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REVIEW: Khamira - Undod/Unity

Khamira was born when Welsh jazz-folk band Burum—trumpeter Tomos Williams, bassist Aidan Thorne and drummer Mark O'Connor—toured India in 2015. There they collaborated with guitarist Aditya Balani, sarangi player & vocalist Suhail Yusuf Khan and tablaist & vocalist Vishal Nagar. The blend of Welsh traditional melodies, Hindustani classical music and jazz enthused all; two years later Khamira released its eponymous debut, a distinctive, if occasionally tentative-sounding, world music offering.

Five years on, Khamira returns with the significantly bolder Undod/Unity. The personnel and the concept remain largely unchanged, though the Indo-Welsh fusion sounds more fully realized, the playing more consistently assured. This greater musical maturity is doubtless the fruit of playing together practically every year since the band's inception—no small feat in itself. Sarangi and guitar are more prominent second time around, with Balani's pedals injecting fleeting waves of electronic-esque psychedelia.

It is the guitarist's "Eleven Eleven," a melodious slice of contemporary Indo-jazz fusion, complete with Nagar's konnakol break, which opens the account. Khamira acknowledges the influence of the Pat Metheny Group, and there is a certain resemblance here, particularly in the melodic lines woven in unison by guitar, trumpet and sarangi.

An even bigger influence, arguably, is late '60s and early '70s-era Miles Davis. Khamira's interpretation of "Great Expectation"— Davis's broiling, tabla and sitar-infused behemoth from a 1969 session, later released on Big Fun (Columbia, 1974)—toggles between searing, guitar-driven jazz-rock and muted trumpet lyricism. It is an overt tip of the hat to Davis, whose influence is also felt more subtly in Khamira's trance-like rhythmic language and William's plaintive muted playing.

Khamira's beating heart, however, lies not so much in '60s or '80s-inspired iterations of jazz fusion as in the juxtaposition of Welsh and Indian melodies. The title track, with a groove based on a Hindustani melody which digs its talons in and does not let up, takes shape around "Ffarwel Aberystwyth," a Welsh sailor's lament. Two contrasting solos, one of fiery precision from Balani, and a lilting Sufi vocal improvisation from Yusuf Khan, provide lift-off.

The Yusuf Khan-arranged raga "Saraswāti: Goddess of Music"—a Carnatic melody adopted by the Northern Hindustani sarangi—is the most overtly Indian of the compositions, both in form and execution. Yusuf Khan's playing is a delight and, tabla shadowing apart, the band applies judiciously unobtrusive accompaniment. Welsh folk melody, beautifully presented by Williams, gives way to Yusuf Khan's susurrus vocals on the peaceful "Dod Dy Law/ Nāyakī Kānrā." There is beauty and fire alike in Thorne's "Arjun Nagar," while "Marwnad yr Ehedydd (The Lark's Elegy)" closes the album on a serene note, steered by Yusuf Khan's yearning lyricism on sarangi.

Attempting to harness two such great musical traditions is perhaps akin to trying to lasso a river. But with the borderless, seamless fusion that is Undod/Unity, Khamira seems to have cracked it. A significant stepping stone along a little travelled path, and one which still offers almost infinite possibilities.

By Ian Patterson


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