Wales is blessed with some incredible Jazz musicians and ensembles and one of the best and one of the busiest Welsh Jazz musicians is Tomos Williams. Amongst his many projects is Khamira which is a fusion of Welsh Jazz/folk and Hindustani Classical music. The band have a stunning new album ‘Undod/Unity out in September followed by an extensive Welsh tour. We wanted to find out more from Tom about how Khamira came to be and what to expect from the new album and tour.
Khamira are a band that combine members from the UK and India. How did this long distance fusion happen? Where did you meet and how did you start playing together?
Another band of mine – Burum – toured India in 2014, where I met Aditya Balani – the guitarist in Khamira. Adi is the Director of GMI – Global Music Institute – a music college in Delhi, and we did a masterclass at the college. We hit it off and decided we’d suggest the possibility of forming a ‘cross-cultural collaborative’ band to Wales Arts International. They liked the idea so in 2015, we returned to Delhi, to perform and to form Khamira. We had 4 members of Burum and 3 Indian musicians – Adi recommended Suhail Yusuf Khan on sarangi and vocals, who in turn suggested Vishal Nagar on tabla. We had a great short tour of India – performing at the Goa Jazz Festival and the Kolkata JazzFest, and we all committed to ensuring that this would happen again – we all clicked both musically and socially. Since then, through numerous funding applications and sheer bloody-mindedness we’ve managed to see each other and do something every single year except for 2021 when there was an international lockdown in place. We recorded our first CD in 2016, toured Wales in 2017, toured India in 2018, toured South Korea in 2019, and then had a sold out gig at the Dora Stoutzker Hall in RWCMD in January 2020, before recording our second album a few days later. We are now releasing this second CD called ‘Undod/Unity’ to coincide with our second Welsh tour in September 2022.
The band been together since 2015. How do you manage navigate and maintain the relationship over such a long distance?
It takes quite a bit of determination and constant funding applications! As a trans-continental band, it would be impossible for us to exist without funding, so there’s plenty of funding applications flying about, some successful, others not. But we never let the ‘no’s stop the momentum of the band. There’s been quite a few times where I’ve thought – “Right, that’s it, we’ve hit a dead end here” – but then another opportunity arises and you see a light at the end of the tunnel. It certainly comes in waves -there are periods when we are in quite close contact, and then long periods when we’re not – but thanks to social media we all know what we’re doing and we all pass comments on each others other projects!
The Indian players come from a Hindustani Classical music background. What are the differences between this background and Welsh Jazz/Folk background?
The difference is quite fundamental, but then on another level, it’s not. I (and we – the Welsh guys) have learnt so much from talking to Adi, Vishal and Suhail about music and how they approach music.
One thing that has really struck me is how these guys are ‘in’ the music. Both Vishal and Suhail said there was no way that they would be anything other than musicians, due to the familial lineage. Vishal’s Mum was a dancer for Zakir Hussein (one of the biggest names in tabla playing) while Suhail’s uncle was a Nationally celebrated Ustad of the Sarangi. Music and the tradition is in their blood.
Adi on the other hand went to Berklee College in the US to study jazz – so he followed his passion and has now set-up one of the only ‘jazz’ colleges in India. He really is a bridge between the Hindustani classical tradition and jazz – and other ‘Western’ forms of music – Adi is also a singer-songwriter.
As for us Welsh musicians – I can’t speak for everyone -there are obviously Welsh folk musicians who are also inextricably ‘in’ the tradition, but with what we were doing with Burum – fusing Welsh folk with jazz – it’s a logical extension to fuse Welsh folk/jazz with another form of music - in this instance -Hindustani classical music – through the prism of jazz – which creates an unique form of World Music.
But there wasn’t much ‘ownership’ of what we were doing anyway – we were too jazz for folk and too folk for jazz! We’re just trying to find a ‘Welsh’ voice within the wider jazz context. It must also be said that all of us – both Welsh and Indian musicians in Khamira are open minded – we’re all aware of tradition, but are not afraid to expand on that, or push the envelope – not all musicians in any of the genres that we fuse are willing to do that.
When you are playing live with Khamira how does it differ from when you perform with other groups such as jazz ensembles?
When you’re on stage with such great musicians, it doesn’t really make much of a difference what music your playing. You are very much in the moment and just enjoying the music. I, personally, really enjoy Khamira’s performances, but I approach it very much like I would any other concert. Khamira’s aesthetic is very ‘jazz’ and improvisation is central to our performances , so fundamentally we all listen to each other and react like a jazz band would – but the sound coming out the other end is more World Music than jazz!
As a player you seem to be involved in numerous projects and bands. Keeping busy as a musician is key in the 21st century but what are the pros and cons of having so much activity seemingly going on at once?
Ha! Thank you – it often feels to me like I have massive vistas of doing nothing! Yes, it’s good to have various projects going on, and that’s something that’s just developed over the years. Once I start something, I don’t really want to let it go, so as a result of that I guess I have quite a few things that are on-going. But all the projects are different and there’s a limit to how much you can play the same thing in the same places, so some projects appear for a while, then disappear, then re-appear. I think a lot of musicians involved in creative musics work like that. So I have Burum – my jazz/folk sextet, which led directly into Khamira. I then started my ‘Cwmwl Tystion’ project back in 2019 to perform more overtly political music – the time just felt right for something Welsh like that. I also run a band that just plays the music of Miles Davis ’7Steps’ and I have an electronic trio with Aidan and Mark that perform from time to time, but we haven’t recorded anything yet. But the Miles band for example – I last toured that in 2018, and I’d like to tour it again in 2023 – but we’ve been pretty quiet in the interim! It’s certainly good to be involved in so many differing projects, but equally as the guy who drives all these projects, it does feel like I’m constantly looking for gigs or work for some band or other. But I’m not complaining – it’s all part of the hustle!
The album was recorded pre-pandemic in Giant Wafer Studios. Can you tell us how the recording process works with Khamira? Do you spend a lot of time rehearsing beforehand or is it more a case of letting loose in the studio and see what emerges?
As a trans-continental band, there’s not much time for rehearsals! So with this new album, we had one day of rehearsals, then we were straight into the studio. We knew that Adi and Aidan would bring an original composition each, I had two or three Welsh folk songs I wanted us to do, and Suhail had a Raag. So we knew what songs we were going to do and how much time we had, so we were on a schedule that was tight, but do-able. We did play many of these songs ‘for real’ for the first time in the studio – so it’s a combination of being open and letting loose and also specific. As a comparison – we knew each other much better and had played together much more than when we recorded our first album in 2016, so we felt more comfortable together and as a result we were all confident that this would be reflected in the music and during the recording process – which it was.
You’ve covered a Miles Davis track ‘Great Expectations’. Why Miles Davies and why that particular track?
I’m too old to have heroes, but Miles is a dominant figure in my life! Funnily enough Miles’ 70s bands was my first introduction to Indian instruments in a jazz context. His dark funk bands of the 70s had Kalil Balakrishna on sitar and Badal Roy on tabla, and I loved the colours and textures that that sound bought to those Miles bands. As a result – when Khamira was formed, Miles’s 70s music was a formative influence – particularly albums like Big Fun, Get Up With It and Jack Johnson. We started playing Great Expectations quite early on in our repertoire. It’s just a great bass line with a great groove, so when we went to record the album I suggested we should record it since we’d been playing it for a few years anyway. As it happens I think the version that we got down in the studio is the best that we’ve ever played it! Khamira also did a ‘Khamira plays 70s Miles’ concert at the RWCMD two days before going to the studio – which was a sell out – so that dark funk of Miles’ 70s bands is quite central to Khamira.
Khamira are touring Wales to promote the new album what are the logistics of putting the tour together? You must have to overcome a lot of hurdles to put it all together?
Yes, well organising a tour – you just have to get on with it. It’s good to have a peg, or a ‘great’ gig offer to try and build a tour around – so luckily last year the prestigious Fishguard and West Wales International Music Festival offered us a concert to end their festival. That was the instigator that I needed. It was worth trying to get the guys over from India for this gig, and then if they were over in Wales it would be mad not to try and perform more than one gig, and since they come from India – a tour is always preferrable to just a couple of gigs. The availability of the musicians is always a problem – even with booking a year in advance , the guys are so busy, but we managed to ensure we were all available. So I then go at it to arrange a tour – then I applied for funding from the Arts Council of Wales, so I am very grateful for their financial support , otherwise this tour would just no be able to happen.
So once I knew the tour was in place and would be happening, it made sense then to release our new album ‘Undod/Unity’ while we were on tour. Ty Cerdd are releasing the album on their label, so it was just a matter of sorting out a suitable release date with them that would correspond to the tour and Khamira being in Wales.
On the forthcoming tour you are being joined by Eadyth. How did that come about and how will you be incorporating her into the band?
I first worked with Eadyth last year with my Cwmwl Tystion II / Riot! project and tour, and I was completely blown away by her. Her voice, her style, her musicality was just exceptional. I just thought that inviting Eady to join us as a special guest would be a great idea, and would develop the band sound further. It’s also a way of introducing Welsh words for the first time into a Khamira performance and to introduce a female voice into the band, of course. I always announce bi-lingually, but usually Khamira gigs are an instrumental affair apart from Suhail singing in Hindi. So I thought introducing the Welsh words to some of these folk songs would be interesting, but also of course, I wanted to hear Eadyth’s amazing voice in Khamira’s World music context. It’s more than just having a singer – it has to be the right fit – and it struck me that Eadyth’s voice and her ability as a singer would be that fit. I’m genuinely excited to hear how it’ll go. She’ll be joining us as a guest on two or three songs, maybe even four – we’ll see how it goes! I’m sure it’ll be more rather than less once we start performing together!
For those who haven’t seen Khamira live before what can they expect to see and hear at the forthcoming gigs?
It’s been said often that a Khamira concert takes the listener ‘on a journey’. It certainly takes you somewhere else, due to the sounds of the tabla and the sarangi – they are exotic sounds to our Western ears. The Welsh melodies are also very deep, so there’s a lot of emotion in the music. There’s also a lot of groove and rhythm – the drums and tabla combine to create a propulsive rhythm. On this tour Suhail Yusuf Khan can’t join us, so we will be joined by one of his star pupils – Ejaz Hussain – so this in itself is also exciting. Ejaz will be playing the sarangi and singing, but in no way will he be a direct replacement for Suhail , he will bring his own musicianship and style to our performances. Adi is a brilliant guitarist who can really tear it up while Aidan and Mark are a brilliant rhythm section who are always listening. Add the virtuoso tabla playing of Vishal Nagar and Ejaz on sarangi to that, and the odd trumpet solo and you have Khamira’s unique take on World Music – Improvised Music from Wales and India! Please come out and support live music and come and say ‘hi’ after the gig!
Khamira will be playing at:
Monday 5th Sept – Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea
Tuesday 6th Sept – Galeri, Caernarfon
Wednedsay 7th Sept – Lost ARC, Rhayader
Thursday 8th Sept – Theatr y Werin, Aberystwyth
Saturday 10th Sept – Merlin Theatr, Haverfordwest
Sunday 11th Sept – Chapter, Cardiff