East African Retro Pop Comes To Kahilu


It was the last night of their 2018 tour, and Alsarah and her band The Nubatones gave a mesmerizing performance that had Kahilu concertgoers on their feet – cheering, clapping, and dancing. Their one-of-a-kind “East African retro pop” music may be new to the Big Island, but it was welcomed with warm alohas.

The Brooklyn-based band features bandleader Alsarah on lead vocal. The young Sudanese-American singer has released two albums along with various side project recordings. Alsarah formed the Nubatones with percussionist Rami El Aasser in 2010, and added her sister Nahid (backing vocals), Mawuena Kodjovi (bass, trumpet, and backing vocals), and Brandon Terzic (oud).

In his introduction, Chuck Gessert, Kahilu’s Artistic Director, explained that he was thrilled to book Alsarah & The Nubatones when approached by Konrad Ng the Executive Director for the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design. Ng also spoke to the crowd about the Center’s mission of sharing art from different cultures, “The world we live in is filled  with artistry that speaks to universal themes.”

One of the wonderful things about the Kahilu Theatre is the diversity of acts they bring to the Big Island like, West African guitarist Vieux Farka Touré who thrilled theatregoers this past March. Last Friday night’s concert was no exception.


Alsarah demonstrated wide-ranging vocal skill during the 90-minute performance. At times delicate and hypnotic, she also showed she was a powerful singer too. The energetic back-up vocals were provided by her sister Nahid, who often encouraged the audience to dance in their seats or the aisles, and several did through the encore.

Alsarah sings mostly in Arabic with a few songs in English. It’s a mix a of Nubian music – traditional and contemporary, with elements of jazz. Ohio-born Brandon Terzic plays the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument with up to 13 strings. Although the instrument is mostly played in the Middle East and North Africa, Terzic’s New York jazz and blues influences often show up. A new song with a working title of “Sudan Song,” starts off with Terzic executing a John Lee Hooker styled trill.


Brandon Terzic

Another new tune that shows promise is “Surfer Song” – that’s how it was listed on their set list. Alsarah expressed her love of being near the sea, “It just feels like love, joy, magic, healing,” said the singer, “And sexy kinda of love, which always has an intergalactic vibe.” Nahid kicked it off with some spacey Pink Floyd-type sound effects pre-recorded on her laptop. Rami El Aasser followed with a strong rhythm on his doumbek (aka darbuka or tabla) with Mawuena Kodjovi adding a solid bass line to the song.

El Aasser had some fun with the crowd too. Toward the end of the show, Alsarah encouraged him to stand up and show off his gold lamé pants. After doing so he launched into a call-and-response where the crowd would try to clap the beat he played.

Although it was the last date on their 2018 tour, the ensemble was full of energy, and the audience responded with a warm reception for the musical journey they offered.

Set List
Rennat | 3yan T3ban | Habibi | Sudan Song | Albahar | Fulani | Surfer Song | Manara | Nar | Soukura It’s Late | 3roos Elneel | Ya Nas Bando

Habibi Taal

For the latest Alsarah music and tour info, please visit: https://www.alsarah.com

Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby

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