Amira Kheir is what is known in the music industry as a ‘grower’. Her long, steady ascent towards international recognition has not seen any huge pyrotechnical leaps, but she is slowly but surely winning hearts and minds with her elegant voice and sophisticated repertoire.
It is immediately obvious that her songs reflect the strongest influence of her background. Brought up in Italy, but London-based since she turned 18 years old, her roots are Sudanese, and it is from Sudan’s rich musical traditions that she has drawn her oeuvre.
Sudanese music has a strong Arabic flavour, greatly influenced by popular Egyptian styles. It is, she says, the music that was loved by her parents and that she grew up listening to in her home.
But Kheir’s music possesses an identity that transcends geography. Her motivation appears to be to carry the Sudanese tradition forward by flavouring it with international elements as varied as jazz and soul, West African rhythms and instruments, and even mainstream pop. Yet it is a musical style beyond what might be termed fusion – it is more cerebral and unaffected than that, being both spontaneous and natural.
This gives Kheir’s music a compelling flavour. Her approach follows a long-popular Sudanese format of arrangements that could almost have been created for a large orchestra, but are here delivered by a relatively small ensemble. To this is added the various influences that have caught Kheir’s ear and, above it all, her vocals. She undoubtedly has a wonderful, outstandingly pure voice, but it is the intricacy of her delivery – with subtle shifts in emphasis, and not-so-subtle shifts in emotional content – that creates a performance with such an incredible impact.
Resilience and innovation
When asked what inspires her, she readily cites Africa. “It is home,” she explained in an Afri-love (web-based) interview. “It’s a continent of endless beauty and resilience and innovation. Stuff is happening in Africa like nowhere else.
“There is an incredible energy and aspiration to the future like I have experienced nowhere else. It is a place that keeps changing – and waits for no one to define it.”
It would seem that the role she has chosen within the African renaissance that she so clearly identifies with, is to use the universal power of music to draw people together in celebration of life in all
She often chooses to sing traditional songs, and when she reverts to her own work, her own compositions, she also sings in Arabic.
Often, translations lose something in attempting to clarify what is sung in one language in another tongue. But the songs that are included on this album are outlined in the CD booklet and describe a language that is both poetic and spiritual. Some of the songs are co-credited to Iain Macleod, who plays acoustic guitar on ‘View from Somewhere’, but it would be surprising if the lyrics were co-written: they have an intensely personal flavour.
Interestingly, along with the classical oud (an Arabic lute) and instruments such as the shekere (a gourd and bead shaker found through out Africa) and the darbuka (an Arabic small drum), Kheir’s band includes many instruments more usually found in West Africa than the environs of the Nile. These include the classic djembe drum and the multistringed kora, and the udu, a percussion instrument shaped like a water jug (indeed, it can multitask) from northern Nigeria.
It all adds up to a young women’s journey “into the immense”, a journey that the listener is privileged to join.