Words Annabel McLeod
The first thing you notice about Imany isn’t her pretty face or slim limbs (she was a high jumper in her youth). When you meet her it’s her voice that is immediately arresting. It’s deep; surprisingly deep. "I’ve had this voice since I was a little kid. My early interactions with adults [consisted of] their reaction to this voice. People were like 'Oh my god, what is this sound?' I had a complex," the singer explains. So what changed? "Boys! They told me my voice was sexy so that changed things. I started the process of liking it too."
Imany is at Cognac Blues Passion Festival (in association with Hennessy) on the grounds of Hennessy's opulent Château de Bagnolet estate. The highlight of her intimate VIPs-only performance is an off-kilter, acoustic take on Queen’s mammoth hit Bohemian Rhapsody, accompanied by dual cellos. Other acts at the festival include Sting, Tom Jones and Selah Sue. Also taking the stage were Bajan poppers NexCyx, winners of the Chase The Music. Own The Stage talent search, for which ARISE is a media partner.
One of ten children, Nadia Mladjao was born in 1979 on the Comoros Islands and grew up in suburban Paris. She started modelling in her teens and only adopted her Swahili moniker in order to distinguish herself from the other Nadias at her agency in New York. She worked in the US for several years before heading back to Paris to start a music career. Within a few months she had gained a good reputation through gigs in jazz bars and clubs and opened for Angie Stone on tour in 2010.
For Imany, Africa is often her inspiration. "I wanted to improve the way I drew, so one day a designer friend of mine suggested that
I closed my eyes, thought of something and let my hand do the drawing. At the time I was thinking of the continent. When I opened my eyes I realised I’d drawn a broken heart," she admits. "Then it hit me: when you look closely, Africa has the shape of a broken heart. From that, a song was born." That, and the name of her debut album, The Shape Of A Broken Heart. It was released in 2011 and has gone platinum. Critics lauded it for her blend of afro soul and funk and she earned comparisons to her idol Tracy Chapman.
Her first single from the album, You Will Never Know, has racked up over 5million hits on YouTube. It’s a three-part film shot in Cuba by ARISE contributor and filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu. In it Imany walks through fields, dances in the streets and is befriended
by children wielding balloons, but ultimately she is pictured alone and loveless. It’s always hard for anyone making that transition from clotheshorse to credible musicaian, but with this song, Imany pulls it off.
The PR calls time on our interview but there’s just a few minutes left for a portrait. Our photographer directs her to a refreshment table next to a drinks machine, and she immediately sprawls elegantly on top, coming alive as if she were posing in a glossy studio set. Old habits die hard.