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Perspectives: M Nahadr

M Nahadr, singer, on jazz, R’n’B and being an albino

"This new album of mine is called EclecticIsM, and I describe it as "commercial free jazz", because the free jazz world is the one that is most familiar and most comfortable to me. But what I'm really doing is soul music, literally as well as figuratively.

I see an ancestry in my compositions that goes back to soul and R'n'B, but soul is there in all kinds of other music, too, and maybe I'm tuning in to that. You could call it "alternative black music". I leave it to others to give it a name - me, I just call it soul music.

When I moved to New York from Washington, I felt out of place initially. Most of the producers that I worked with wanted me to be either Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. Because they sensed that I had some sort of vocal prowess, they always wanted me to be something different from who I was. So I just moved on. Then the internet came. That was a big help.

I wanted the freedom to be able to make the music that I heard and understood, but at the same time I wanted to have some sort of commercial success. Sabir Mateen [the avant-garde clarinettist] was amazing, insofar as that venerable old gentleman was able to show me how anything I did was going to be free as long as my intention came from a place that was honest. So I took all of those lessons to heart and I think that I involved myself in every kind of music, from Tibetan to gospel choirs and everything in between. From Enya to Mahalia Jackson.

I'm an African-American woman with fair white skin and naturally blonde hair. Because of the African-American tradition of hair straightening, when my hair was done you just saw layers, it would shine platinum blonde; and all you'd see were two little brown eyes in this pale face. During that time, the film The Parent Trap was around and I looked just like Hayley Mills, but I lived in an all-black neighbourhood when there was still a stigma attached to being an albino. With the amount of racism that existed in America at the time, especially in Washington, DC, it was crazy. I came to understand myself and my life; I came to understand being isolated and ostracised.

My music is the fruit of all that. I don't think that you could make music the way I do if you were still conflicted. The music has made me stronger in other ways, in releasing me from what could have been terrible bitterness. I had to understand myself before I could even think about how to find
and create my own music.

Interview by Kevin Le Gendre

“EclecticIsM" is out now on LiveWired records. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War