Interview: Amira Kheir (October 2014)


We met Amira Kheir one week before her performance at the cross-cultural music Festival LIFEM and she brought some musical colour to the grey of a quintessential London Autumn day.

Despite everyone insisting on referring to Amira Kheir as a diva she is miles away from that archetype. She is cheerful and radiant, and when talking to her she immediately puts you at ease. Her optimistic and hopeful attitude is simply contagious. The same applies to her prolific musical output, a great example of peaceful cultural cross-collaboration. We inevitably started talking about her early years spent between Italy and Sudan.

“I was born in Italy and then moved to Sudan, so I grew up in both countries. But when you are young you don’t really pick up on the cultural differences so much. You take things quite naturally. I was in school in both countries and assimilated the two cultures very quickly”.

When she was eighteen, she decided to move again, this time to London where music, slowly but definitively entered in her life.

“Initially I came to London to study politics at SOAS. But then music began to happen, so I decided to stay here. I started by doing open-mic nights. From there I got in touch with many musicians and after a while started to work on my music a lot more and it just all took off”.

She eventually felt in love with the city too, thanks to its opportunities and multiculturalism.

“I love London, I really love it! It is a big open space that allows you to pursue a lot of different things that you wouldn’t be able to in other places because of the composition of the people and the artistic opportunities. London is a place that draws together a lot of different kinds of people and it is a really interesting mix”.

This interesting mix is mirrored in her works, which have hosted a great number of remarkable musicians from every corner of the world.

“It was fantastic to work with them. The way that you connect with other musicians is a privileged one: you do it on a level where you have a lot of commonality. Music is our principal commonality and when we first try to express ourselves it happens through music. At the same time, every musician brings their own culture with them, their own flavour, their own experience, their own life. I think this mix can bring to life many interesting things because you have the chance to interact with each collaborator’s entire life, not just the artistic one”.

Amira’s creative process is deeply influenced by this community of interests and aims.

“Every piece I write is an only child. When I write my music I usually start with a tune – but then it depends! Actually, some songs are developed in a collaborative way between me and the musicians, while others are more individual, more personal”.

Despite the fact that her first EP was published years ago, it was with her album ‘View from Somewhere’ (2011) that Amira officially began her musical adventure.

“To publish my first album was a step by step process. I moved to London in 2003 but a lot of the work had already been done over a long time period. The material existed many years before being published. Even before I moved to London I already had many ideas that I had developed”.

But the British capital was the accelerator she was looking for to speed up the pace.

“When I finished university I was able to dedicate more time to my ideas and finally to navigate the different possibilities I had to pursue my music more seriously. Here in London I started meeting up with different people, finding the right musicians to work with, developing the music and performing more. Finally I had a body of work to put together as an album, so I set up my label Contro Cultura and I released it myself.”

Amira acts as if it was a stroll in the park. She talks naturally, as people do when talking about ordinary things. But to be dubbed the ‘Diva of the Sudanese desert’ by the BBC is not an ordinary thing. Also it is no ordinary thing to perform at some of the UK’s most prestigious venues such as Rich Mix and the Barbican, or world–renowned festivals like the London Jazz Festival, MusicPort, WOMAD and Festival au Desert, or to set to music an epic silent movie – Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘Sumuruum’. Quite simply she has become one of the most influential young artists to emerge from the African diaspora. But the most unordinary thing of all is her music, which keeps maturing as time goes by. ‘Alsahraa’, her latest album released last February, has changed the contour of her sound.

“While the first album was tapping into many different categories of music, the second taps into fewer, but they carry more weight. There are clear Sudanese and jazz sounds and considerably fewer influences than on the first album. I don’t consciously look at any particular source. Ideas come to my mind, but I’m not aware of how and why. I can only measure them once they are realised. Once I finally listen to my songs I can say that one sounds more like a Sudanese melody, another more West African oriented, while another may have a more jazz elaboration. I don’t plan with any intention of creating a certain style. I just let the process guide me. It’s the result that can tell you about the influences”.

And we will have the chance to listen to the result soon during her gig as part of the London International Festival of Exploratory Music at Kings Place. We wondered if she could give us a clue why her music might be considered exploratory.

“I don’t know, but I found the term ‘exploratory’ intriguing. I guess that it could be because my music is a music that explores different traditions or explores different traditional form of expression, mixing these different forms together”.

Trying to find the secret recipe for her success is tricky. Amira’s music clearly reflects her attitude, her slant towards other cultures and backgrounds. Despite that, as soon as you move the conversation onto African soil she gets excited. We talked about one of her most formative experiences, her performance during the Festival au Désert in Essakane, Mali.

“It was absolutely epic. It happened back in 2011 when the Festival was still near Timbuktu and for me it was a great experience. For an age I was longing to travel to Mali. It was a real dream of mine and when I got there it was absolutely amazing! Also, to go because I was playing my own music just elevated things. My latest album has been considerably influenced by that experience. I think that being there allowed me to explore certain things more freely. A lot of ideas came to fruition when I was out there, so I would say that it heavily influenced my music”…

Her music, which is also what she foresees for her future:

“Music, just more music. Just keep playing, keep performing, and keep developing my music. I’m lucky if I’m able to do that”.

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