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Undod / Unity

by Ian Mann

September 21, 2022


An outstanding follow up to the group’s excellent début. It is to be hoped that Khamira will be able to continue their fruitful trans-continental collaboration for many years to come.


“Undod / Unity”

(Ty Cerdd TCR038)

Tomos Williams – trumpet, Suhail Yusuf Khan – sarangi, vocals, Aditya Balani – guitar, Aidan Thorne – bass, Vishal Nagar – tabla, vocals, Mark O’Connor – drums

“Undod”, meaning “Unity” is the second album release from Khamira, an international sextet featuring a unique combination of Welsh and Indian musicians.

The group is led by trumpeter Tomos Williams and was originally formed as an offshoot of Burum, the band that Tomos co-leads with his brother, saxophonist Daniel Williams.

Burum have been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages thanks to their enjoyable and innovative blending of jazz and traditional Welsh folk music.  They have released four albums to date in “Alawon (2007), “Caniadau” (2012) ,  “Llef” (2016) and “Eniadiau”  with the last three all reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann. I have also enjoyed a number of live appearances by the group at the Queens Head in Monmouth and a particularly impressive theatre performance at the 2014 Brecon Jazz Festival.

Also in 2014 Burum were invited to tour in India, an occurrence that sowed the seed for the Khamira project which sees Burum members Tomos Williams (trumpet) Aidan Thorne (bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums) collaborating with three Indian musicians, Aditya Balani (guitar), Suhail Yusuf Khan (sarangi, vocals) and Vishal Nagar (tabla, vocals).

Khamira’s cross cultural approach is similar to that of Burum but the addition of new instruments, plus voices, adds a whole new dimension to the music. The three Indian musicians all have strong ties to the West with Balani having studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, USA. Nagar is now based in San Francisco and is involved in a variety of jazz and world music projects. Khan has worked with the British musicians James Yorkston (guitar, vocals) and Jon Thorne (double bass, vocals) as part of the trio Yorkston, Thorne, Khan, releasing the album “Neuk Wight Delhi All Stars” in early 2016.

The idea of blending jazz and Indian music is not exactly new. John Coltrane and other members of the ‘60s avant garde incorporated Indian scales and rhythms into their music and these experiments were followed by the more obviously cross-cultural sounds of John Mayer, Collin Walcott, John McLaughlin and others. Khamira slots neatly into this lineage but the addition of traditional Welsh folk music to the mix is more unusual and adds an extra frisson of interest and excitement to this project. 

Khamira’s eponymous début album was released in 2017 and featured a mix of traditional Welsh folk tunes and Indian classical melodies plus two original compositions by Balani. At that time the group was a septet with Welsh pianist Dave Jones appearing on that recording. Album review here;

Remarkably this trans-continental alliance has managed to get together and play during every year of its existence. In 2017 Khamira undertook a tour of Wales as part of the ‘UK/India 2017’ series of events celebrating the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. This tour was supported by the Arts Council of Wales in conjunction with the British Council and I was lucky enough to witness an excellent performance by the band at the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny, an event that I attended as a paying customer.

“Undod” was recorded in in Wales in January 2020 but the onset of the pandemic ensured that the release of the album was delayed until September 2022. Khamira describe their music as “improvised world music from Wales and India unified by the aesthetic of jazz”. The album title nods to organist Larry Young’s classic Blue Note album “Unity” while other jazz influences include Miles Davis and Pat Metheny, most notably the latter’s approach to composition.

The release of “Undod” was supported by a recent tour of Wales and I was fortunate enough to see the band perform a triumphant, sold out hometown gig at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on 11th September 2022, again attending as a paying ‘punter’. The Cardiff jazz community was out in force to support the band and this was a truly memorable event.

For Khamira this gig, and indeed the whole tour, represented a triumph over adversity with visa issues preventing Balani and Khan from making the trip from India. Guitarist Dan Messore deputised brilliantly on guitar throughout the tour and at Cardiff Khan’s place was taken by Harjinder Singh Matharu on sarangi. The Chapter show also featured the singing of guest vocalists Eady Crawford and Amruta Garud. Williams proved to be a generous leader who gave plenty of solo space to his colleagues and everybody performed brilliantly, both individually and collectively. The sheer amount of musical equipment on the stage was staggering and it was easy to see why Khamira only play theatre shows rather than taking their music to the pub like the more compact Burum.

The press release accompanying my copy of the album offers insights regarding the inspirations behind the individual tracks. The recording commences with Balani’s original composition “Eleven Eleven” which acknowledges that Metheny influence through its use of soaring melodies and driving rhythms. It’s a suitably episodic piece that is rich in terms of dynamic contrasts and sonic detail and which embraces several changes of direction. But no Metheny Group record has ever featured konnakol singing, as performed here by Nagar, or the sound of the bowed sarangi, a short necked instrument from Northern India and Nepal, typically with three or four playing strings and up to 35-37 sympathetic or resonating strings.  Nagar also features on tabla and although Khamira deploy Metheny-esque structures and melodies the Indian instrumentation helps to ensure that their music sounds very different and very much their own.

Different influences emerge on the title track. “Undod / Unity” is credited as as an arrangement by Tomos Williams who takes the melody of the traditional Welsh folk song “Ffarwel I Aberystwyth” and sets it against a driving bass line inspired by Miles Davis’ 1970s dark funk bands. Williams’ own trumpet playing exhibits a strong Davis influence too. Besides the nod to Larry Young the title also celebrates the importance and benefits of cross-cultural collaborations in these troubled times.
Alongside the Welsh and Afro-American elements the Indian contingent also bring flashes of Hindustani melody and the Sufi style singing of Khan, with Balani featuring as an instrumental soloist.

“Saraswati ; Goddess of Music” is an arrangement by Khan of an 18th century composition by the South Indian musician Raag Saraswati. It’s unusual for a Southern Indian melody to be led by a Northern Indian instrument, but the beautiful, haunting tones of Khan’s sarangi sound just right on one of the most obviously ‘Indian’ pieces on the album. Nagar’s tabla is also an important component, but the Welsh musicians also become fully assimilated into the performance.

Williams’ merging of the Welsh folk tune “Dod dy Law” with the Indian melody “Nayaki Kanra” encapsulates what Khamira are all about. It’s a beautiful ballad performance ushered in the shimmer of O’Connor’s cymbals and the pure but melancholy sound of the leader’s trumpet. Balani’s guitar also plays a significant role in the opening ‘Welsh’ part of the segue. As an Indian musician playing a ‘Western’ instrument Balani represents the ‘glue’ linking the various elements of Khamira’s music together. “Nayaki Kanra” then features the sounds of Nagar’s tabla and Khan’s voice, with the Welsh melody eventually returning as the two tunes from different continents dovetail together.

“Arjun Nagar” is an original composition by bassist Aidan Thorne that was written by him during a Khamira tour in a hotel room in the Arjun Nagar neighbourhood of New Delhi. It was recorded by Thorne’s own band Duski on the 2021 release “Make A Wish”. Review here;

The Duski version made extensive use of guitar (Dan Messore) and electronics, with Thorne acknowledging the compositional influence of both Metheny and saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
On this recording Williams describes the tune as being “given the Khamira treatment”, with Khan’s sarangi and the leader’s muted trumpet coming to the fore. Thorne’s writing for Duski is often song-like in structure and elements of this are retained here and form the springboard for Williams’ trumpet soloing, here underscored by tabla, drums and the composer’s bass. Balani’s guitar is also featured in a more rock influenced nod to the Duski version. The piece concludes with the haunting sounds of sarangi and guitar.

Williams acknowledges the influence of Miles Davis with a version of the Davis / Joe Zawinul composition “Great Expectations”, which first appeared on the 1974 Davis double album “Big Fun”. This recording represented Williams’ first introduction to Indian instruments being played in a jazz context, with the album personnel including Khalil Balakrishna on sitar and the late Badal Roy on tabla. As such Williams felt it appropriate to acknowledge the album’s considerable influence on Khamira’s music. The Khamira version features a brooding, bass heavy, rock style groove and appropriately ‘Miles-ian’ trumpeting from the leader. Nagar’s tabla and Khan’s sarangi bring the Indian element as the dark funk grooves are punctuated by their improvisations around a Hindustani folk melody. Balani then cuts loose on electric guitar, shadowed by Williams, before the trumpeter and Nagar enter into a trumpet / tabla dialogue centred around the Welsh folk tune “Castell Rhos y Llan”. It’s a fascinating melange of influences performed in a manner that honours the restless and exploratory spirit of the great Miles Davis.

The album concludes with a Williams arrangement of the Welsh melody “Marwnad yr Ehedydd” (or “The Lark’s Melody”). Williams describes the performance as “atmospheric” and “ECM like”, qualities that are encapsulated in the ethereal sounds of Khan’s sarangi, with Thorne’s electric fluid bass also playing a significant role. Balani’s guitar then combines with the sarangi to simulate the flight of the lark in the title.

“Undod / Unity” has been a long time coming with more than two years passing between the time of recording and the eventual album release. But it’s been well worth the wait and despite the logistical problems the recent Welsh Tour was a triumph with the band delivering a brilliant performance at Chapter that helped to bring the music even more sharply into focus.

I’ve commented before that no other group sounds quite like Burum and that’s an observation that can also be applied to Khamira with “Undod / Unity” representing an outstanding follow up to the group’s excellent début. With the spectre of Covid now seemingly receding it is to be hoped that Khamira will be able to continue their fruitful trans-continental collaboration for many years to come.

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