Khyam Allami

It’s not often that you stumble on a musician at the start of his career who’s biography is as intriguing as Khyam Allami’s. Since taking up the ‘ūd (or Oud, Middle Eastern Lute) in 2004, he has already generated a “palpable buzz” about him and “left a trail of unforgettable live performances in his wake” according to the UK’s fRoots Magazine who recently put him on their cover. 

Whether at small independent venues, Birmingham’s alternative/experimental Supersonic festival, WOMAD or the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, Khyam is yet to falter in making his audience revel in the lucid beauty of his music.Born in Damascus, Syria to Iraqi parents in 1981, Khyam took up the violin at the tender age of 8 when he played the role of a young violinist in the art-house film Al- Tahaleb directed by Rimon Butrus (1991). After his family moved to London in 1990, he soon dropped the violin and in 1996 began to play Drums and Bass Guitar. He co-founded the independent rock groups Ursa and Art of Burning Water and slowly garnered a reputation as one of London’s most passionate and hard-hitting drummers. 

Yet something was still missing. In 2004 his path took yet another turn and he began to study the ‘ūd, Arabic music theory and traditional Iraqi repertoire with the London based Iraqi ‘ūd maestro Ehsan Emam. Quite the de-tour. In the following years he dedicated tirelessly to music and travelled across the Middle East to study with ‘ūd maestros Naseer Shamma and Hazem Shaheen in Cairo, Egypt and Mehmet Bitmez in Istanbul, Turkey. In the process he received various grants, awards and scholarships and completed two degrees in Music (BA, MMus) at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

In 2010 his dedication and hard work was recognised nationally when he became the first recipient of the prestigious World Routes Academy scholarship from BBC Radio 3. As part of this new initiative Khyam performed, wrote blogs, co-produced radio programmes and interviewed musicians for BBC Radio 3. He also curated an afternoon of Iraqi culture on London’s South Bank as part of Celebrating Sanctuary Festival and collaborated with renowned Iraqi singer/guitarist Ilham Al-Madfai and other Arab musicians during a 3 week trip through Beirut, Damascus and Amman. All of which was documented and broadcasted on BBC Radio 3. 

The project culminated in two spectacular performances at WOMAD 2010 and as part of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by Italian master percussionist Andrea Piccioni, both broadcast live on BBC R3 and well received in the major UK press (Guardian, Evening Standard, Telegraph, Times). Speaking about his live performances to fRoots magazine, he recalled an early solo performance which set a precedent for all those to come: “I decided to play with some new tunings, heavy tunings, perhaps too heavy for an audience unfamiliar with the music... Yet the silence and attention in that room really moved me, to the point where I was able to open up more of myself to the listeners. That proved to me that the louder you play, the louder you shout, the less people listen. As I was playing, the silence became louder, the concentration became deeper, and so did the communication between me and the audience.” 

It is precisely his unimposing and captivating performances resulting from his “search for that rare communion with an audience ” that set Khyam apart from his contemporaries. Predictably, most people tend to see Khyam’s journey as a return to one’s roots, a literal search for identity. For Khyam, it’s a not quite so simple: “It’s too easy to say, “I’m looking at my roots and trying to rediscover myself. It’s more a process of re-balancing that which you are” he told Dubai’s Brownbook magazine. For Khyam, Art requires honesty and sincerity and if you can’t be honest and sincere with your self about who you are, how can you be honest and sincere in your art? 

Although perceived as a performer of “traditional” music, it’s clear to any learned ear that there is something different about Khyam’s ‘ūd playing. His interweaving melodies and rhythmic flourishes respecting traditional forms and structures, whilst always hinting at an elsewhere slowly being discovered. 


Twitter Account: