Amira Kheir ‘Mystic Dance’ CD (Sterns) 4/5

Bi-cultural singer and percussionist Amira Kheir has one foot in the native musical tradition of Sudan in East Africa, and another in the modern music of the West. What is impressive about this album is that the fusion of the two has been so well thought out and then executed with such a charming intimacy. Recorded live in London, the album is sung predominantly in Arabic, but the one diversion into the American songbook hints at very promising terrain for the future. While, in general, the music is taken at a relaxed pace, the uptempo, ‘Looli’ (‘Beautiful girl, Looli’), is closest to what one might call a Western folk groove, with electric guitar played like a layered keyboard and with the sound of the oud akin to that of strings. Another immediate attraction is the more traditional clarinet combined with wordless vocals on, ‘Nasaim Allel’ (‘Night breezes’), and this works a treat, with further accompaniment from marimba (in the intro) and a spoken male dialogue (part way through). In fact, the music of Kheir has been likened to that of a ‘futuristic desert blues’, and this at least provides some basic indication as to how the music comes across. One singer that Amira Kheir could be likened to is Algerian Souad Massi and the early folk-based albums of the latter certainly bear comparison, though the traditions of East Africa and the Maghreb are separate, they share a few common denominators. Both feature the use of the oud and that dominates the intro to, ‘Munaya’ (‘Dream’) and it indeed is the elasticity of Kheir’s voice that communicates so effectively here and one, not uncommon to other singers such as the great Oum Kalsoum, who have the capacity to make their voice sound like an instrument. While this is undoubtedly a world roots album, there is just the faintest hint at pastures beyond on a sumptuous cover in English of the Kurt Weil standard, ‘Speak low’. Anyone who thinks an Arabic singer cannot compete in the English language, will have their long-held belief cast into doubt on this gentle and altogether pared down reading of the song, and one of the joys of this interpretation is how Amira Kheir lingers with intent on individual words. An outstanding and highly personal take. This writer for one would like to hear more classic songs revisited by the singer in the future, but not at the expense of the more traditional repertoire. An ideal way to ease yourself into the New Year.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also: Amira Kheir ‘Alsahraa’ (Sterns) 4/5