Imani Uzuri’s travels reveal her bold heart and global soul in The Gypsy Diaries
The mysterious figure on the moonlit railway platform, the passerby on the dusty road are not strangers; they are friends and fellow travelers. And to “stunning” (New York Magazine) vocalist and globally-inspired composer Imani Uzuri, they spark melodies and musical connections. With the beautiful growl of a blueswoman and the sweetness of a nightingale, Uzuri finds the deep ties that bind her rural Carolina roots to Eastern Europe and North Africa, that bind the purr of sitar strings and the ripple of Japanese folk flute to African-American traditions and the international arts underground.
Born of worldly travels and spiritual travails, Uzuri’s rich acoustic songs on her sophomore album, The Gypsy Diaries, find fresh settings for unifying human experiences: the loss of loved ones, the joy of discovering, the alienation and shifts of moving, meeting, and departing.
Imani grew up dreaming of travel, reading adventure novels and poetry under the pecan trees during her childhood in rural North Carolina. Visions of other lands and other worlds entwined with her musical roots and formed the foundation of Uzuri’s intensely focused approach to evoking places and moments with her powerful yet subtle voice. The old Spirituals, the gospel music she sang and heard in her small country church with her extended family, in particular from her maternal grandmother, sunk in deep.
“I feel like my Granny’s sensibility shaped me. She had an off-key joyful voice, and every morning she would wake up and start the day singing,” Uzuri remembers fondly. “Her music was about praising and gratitude. She taught me that the intention of singing is to express.”
Uzuri honors her foremother, who passed as Uzuri began working on the album, in a profound, bittersweet tribute on “Soul Still Sings.” She takes the lessons her grandmother imparted to heart with in her keen storytelling: Her compelling voice sketches conjured trysts on train platforms (“Meet Me at the Station”) and prayers on a mountaintop (“I Sing the Blues”).
While following the inspiration to explore the world’s musical landscape, she fell in love with artists like Mailian diva Oumou Sangare’s beckoning, soaring voice, with the praise and ecstasy she heard in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music. In their music she heard that long-felt connection between roots and the world’s roads come to life.
Along with her personal musical travels, Uzuri also began exploring the world, traveling to Japan, Brazil, Russia, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mexico to perform. On her travels, she sang favorite Spirituals to newfound friends in Moroccan casbahs, visited sacred islands and busy street corners, wondered at resonant churches. As she wandered, Uzuri was fascinated by the fertile tension between separation and connection. And by a feeling of unexpected familiarity that ran through it all: “I heard this euphony of sound pouring out of St. Basil’s on Red Square,” Uzuri recalls. “I went in and sound was washing over me. It felt familiar; I understood the intentionality, the vibration. Everyone who was listening felt it.”
Uzuri’s open, curious ear has made her an eclectic artist and bandleader who loves to collaborate with stellar multicultural musicians and unexpected instruments which are featured prominently on The Gypsy Diaries: Neel Murgai (sitar, daf), co-producer Christian Ver Halen on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes (cello), Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese shinobue flute, western flute), and Todd Isler on world percussion. Yet the mosaic approach feels seamless, drawn together by Uzuri’s compelling and versatile voice.
Joy and sadness play throughout The Gypsy Diaries. The playful mirth of the Caribbean-inflected “You Know Me You Love Me” alternates with the reflective, stirring “Beautiful.” The blues-inflected sounds of a modern-day field holler, “Gathering”, and a swaying call of lovingkindness, “Dream
Child,” contrast with the fierce assertions of “Whisperings (We Are Whole).”
The Gypsy Diaries is a celebration of the connection of the journey, the isolation of travel—the railways, transitional spaces, roads and crossroads—intersected with a tangible unity Uzuri felt with the Ethiopian villagers she met, with the Roma musicians she jammed with, with the flowers vendor
on the Turkish street.
Uzuri says “Ultimately, this album is about finding one’s place through the traveling, the communion, the loneliness, victories, sadness, losses, euphorias, revelations, transformations coming to understand that we are always here: home.”
Rave reviews are pouring in for Imani Uzuri’s new album, The Gypsy Diaries, from Ebony to All About Jazz to Time Out New York. Carol Cooper of the Village Voice praises, “With a voice that would sound equally at home on an opera stage or a disco 12-inch, Uzuri is a constant surprise on record, seamlessly combining jazz, classical, country and blues motifs into highly personalized compositions.”
Ms. Uzuri also recently composed and performed her orchestral premiere, Placeless, commissioned by Kaufman Music Center’s Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall on March 16th. She was also recently a featured soloist in John Cage’s “Apartment House 1776″ at the Avant Music Festival where her “gorgeously chesty ruminations” were singled out by music critic Steve Smith for The New York Times.
Imani’s critically acclaimed solo debut album, Her Holy Water: A Black Girl’s Rock Opera (2007), was heralded as “one of the best of the decade” by Bold As Love. Eclectic, “provocative and emotionally charged” (New York Post), the album featured lush vocals, strings, and sultry orchestration and according to OkayPlayer “creates a dramatic musical narrative worthy of its lofty title.” Cultural critic and Black Rock Coalition co-founder Greg Tate declared: “Put your hand where it hurts and this sound may heal you…there is no way you can hear such music and not be transformed.”
Uzuri has performed at numerous international venues and festival from Morocco to Moscow including recent performances at Lincoln Center, Blue Note, Joe’s Pub, Festival Son d’Hiver, Central Park Summer Stage, The Kitchen, Winter Jazz Festival, The Apollo Theater, Whitney Museum and at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).
She has collaborated with a diversity of noted artists across various artistic disciplines including Herbie Hancock, Wangechi Mutu, Robert Ashley, Carrie Mae Weems, John Legend, Sanford Biggers, Peter Gabriel and Vijay Iyer.
Her recent television appearances include Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as a special guest performer with Talib Kweli, Hi Tek and The Roots and as a feature in her own commercial for BET’s Black History Month campaign. She is currently composing a new musical GIRL Shakes Lose Her Skin inspired by the works of Philadelphia Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez.
“[Uzuri] never fails to mesmerize audiences with her
narcotic blend of…ethereal sounds”~Time Out New York http://www.imaniuzuri.com
Imani Uzuri Videos:
“Dream Child” from Imani Uzuri’s The Gypsy Diaries
LIVE performance video of “Beautiful” from The Gypsy Diaries
Photo credit: Petra Richterova (c) 2012
“You will definitely want to check out vocalist Imani Uzuri. Sticking to music associated with the rural south, she teams up with a group of kindred souls to grab into the red clay of the earth and let it ooze through her fingertips.” George W. Harris, Jazz Weekly
“the stellar new sophomore album by singer-songwriter Imani Uzuri, is all about journeys: both the shock of the new and the self-reflection that happens when you set off for someplace different.” Ebony
“an inspiring soulful presence” James Nadal, All About Jazz
“a great voice” Howard Mandel, Jazz Beyond Jazz
“The opening sitar sounds on the first track, ‘Beautiful,’ followed by the bluesy, gospel vocals of Imani Uzuri, offers a glimmer of what brilliant–and varied–delicacies are found on The Gypsy Diaries. The multi-influential work encompasses Indian, blues, gospel, Afro-pop, Eastern European, and East Asian elements that bring a sense of class, soul, and dignity to the world of music. This is world music at its best!” Matthew Forss, Inside World Music
“You could file what Uzuri does under soul music, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A world traveler and musical omnivore, she blends global styles seamlessly but impactfully. Given the instrumentation on the album – Christian Ver Halen’s acoustic guitar and bass, Todd Isler’s versatile percussion, Neel Murgai’s sitar (!), Kaoru Watanabe’s flute, Tarrah Reynolds’ violin and Marika Hughes’ cello – the songs often build to an unexpected, epic grandeur.” Alan Young, Lucid Culture
“Bounce-Worthy vocalist Imani Uzuri hails from North Carolina, but it is evident in her music that she carries many different corners of the world around in her heart. There’s a bit of West African energy in there, touches of the Caribbean, some Eastern European strength, but what unifies it all is her deep, strong and bluesy voice. On her freshly released album, The Gypsy Diaries, Uzuri takes the listener trekking with her through different places, spaces, feelings and encounters. … This is music that makes you stop and question life, that makes you want to pack up your bags and journey down that road less traveled and take that moment to talk to that person sitting on the corner and hear their life story.” Soul Bounce
“Ms. Uzuri creates a tapestry of genre-smashing music that bridges nations….a brave, bold voice.” Candace L. , Okayplayer
“Imani brings a clear artistic vision and a powerful voice to the continued exploration of her musical, spiritual and emotional wanderings.” Rob Fields, Bold As Love
“[Imani’s] voice, slightly husky and warm like Joan Armatrading’s, can reach the cheap seats of the theater. She has power and intimacy rolled into one, a rare combination indeed. Her album The Gypsy Diaries crosses genre boundaries without missing a beat. A bit of jazz, some blues, grains of folk and gospel, hints of soul, but first and foremost she is a story teller.” Hans Werksman, Here Comes The Flood
“deeply soulful…transports listeners through time and space” Jennifer Williams, Ms. Magazine
“Powerful. Voice. World. Woman. Those are the words that come to mind as one listens to Imani Uzuri’s latest masterpiece, The Gypsy Diaries. The Gypsy Diaries is a beautifully composed album that takes you through Persian sands, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and the fields of Mississippi.” Victoria Shantrell, Soulhead