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"It's tough being a black female in the music industry"

The British singer released her debut album, You & I in 2016, after many years as a backing singer.
The British singer released her debut album, You & I in 2016, after many years as a backing singer. / IRA ROKKA
  • Dubbed 'the new Billie Holiday', genre-bending singer Ala.ni, who played in Malaga on Monday, certainly possesses a fiery drive akin to that of the renowned jazz artist

They say that she is the new Billie Holiday, though glimpses of Julie Andrews and Judy Garland can also be heard in her voice. From Ala.ni's own perspective, she is an "undercover rapper just dying to come out".

It's certainly an eclectic mix. After years as a backing singer for huge bands like Blur and musical artists like Andrea Bocelli, the British singer of Caribbean heritage found her own voice and captured it on her masterful debut album, You & I (2016). As part of the Terral festival, Ala.ni performed her evocative LP at Teatro Cervantes last Monday.

Over the telephone, Alani Charal is funny, personable and sincere. "As a black female in the music industry, I can say it's fucking tough," she says without qualms, when the subject of equality comes up.

In an effort to distance herself from sometimes "ruthless" masculinity, Ala.ni manages herself and has also surrounded herself with a majority-female team.

Among women, she says, there is more "sisterhood" and less of a "competitive" attitude. "We unify in a way that men don't. Even our menstrual cycles align; that's all that needs to be said!" she jokes.

On the subject of the Me Too movement, she muses that perhaps one sometimes becomes a "psychopath" when operating from a business perspective. "I want it, I can have it," she mocks. Ala.ni admits that she herself sometimes becomes a bit of a "psycho" if she is thinking purely in business terms.

The singer performed in Malaga with the sole accompaniment of her acoustic guitar and one electric guitar player. " I like the freedom that I have [this way]", she explains. "When I play with a bigger band I've got cues and entry points. It's a different vibe." Though she is keen to note that playing with a band is "satisfying in a different way", it is clear than Ala.ni enjoys travelling back to the origin of a song. "I think a good song should always be able to stand by itself," she declares.

A classic sound

Ala.ni's tracks are original compositions, but they often sound like classics: West End tunes with the spontaneity of jazz and the freedom of folk. This is perhaps down to her training. From the age of five, Ala.ni attended a performing arts school and for her, she explains, "the classics were like Pop." She breaks into song: "Three coins in the fountain! I know it's classic, but it's not 'classic' to me."

When she decided to create her own album, Ala.ni entered a period of introspection. "What was the song that got me into music? What was the first song I remember singing? It was Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the end of my ballet class. That was where I started from when I began to write You & I." She also remembers listening to Nina Simone as a child, tap dancing around her living room. "I tried to kind of imagine [who I was] and I realised that I was probably from the 1930s, Charleston dancing or something. I've embraced it."

She studied drama, dance and mime. She even dipped her toes into the world of musical theatre, "just to see if I could survive. It's tough, eight shows a week, doing the same thing every night. I didn't like the restrictions of not being able to stop the music and go 'hello everyone, how are you today?'" she admits. If she could, she would be part of Cats "just for one night," to sing Memories. "It's part of my spirit, it's part of my training, so I think if the right musical came up, and I felt like I could do it, I would love to."

During her years as a backing singer she trained her voice in Rock, Funk, Soul and RnB. "I loved it," Ala.ni reminisces, fondly. " The lack of responsibility. I could go on stage drunk and still do a good show... Well, not drunk, but you know, merry!" she laughs, "I can't do that now." Damon Albarn, lead singer for Blur, is an inspiration to her for "his energy and his dedication."

However, she admits, "I got to a point where I just thought 'I can't do this shit anymore'," and so she decided to strike out on her own."There's nothing wrong with being a backing singer, but in a sense we are all kind of like failed singers. We all had aspirations, but at some point you become jaded and you realise that money is better and a lot more consistent being a backing singer and you kind of quit on yourself. I realised, 'I can't quit on myself, I have to make it happen.' And I did," she recalls.

Now, Ala.ni is "very happy and grateful" for her success so far and has begun to explore new artistic ideas. Her next album will be almost completely a capella, recorded using simply her own voice: "my instrument". She can't reveal much more as she's currently in the middle of the creative process. However, she does let slip that while writing this album she has gone into "'Dr. Dre mode': I've realised I want to be a rapper. It's actually quite funny". Her song of the moment is Win by Jay Rock. "I'm walking down the road on the way to the studio, listening to it ten times in a row."

If this, or indeed her stunning performance on Monday, is something to go by, Ala.ni doesn't do anything by halves.