We reviewed Amira Kheir’s first album, View from Somewhere, two years ago, in April 2012 when we described this young singer’s “wonderful and outstandingly pure voice”. And with this new album, there is no need to revise our opinion, she is without doubt a hugely talented vocalist.
Alsahraa (Desert) is her second album. To describe this offering as sparse is perhaps an understatement – certainly the first two tracks have barely an instrumental accompaniment to Kheir’s superb vocal delivery – just a little percussion, a double bass and lilting guitar. This creates an intimate atmosphere; just the listener and the voice. You can almost imagine being in that desert, under a majestic moon that is high in the sky.
Often, her songs are exquisitely melancholic and reflect a heartfelt pain. It might be that the songs speak of her separation from a homeland – Kheir has Sudanese antecedents although she grew up in Italy before moving to the UK where she currently resides.
As she explains her work: “For me music has always been a journey of the spirit. I am Sudanese-Italian hence my music is a direct reflection of a multicultural legacy. The north of Sudan, being at the crossroads of Middle Eastern and East/Central African culture has a very particular and ancient musical tradition, finding its roots in the Nubian civilisation of my ancestors.
“I seek to reconcile these different worlds through music and bridge in some way the gaps of communication, knowing that I am but one human experience in a vast array of collective experiences that make up our universe.
“This is my attempt to reinterpret a few of the many forms of traditional Sudanese singing with contemporary jazz, soul, funk, ska – the prime musical influences in my life.”
This album has English and Arabic liner notes that give some indication of the narrative of her lyrics. Many speak of a yearning, but after the first couple of tracks they move into a more joyous, celebratory mood.
So too, the songs feature more instrumentation as the album progresses, such as various percussion, trumpet and the oud, the classical, stringed instrument played across North Africa as well as the near and Middle East.
Hand claps and ululation
Kheir introduces accompanying vocals provided by a male voice and three of her half-dozen instrumentalist collaborators. She also includes a five-strong ‘village choir’ with hand clapping and ululation.
It is all recorded live using the fine acoustics of the Union Chapel, a former church in north London now used as a performance space.
One of her instrumentalists is Kalia Baklitzanaki, an exponent of the nay. The word nay describes an ancient instrument that with certain regional differences, is played extensively from Morocco to Pakistan. Its forerunner, the kaval or salamiya flutes, are thicker and shorter than the classical nay and can be found from Egypt to the Caucuses and beyond – the washint of Ethiopia also belongs to the same family of instruments.
This type of flute is ancient, perhaps the oldest of all wind instruments; it dates back to the age of the pyramids, being shown on Egyptian tomb paintings as early as bc3000-2500. The origin of the name comes from the early Persian “nây” which can mean either a reed or flute.
Three of the 10 songs on this CD are composed by others – just one is credited to another songwriter, Omar Abanna, the other two drawn from a traditional Sudanese repertoire – but all are arranged by Kheir.
That demonstrates that Kheir may be an Italian-Sudanese diva, but her deftness of touch is powerful evidence that she is also a musician blessed with considerable skills.
It seems unlikely that this recording will set any sales records or receive too much exposure in terms of radio airplay. But Amira Kheir is sure to garner many more fans thanks to this very fine new CD.