There’s nothing immediately striking about AHI (an acronym of Ahkinoah Habah Izarh’s name and pronounced ‘eye’), and that seems to suit him well. Humble is an oft overused word, but it feels right here. From humble beginnings in Ontario, the Canadian singer-songwriter has put in countless hours on the road performing his personal blend of folk and soul and traversed a path of steady incline rather than rode a rocket to the top. Indeed, it was a touching tribute to his idol Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ – performed with his four-year-old daughter – that first garnered him serious attention as, in their own act of humility, the Marley family featured it on BobMarley.com. Now with the release of his second full-length LP, In Our Time, AHI keeps his unassuming nature as he strings together a solid series of tracks that touch the heart of his characteristic storytelling nature.
As with the man himself, there’s nothing immediately striking about his songs either. Catchy and light in nature, he fleshes out acoustic guitar strums with marching beats, soft rock electric guitar lines and the odd ‘millennial whoop’ hook as he ripples between nu-folk anthems and mournfully pretty ballads. At least they wouldn’t be immediately striking, but for that voice; and oh, what a voice. Aptly described as like ‘gravel on silk’, AHI’s husky vocals draw you into his stories and ruminations with the warmth of a freshly laundered duvet. It makes comparisons to the likes of Ray LaMontagne and Tracy Chapman as well as modern contemporaries like Michael Kiwanuka inevitable, and these would no doubt be welcome, but he holds his own unique ground regardless – a feat owing in no small part to remaining not immediately striking. There’s an ineffable charm to the sincerity of his songs; a modest, everyday fellow vibe that is unavoidable and imbues what could be derivative songwriting with the refreshing honesty of someone who truly believes in what they’re doing.
This is a man who loves his songs. They come from within him rather than him simply being someone who writes songs, and there is a difference. It’s what makes him be able to write eminently optimistic lines that verge on cliché like “I’m earning the right to say, anybody can find their way and I know I’m gonna make it out ‘cos I’m already breakin’ ground” on opener ‘Breakin’ Ground’ and have the you completely believe him. He knows his best songs and they come early – indeed as the record progresses it often runs the risk simply tailing off – but these are the songs that really draw you in. ‘Made it Home’ hearkens to Kiwanuka’s similarly themed hit ‘Home Again’, a gorgeous ballad of hope, triumph and love. ‘Straight Ahead’ rollicks along with a folk-rock charm Marcus Mumford would be proud of while ‘The Architect’s Hand’ gently unfolds its fable of building something with meaning as the steady momentum underpins references to cornerstones, palaces and “temples in Shenyang.” ‘The Honest One’ finds AHI pining for the honesty he displays so readily in his music as he laments “does anybody say what they mean anymore? Talk’s so cheap anybody can afford it,” before ‘Just Pray’s melancholic tale of an alcoholic father is a late highlight.
An opening track called ‘Breakin’ Ground’ is an interesting focal point, as when it comes to his music AHI isn’t really doing much of that. At their surface, these are songs that any number of folk artists could have written. But you get the sense that AHI isn’t particularly trying to break new ground, except for on the purely personal level that underpins the message of that particular track. This is where AHI’s essence lies and what ultimately makes In Our Time such an enjoyable listen. It’s simple, it’s honest and it asks you to join it in picking up the sincerity it’s putting down. It’s encapsulated in lines like this on ‘Made it Home, “we may never be the same because our youth is taking toll, but I’d do it all again if you’re here with me through it all” – simple, honest and lovely.