Event Review: Amira Kheir @ The Junction (Cambridge; Saturday 16th February 2019)

When Amira Kheir’s very first song at The Junction on Saturday night was greeted with joyous ululating from a refreshingly diverse crowd, the tone was set for a special gig. `Save those for later’ she promised, leading her band into the shimmering ‘Amwaj’ (Waves) from her latest album Mystic Dance.

The new album, released on Sterns, sees Amira continue to develop a distinctive sound you could call nu-Nubian soul, drawing on Sudanese folk songs and realised with the sort of cosmopolitan band you could only find in London, who stir in jazz, rock and more into this rooted music.

Amira Kheir @ Ahbab Festival 2019. Photo © David L Hone

In Cambridge to perform at the 4th edition of The Ahbab festival, celebrating music, film and culture from The Middle East and North Africa, the songs Amira and her band performed felt spiritual and inclusive, shared with the generosity and poise that earned Amira a nomination for best artist at this year’s Songlines awards.

As her achingly beautiful voice reached and searched in Arabic and English, with songs like ‘Manaok’ (Forbidden), Amira mesmerised The Junction, whilst Tal Janes exchanged fluid guitar lines with Nadir Ramzy on oud, Leandro Mancini swept around the drum kit with sticks, mallets and hands, and Michele Montolli played some melodic Fender jazz bass.

 The foyer was full of smiles as the band took a break and the festival crowd mingled among the Berber rugs and lanterns.

With a bilingual marketing campaign and curation that sought to ‘broaden the geography’ of previous editions, this show delivered on the organisers’ hopes to increase access and draw a diaspora crowd in a festival that included films from Morocco and Algeria and explored the Jewish culture of Iraq.

Amira Kheir @ Ahbab Festival 2019. Photo © David L Hone

Returning to the stage, Amira and Nadir blessed the second set with the acapella ‘Zol’ (Guy), the refrain of which was picked up by the Sudanese in the audience and more of that trilling and ululating.

Re-joined by the rest of the band, Amira introduced ‘Sameeri’ (Kindred spirit), telling us “If you feel compelled, you can come up’; an invitation that resulted in one of the highest points of the night, as about 15 smiling women and men joined Amira (now with a djembe slung over her back) to dance on stage.

The energy stayed high as Amira and the band played the final few songs from the impressive Mystic Dance, gifting us with an encore featuring all members of the band on vocals, Nadir on percussion and Michele on bass.

Speaking on the radio earlier that week, Amira told A World In London that her music is about using “what is useful and precious” from her Sudanese heritage. This love and connection was evident; indeed The Junction glowed with love from the kaleidoscope of cultures which Ahbab celebrates.

A luminously talented lady, with Mystic Dance Amira Kheir is preserving and evolving her own musical inheritance.

Photo © David L Hone

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