Alsarah & the Nubatones Put on a Transcendent, Relevant Dance Party in Flushing
If the 7 train had been running between Queens and Manhattan Saturday night, “East African retro pop” stars Alsarah & the Nubatones would have sold out Flushing Town Hall. Even with the transit nightmare, they came awfully close. By the time the stragglers had found their way to Northern Boulevard, there were only a few balcony seats left. It was a dance party, but it was also a profoundly relevant performance, shifting between hypnotic African grooves and otherworldly, microtonally-tinged Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities.
The group opened with a lingering, suspenseful solo by oudist Brandon Terzic. A student of the late, great Haig Magnoukian, his mentor and teacher who preceded him in this band, he delivered spiky, sometimes carefully modulated, sometimes deliriously untethered spirals of edgy Middle Eastern modal riffage. Overhead, Alsarah bullt to a powerful, wordless wail, louder than she would ever get through the rest of a spellbinding, dynamic performance. Singing mostly in Arabic, the Kartoum-born bandleader voiced the disillusion, and anguish, and resilience of the Nubian people, thousands of whom were dislocated in massive Egyptian dambuilding projects in the early 60s.
From there drummer Ramy El Aaser led the group into a slinky, catchy, uneasily shuffling number packed with split-second call-and-response between Alsarah, her strong, similarly nuanced harmony singer and the rest of the band. Five minutes into the show, and they had a clapalong going; it wouldn’t be long before people were dancing in the aisles. If there ever was a case for the universal appeal and relevance of music from Egypt, this was it.
The “Nubian national anthem,” as Alsarah put it, turned out to be a catchy, circling number. basically a two-chord jam of sorts. Terzic opened The Desert Road with a rustically flurrying solo echoing the blues; a powerful reminder of the blues’ African roots. For that matter, the same could be said for El Aaser’s hard-hitting but nimble clave groove, another African invention. And a bit later on, Alsarah speculated how an old folk tune about maidens being given to the Nile River god might have resulted in mermaid children. “We Nubians gave you civilization…and we gave you mermaids,” she laughed.
Bassist Mawuena Kodjovi methodically built a wrenchingly mournful solo during one of the night’s most haunting moments. Alsarah distinguished herself with a couple of originals which were the arguably the best songs of the night, comtemplating “How governments fail us,” as she put it. The first followed a restless pulse through a “Get up, get up!” revolutionary refrain. The most dynamically crescendoing number of the night was Land of Honey, a moody contemplation of finding a new life in exile that took on special relevance in this era of refugees pouring out of Syria. The crowd went crazy for an exuberantly witty dumbek solo from El Aasser; after almost two hours onstage, the group wound up their second set with a driving habibi pop number and encored with a similarly kinetic, hypnotic dance tune
Adventurous listeners lucky enough to make it to Flushing Town Hall for this show might be interested in May 14, 7 PM concert there by the rustic, otherworldly Ba Ban Chinese Music Society; tix are $16.