Amai Kuda:Sand From the Sea (independent)

The debut album from this Toronto artist opens with just her voice and handclaps: it’s all she needs to instantly establish herself as a captivating presence. The instant the fully fleshed out instrumental arrangements appear, it’s obvious those are just gravy. Kuda herself is the whole package.

Indeed, one of the biggest strengths of Sand From the Sea is that Kuda’s voice is always front and centre; the arrangements never clutter her space, and even on the modern-day R&B tracks she often strips everything to their essence, and more than a few tracks could be blues hollers or traditional African songs. Kuda draws from diverse black diaspora traditions — central African music, blues, hip-hop, reggae and soul — immersing herself in whatever sounds are surrounding her at the moment, never sounding like she’s trying on a new set of clothes. She also has the songwriting chops to pull it all off. For all its eclecticism, Sand From the Sea doesn’t sound like a hodgepodge; it’s a consistently strong debut that instantly marks Kuda as the brightest new Canadian talent this year.

And yet for Kuda — who is painfully modest in her blog postings on her website — it’s obvious that music is a means to an end for her: almost every track carries a message of social justice. Sometimes it’s extremely effective, sometimes it sounds like every activist musician you ever saw play a benefit show in the ’90s. Even at her preachiest, however, Kuda is still compelling, her voice recalling the best work of Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill. She’s definitely her own woman, however: smart, sensual, and righteous — and with one hell of a debut behind her.