Primary Instrument: Vocalist
Imani Uzuri grew up dreaming of travel, reading adventure novels and poetry under the pecan trees of her idyllic early years in rural North Carolina.
Visions of other lands and other worlds entwined with the musical roots that 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 heard in her small country church and from her extended family, in particular from her formidable 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.”
Born of worldly travels and spiritual travails, Uzuri’s rich acoustic songs on her 2012 release “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.
Following the inspiration to travel and explore the country, Uzuri found herself in New York, where that long-felt connection between roots and the world’s roads came to life. 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.
“The first time I was introduced to Nusrat’s music, I felt like it was gospel music,” Uzuri recounts. “I didn’t know what he was saying but I understood. Just before his death, I got to see him perform at a Sufi community concert, and it was like a charismatic church service. The integrity and passion was the same.” Uzuri’s open, curious ear has made her an eclectic bandleader who loves to gather stellar multicultural male and female musicians and to bring together unexpected instruments, from sitar and daf to acoustic guitar and cello. Yet the mosaic approach feels seamless, drawn together by Uzuri’s compelling and versatile voice.
Along with her personal musical travels, Uzuri also began exploring the world, traveling to Japan, Brazil, Russia, Ethiopia, Hungary, to perform with artists like Bill Laswell and Ethiopian singer Gigi, and as a solo artist. “I moved to New York, and traveling became a part of my life as an artist,” Uzuri reflects, “I started getting all these calls. There’s an artistic underground that spans the globe, and I became part of it. It sustained me. ”
On her travels, she sang favorite Spirituals to new found friends in Moroccan casbahs, visited sacred islands and busy street corners, and 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.”
The isolation of travel—the railways, transitional spaces, roads and crossroads—intersected with a tangible unity Uzuri felt with the Russian villagers she met, with the Roma musicians she jammed with, with the flowers vendor on the Turkish street.
“As part of a collaboration I did in Hungary with Romany musicians, I was taught to sing a Roma lament in Hungarian “If you’re transmitting joy or sadness, it’s about sharing the truth of that with the voice. That’s where you feel the connection and integrity.”
Joy and sadness play throughout The Gypsy Diaries. “Ultimately, this album is about finding my place through the traveling,” Uzuri explains, “the communion, the loneliness, victories, sadness, losses, euphorias, revelations, transformations coming to understand that I am always here: home.