Arts Scene Wales caught up with Tomos Williams, Welsh trumpeter and leader of the band ‘Khamira’ before their performance at the Cowbridge Music Festival on Tuesday 19 September
Khamira is an unusual combination of musicians from Wales and Inda. Where did you meet and how did it come about?
A band that I lead called ‘Burum’, a Welsh jazz/folk sextet toured India in 2014. As part of that tour we did a masterclass at the Global Music Institute – a music college in New Delhi run by Aditya Balani. We struck it off instantly, both musically and socially, and decided that we should somehow try and collaborate. Wales Arts International liked the idea of a Welsh-Indian collaboration so we visited India again in 2015 to create Khamira. 3 Welsh musicians joined forced with 3 musicians from India- Aditya Balani recommended Suhail Yusuf Khan on sarangi and vocals who in-turn recommended Vishal Nagar on tabla. These are all exceptional musicians and after three days rehearsals we were performing at major jazz festivals in India like Kolkata JazzFest and Goa Jazz Festival. It was a great tour and we all agreed that we would have to keep the collaboration going. Through a combination of tenacity, hard-work and generous funding from various sources (mostly from Wales Arts International, Arts Council Wales, British Council and more recently Tŷ Cerdd) we have managed to see each other and perform every single year except for 2021 (when a global pandemic stopped international travel!). We recorded our first album in 2016, toured Wales in 2017, visited India again in 2018, toured South Korea in 2017 and 2018, recorded our second album ‘Undod/Unity’ in 2020, which was released last year, and we toured Wales again in 2022. It’ll be great to play at the Cowbridge Music Festival this autumn, and a few other dates around South and mid Wales, before hopefully going back to perform in India in 2024.
It’s always great when the guys come over to tour Wales. Last year’s tour – although it was brilliant – was also hindered by some bureauocratic misshaps. Adi and Suhail’s VISAs to enter the UK were not processed on time – despite applying months in advance, so at the last minute I had to find other musicians based in the UK. The tour was still a great success and the new musicians did brilliantly, but there was still a slight feeling of ‘unfinished business’ – so the invitation to perform at the Cowbridge Music Festival was the instigation I needed to get the ‘A-team’ back together in Wales again in 2023. As well as performing at the Cowbridge Music Festival on Tuesday 19th September, we’ll also be performing in Oxford, Ystradgynlais, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhayader and Cardiff.
What kind of music do you perform?
We perform what we call ‘Improvised World Music’. We’ve thought often about how to define or categorise our music – which transcends geographical barriers and musical genres -but this monicer seems pretty apt. The music includes Welsh folk melodies, Hindustani classical music as well as jazz, so the World Music represents the Hidustani and Welsh elements while the improvised part is a nod to our jazz sensibilities. There’s a lot of freedom and improvisation within the music – elements which are associated with jazz, but are also a big part of the Hindustani tradition, of course.
So we fuse Welsh folk music, Hindustani classical music and jazz. There is also quite a strong cinematic element to our music, and a lot of audiences have commented that our concerts take them ‘on a journey’. Pat Metheny, the eminent jazz guitarist and his cinematic music is definitely an influence, as is Miles Davis’ dark funk from the 1970s. It’s on these Miles Davis’ records that I was first introduced to Indian instruments such as the sitar and tabla in a jazz context. So Khamira’s music certainly nods towards these influences, while also forging our own path, of course.
Tell us a little of your background and musical interests.
I come from a jazz background, but I performed with the Welsh folk band fernhill for over 15 years, and I learned a lot about Welsh melodies through that experience. Ignoring musical boundaries and blending genres comes quite naturally to me, and I think that’s in part due to the music that I’ve listened to and performed over the years. This is also true of both Aidan Thorne (bass) and Mark O’Connor (drums), the other Welsh musicians in the band, who are both exceptional musicians, who can play any style. They are also very sympathetic and empathetic musicians, which is crucial to this kind of music.
As regards the Indian musicians Aditya Balani plays electric guitar, which is considered a more ‘Western’ instrument – he studied jazz in the USA and is currently Director of GMI (Global Music Institute), a music college that he has set up in New Delhi teaching improvised music and jazz. As well as being adept at improvising in any style he is very knowledgable of the Hindustani tradition. Suhail Yusuf Khan is the star talent of his generation and is considered a master virtuoso on sarangi and vocals. The sarangi is a unique voice-like instrument which provides beautiful melodies and exotic textures to our music, while Suhail’s singing voice is simply beautiful.
Vishal Nagar on tabla is also widely experienced and is a virtuoso rhythm-ist. He has performed with a host of top names from within the Hindustani tradition and in more Western contexts. Both Vishal and Suhail really embody the cross-cultural ethos of Khamira. They are steeped in the Hindustani tradition, but not blinkered by it, they are seriously trained in their craft but are not limited by any kind of conservatism when it comes to music-making.
Tickets for Khamira’s performance at Cowbridge Music Festival are on sale now. Book now at https://cowbridgemusicfestival.co.uk/events/khamira/