moment and individualistic. How cool is is that bands like this still exist in this city?