BURUNDI: Sambolera - Khadja Nin
Updated: Feb 11
The euphonious Burundian brews up a perfect blend of afrobeat, pop, and new wave with a scrumptious sprinkle of jazz on top
As far as I am concerned, Stevie Wonder is the closest thing we have to a musical deity, and therefore I get very protective of the great man’s music whenever I come across a cover of his work. This is because I believe that even artists who I love in their own right, such as Frank Sinatra, The Miracles and The Beach Boys, tend to butcher Wonder’s songs whenever they attempt it, no matter how well-intentioned. In light of the fact that Wonder’s work should be treated with such reverence, as a general rule of thumb, the only times I see it as acceptable to create covers of his music is either when an artist does something completely different from the original, or when they select a song so niche from his endless back-catalogue that even I as a Stevie Wonder super-fan struggle to recognise. Fortunately for Khadja Nin, she has done both and will therefore not be getting a review in which I criticise her for a lack of respect for his greatness.
“When I describe it as sensual, I do not mean that she has a cabaret-esque voice of seduction, but rather the capacity to carry a note in which it does more than just land softly on the ears.”
The second track on Khadja Nin’s compilation album Sambolera is a track called Sina mali, sina deni (which translates from Swahili as ‘without property, without debt’) which is a cover of a song called Free which I think is the best song from Wonder’s 1987 album Characters. It is an interesting choice of track to cover. Whilst I never usually criticise Wonder, it does come from what is in my opinion my second least favourite (notice how I didn’t say ‘second worst’) album of his that he recorded during his adult life; for any curious music nerds, my least favourite is Journey Through the Secret Life Of Plants. Therefore, to pick a song of his that clearly had quality, but failed to shine due to its placement on one of his less successful albums, when compared to the rest of his oeuvre, seems an astute choice. However, to make it her own, Nin needed to do something special, and she was unfortunately unable to enhance the melody greatly, and I would be a tad surprised if she has improved upon Wonder’s profound lyrics (although I cannot say for certain as I do not speak Swahili).
However, what Nin did both in this song as well as throughout the rest of Sambolera is rely on her powerful and somewhat unique vocal talent. Nin’s voice is simultaneously sensual and uplifting. When I describe it as sensual, I do not mean that she has a cabaret-esque voice of seduction, but rather the capacity to carry a note in which it does more than just land softly on the ears. This is most pronounced on my favourite track Mwana Wa Mama. This is one of the softer songs on the record alongside Mama Lusiya, Rosy and Bwana C., of which the final two particularly stand out for the inclusion of wonderful saxophone playing that helps gives what is broadly a pop album a smooth jazzy layer.
Although much of the production of this album perhaps does not give Nin’s voice the centre-stage that it deserves, that does not matter so much. This is because, while there is some really great instrumentation on tracks like Save Us with a funky organ, phenomenal percussion on Sous Le Charme, or a mandolin that creates a rumba-like beat on N’Barik Fall, none of it completely overpowers or overshadow her voice, but rather it adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the album. Whilst it is difficult to be fully complimentary or critical of a compilation album, it must be said that it does flow nicely combining a selection of higher energy pop tracks with touches of afrobeat, new wave and jazz. Though it has its faults, kudos has to go to Nin for succeeding to successfully cover the greatest musician of all time in my opinion, whilst also showing off her own immense vocal aptitude on a fun album that can be enjoyed either as background music or on a more active listen.