27th February 2021
I was updating my World Music playlist recently and came across a name I haven’t listened to in any depth for a while, the Burundian beauty, Khadja Nin. I only got to know her music around 2004 after she had, unfortunately, dropped out of the mainstream music world following her 2006 marriage to racing driver Jackie Ickx, but we do have her four acclaimed albums that chart the career of this talented songbird.
She was born the youngest of 8 children and studied music from an early age. By seven-years-old she was a lead vocalist in the Bujumbura choir. In interviews she is quoted as saying that music was always fun for her and her biggest influence was Miriam Makeba.
In 1975 she left Burundi for Zaire to further her studies. This is where she met and married her husband. She left her musical aspirations and spent a few idyllic years raising her young son while running some tourist lodges. In 1980 the couple emigrated to Belgium with their young son and within months tragedy struck with the passing of close relatives that she had left behind, followed by the sudden death of her husband
This talented lady was left alone in a country where she had no friends or family with a young son to raise. Being determined to stay in her new country, she started to apply for menial jobs to keep food on the table.
Her fortunate meeting with music producer Nicholas Piszman, was the turning point Khadja Nin needed. Piszman fell in love with her voice and they started to write songs together. It was only in 1991 that they got their first recording contract. BMG was smitten with the fusion of African and Western styles and signed them immediately. The power of Khadja Nin’s self-titled debut album was immediately recognised, and welcomed in the World Music scene. Let’s start with a track from that first album. Here’s Mwana Wa Mama.
Where Khadja Nin’s first album pricked the ears of the music press, her 1994 album ‘Ya Pill’ took her career to another level with a busy touring schedule of the World Music Festival stages. She sees performing live as essential to anyone musical career. “Being on stage is the only way to improve, to take risks and o directly thank your fans”
Her huge breakthrough to the mainstream was thanks to French TV Chanel TF1 who, in a bid to establish some cultural credibility, selected Khadja Nin as their 1996 featured Summer Act and broadcast videos from her 3rd album, Sambolera, several times a day throughout the summer.
It could have been a risky choice for-the channel, as well as for Khadja herself. “People often asked me whether I was afraid to be swallowed up by TF1. The answer was: ‘No, I’m not edible’. This opportunity just helped me to reach a larger audience and to move faster. As I knew exactly where I stood, I did not fear anything for my own credibility.
There shouldn’t really have been any doubt in anyone’s mind. Her music and career lost no credibility and helped boost her 1996 album Sambolera which was sung in Swahili, French and Kirundi. One of the special moments of her career was the duet she performed of Rod Stewart’s Sailing’ with Montserrat Caballé on her album Friend’s fo Life.
Let’s listen to the title track that helped cement her name in World Music history. Here’s Sambolera
In 1998, Khadja recorded ‘Ya’, her 4th album, and sadly for music lovers, her last. At this point I’m crossing to the interview I found on the 2018 worldmusiccentral.org from writer Angel Romero. I couldn’t find the original interview source, but I trust the WMC site and the author enough to quote:
“The whole set up for the recording of Ya… was great. We moved to South London and stayed in a country house where we installed a mobile studio. Thus, I could invite my musicians and guests, such as I Muvrini (from Corsica), as if I was at home. Besides the friendly spirit of the place, it gave us a chance with Nicolas to develop our working relationship much further. He writes most of the music and I concentrate on the lyrics, but we speak the same language. After so many years together, our style gets sharper and finds its own harmony,”
On singing in Swahili and Kirundi. “Ya is a bit different from my previous albums as it marks a big change in my life. The first twenty years of my life were wonderful and I will always keep them in my mind. The following twenty years were tough with the loss of very close people and my experience of war, hard times and loneliness, with a child to raise. So I hope that the next twenty years will be a rebirth, a new freedom. With this record, I cast off my old skin for a new one. I treat the former era with a lot of respect and decency but I definitely get rid of my mourning dress.”
Although she is no longer a part of the music industry, she had lent her voice to both social causes and the arts. She was included as a part of the delegation sent to the 2015 African Union Summit where she addressed the conflict and political unrest in Burundi. In 2018 she was included as a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival.
She has said that she doesn’t miss the music industry, but her fans, me included, certainly miss her. It was hard to choose a closing track, but I settled on one that is a fixed part of my World Music playlist and always gets me doing my Mandela Shuffle around the house. Here’s Afrika Obota.
Catch you soon music-lovers.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that does more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021