Theatrical, experimental, and playfully authentic, electronic R&B violinist Sudan Archives delivers an excitingly dynamic performance at her debut Austin City Limits taping, presenting various hits from the breadth of her musical discography. Aside from bringing a new level of musical complexity to the current state of R&B, she showcases a world that mixes modern musical influences and traditional string playing. The experimental fiddler’s diverse musical background makes for a sound that nearly transcends genres, with tracks that involve elements of hip-hop, techno, Irish Celtic music, and soul, all deeply influenced by the South African Sudanese violin scene. The fiddler and her band – consisting of three Austin-based backup singers (Maya Sampleton,Grace Sorensen, Shelbi Alexandria), a bassist (Ghalani Crenshaw), and electronic violinist (DSharp) – bring an enthrallingly theatrical essence. The performance was presented for the live ACL audience and to fans around the world via live stream.
Lyrically exploring themes of spirituality, self-identity, relationships, and femininity, the experimental artist reflects her ethereal nature via her wardrobe and set-up, a manifestation of her own enchanting world. Sudan wore a fairy-warrior type wardrobe–a plaid dress with metallic silver ballerina slippers and a leather sheath strapped across the back, where she holds her mighty bow. The violinist and crew play amongst a stage showered with rose petals and next to mic stands that seemingly grow out of the stage ground intertwined with vines and roses. Candles, and water-filled wine glasses are spread throughout the stage. The multi-talented violinist kicks off the second song of the show with “Nont for Sale” from her 2018 EP Sink. The track that serves as a testament to the musician’s thought provoking lyrical commentary intertwined with spirituality, as she sings “My strings propagate through space and time/Here and there at the same time/Hand dimensions and basic rhyme/You ain’t gotta be mad, look deeper, go higher, when you climb.” Her signature midi violin makes its first appearance, signaled by the swooping sound effect of a sword being removed from its sheath. A symbolic representation of her own musical armor, the importance of the instrument’s role in her discography becomes increasingly emphasized both musically and visually throughout the performance with several sound effects that represent the fiddle as a weapon. The violin plays the role of the leader, narrator, and protagonist of the song’s story. Sudan Archives echoes a desire to re-imagine and re-examine the traditional instrument’s role in popular music.
Displaying the musician’s breadth of musical influence, track “Freakalizer” mixes the sound of the 90’s to early 2000’s R&B traditional beats with modern techno elements. Before beginning the performance, she conducts a certified “vibe check,” lighting sage with the comment “I gotta get the vibe right,” and moving into the intro of the song with a call to action: “Alright Austin, where my freaks at?” Removing her iconic leather sheath, she moves towards shifting the stage focus to the performance art components of her stage presence, incorporating grand intentional gestures towards cameras and audience members. Attesting to the musician’s theatrical, expressive, and authentically “in your face” musical presence, the violinist leaves the stage and moves casually through the crowd on the floor below. Connected by Sudan’s creation of a playful club-like atmosphere, the crowd seemingly transports to a night out at Club Sudan. Dancing with fans surrounded within a dance circle, Sudan Archives is the lively, fun, “feel good” girlfriend everyone wants to party with.
Showcasing the fiddler’s musical roots, influences, and well-rounded knowledge of the violin’s cultural presence and history, Sudan Archives performs a traditional Irish jig. Influenced by the likes of gospel, the Sudanese violin scene, and Celtic music, the musician calls out to the audience saying “Who in here is Irish? I love your culture. I joined the fiddle club and my life hasn’t been the same.” Gesturing that the crowd clap along, Sudan captures the role that culture plays in the artist’s unique sound by fusing a Celtic jig with hip-hop. This track showcases Sudan’s roots as a string player and the motivation behind her songs’ raw “fiddler” approach. Transitioning into one of artist’s biggest hits, as recently featured on The Stephen Colbert Show, track “Selfish Soul” demonstrates Sudan’s powerful commentary on femininity, the female appearance, and self-worth. She sings soulfully and moves intentionally up and down the stage, fist bumping backup singers and singing “If I cut my hair, hope I grow it long/Back long time like way before/If I wear it straight will they like me more?/Like those girls on front covers.” Ending the track with an explosive violin solo, the musician spins in circles in a rapidly moving pace as the crowd erupts into applause.
Returning back to the stage to perform their encore, Sudan and band begin to play “Limitless”, a comforting and compelling song on society’s preoccupation with materialism and superficiality. The musician asks the audience to illuminate the theater with their iPhone lights as they sway to the track’s melody. The performer watches the crowd light up with a sea of swaying phone lights, singing “All we have is the internet/It’s okay to be afraid…All we have is the internet/We’re too cool to admit.” The soulful singer moves back into the crowd swaying with their movement and ending her performance by noting how the lights “looked like lightning bugs.” A cheerful end to a moving track, Sudan wraps up her ACL debut.
As one of the most uniquely experimental performances to take the ACL stage, Sudan Archives delivers on the campy, “in your face” realness that radiates from her music and stage presence. From violin virtuoso to a feel good club jam, taking a visit to Sudan’s world is unapologetically thought-provoking and undeniably authentic. Presenting a complex musical sound elevated by the captivating components of her performance art, Sudan Archives leaves no room for predictability or conformity on her stage.