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Music review: Khamira

23 Sep 2023 5 minute read
Khamira at Soar Theatre on Thursday. Pic Dilwyn Roberts

Lucy Rathkey

Khamira, a captivating music ensemble, have been taking audiences on a journey of musical exploration since its inception in 2014.

Formed by the convergence of three diverse musical traditions—Welsh folk, Indian classical, and jazz— the members of Khamira demonstrate an ability to deliver a fascinating performance.

Comprising three Indian musicians; Aditya Balani (guitar), Suhail Yusef Khan (sarangi), and Vishal Nagar (tabla/voice) and three Welsh musicians; Tomos Williams (trumpet), Aidan Thorne (bass guitar) and Mark O’Connor (drums), the band’s unique blend of individual influences have resulted in a sonic sound world that is distinct to the band.

The band was born from a meeting between Aditya Balani and Tomos Williams in New Delhi during WOMEX (the Worldwide Music Expo) in 2014. Their shared passion for music led to the creation of a project that would seamlessly merge together the rich background of their respective musical backgrounds.

Thanks to the support of Wales Arts International, Arts Council Wales, and Ty Cerdd, the initial collaboration blossomed into a full-fledged band and they were funded to meet annually to create and perform music.

With the exception of 2021 (due to the pandemic), Khamira have met up every year – and despite their physical distance, they have undergone a remarkable four tours and two albums (‘Khamira’ and ‘Undod/Unity’).

Their 2023 tour began in Oxford (the band’s first time venturing into England), and the band have continued touring around South and mid-Wales. Their 2023 tour venues includes the Cowbridge music festival, The Welfare in Ystradgynlais, Theatr Soar in Merthyr Tydfil, The lost ARC in Rhayader, and finishing in the Richard Burton Theatre at the RWCMD in Cardiff tonight.

Boldness and creativity

I recently went to see Khamira for the second time at St Peter’s College Chapel in Oxford this past week and I truly felt so inspired by the boldness and creativity of their musical choices. I had previously seen Khamira perform for the first time in Hwlffordd as part of their 2022 tour, yet somehow this performance felt different to the first time.

Upon reflection, whilst the 2022 tour was incredible (especially to experience this blend of music for the first time), there was a feeling of something being more succinct this time round. In the 2022 tour, two members of Khamira were not able to attend as their visas to enter the UK weren’t processed in enough time, despite applying months in advance, so Khamira were not in their ‘true’ form.

Whilst their setlists did not change, the heavy improvisatory-based nature of the band meant that, naturally, everything was not how it usually sounded.

Paired with the fact that their tabla player, Vishal Nagar, was not able to attend the tour due to a back operation, it made me realise the importance of how prominent and irreplaceable each person within Khamira is.

I didn’t realise how much a missing instrument would change the dynamics of the band. I have to note however, that Mark O’Connor did an extraordinary job at maintaining a solid rhythmic pulse throughout the pieces – I was especially impressed when O’Connor replicated an interpretation of the tabla on his drum kit during the track Basant, a Hindustani raga (that typically would be driven rhythmically through the tabla).

I also believe that having a more in-depth knowledge about the band brought another sense of personal understanding to the performance. I won’t go into too much detail but as part of my university degree, I decided to write my dissertation on Khamira.

I used them as a case study to evaluate how intercultural bands communicate, and explored how improvisation served as means of communication. This project was extremely interesting to me, and I was introduced (and learnt) about a new tradition of music whilst simultaneously developing my Welsh musical knowledge.

Essentially, from listening to the tracks more naturally due to my dissertation, I felt as though I was able to connect even more to the pieces that were being presented. Having said that, the Khamira experience is still just as special, without having to write 10,000 words on them (!)

Tradition and culture

I especially enjoyed the twists on traditional Welsh folk tunes (like Ffarwel i Aberystwyth) as the band infused the songs with their own unique blend of intercultural influences, as well as the musical decision to combine the sounds of the trumpet and sarangi in unison – it was a combined sound that worked effectively.

The set list consisted of 8 songs, including Welsh folk tunes, ragas, Miles Davis’ ‘Great Expectations‘ and a beautiful original composition by Aidan Thorne etc.,

I particularly liked the way in which there was a proud embracement of musical tradition and culture within the band. For example, (1) the Welsh language was seamlessly integrated into introductions of the pieces by Tomos (alongside English dialect), and (2) the introduction to Basant, where Suhail gave an explanation to what a raga is, and the basics of how, as an audience member, you could listen to the piece.

In conclusion, if I was to describe their performance in one word, it would be ‘captivating’  – their boldness and creativity as a band was mesmerising to experience. Throughout the performance, it was extremely engaging as an audience member to witness how each musician showcased their virtuosity and skillset in their respective instruments.

The combination of Western and Indian instruments was distinctive to the performance, and it was clear to see that the musicians simply enjoyed each other’s company and performing together. I would urge anyone reading this to check out Khamira and support live music (and the arts) wherever you can.

Diolch Khamira.

Khamira are appearing at RWCMD this evening at 7.30pm for the last show of their tour. Find more details and the last few tickets here.

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