Sanah Kadoura: Back from the Brink

A life-changing injury added unexpected dimensions to the drummer's music

Sanah Kadoura

There’s a moment at the beginning of “The Power Of,” the second track on drummer Sanah Kadoura’s debut album, Hawk Eyes, when the hip-hop-inflected beat begins to warp. About nine seconds in, her steady 16th-note hi-hat pattern slows down for just a hair, each stroke a bit more labored, and then speeds up again. It’s easy to miss—a subtle, four-second blip that brings to mind the stuttering grooves of J Dilla, now imitated by many jazz drummers. But in Kadoura’s case, the allusion wasn’t intentional.

“There were times in the recording studio where my arms went numb,” Kadoura, 29, recalled matter-of-factly in an interview at her Yorkville apartment, where she lives with her cat, Malachi.

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That’s because, early last year, Kadoura suffered a traumatic head injury with unexpected side effects. Coming home one morning after a packed evening of performances, she smashed her forehead on the edge of a wooden window sill as she drowsily fell into bed. Though the gash was substantial, Kadoura didn’t go to the hospital until three days later. By that time, her brain had swelled to the point that she could not see or breathe easily, or feel with her hands or feet.

“It was fucking scary,” she said.

The January 2017 accident was life-altering for Kadoura, who could not walk or talk for some time. She was forced to drop out of the scene at a pivotal moment in her development as a musician, moving back to her parents’ home in Calgary, where she was born and raised, while she recovered for six months. As it happens, the accident occurred just five days before Kadoura was set to record Hawk Eyes, which she put off until March 2018, though she still hadn’t fully recovered.

“I was afraid when I hit my head,” Kadoura said, “that all the different powers my brain had would be gone.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, she emerged from the experience, she explained, with a new angle on life—one that, she feels, has deepened her relationship with music and given her more confidence and patience with herself.

Before she got hurt, Kadoura had already written all the tunes for the album, which features bassist James Genus and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, among others. But after, she reassessed each song and found that she no longer related entirely to her own compositions. “When I listened to them,” Kadoura mused, “they weren’t me anymore.”

Still, Kadoura wanted to preserve some sense of who she was, so she went through each tune, changing some melodies, recasting certain moods and reworking tempos. The result is a contemplative record, a potent mix of smoldering funk and straight-ahead jazz. It’s a testament to Kadoura’s chops as a musician and composer—and also to her vitality.

“Her spirit is refreshing,” said guitarist Mark Whitfield, who also plays on Hawk Eyes. “Her personality is full of life, and that’s what she brings to music.”

Kadoura is a dexterous improviser, with a light, elastic approach that evokes Tony Williams, a major influence. She began playing the drums at 18 and studied at universities in Canada before moving to New York, where she received her master’s in jazz performance. She has resided in the city for the past eight years and performed with organist Pat Bianchi, guitarist Ed Cherry, and saxophonist Joel Frahm, among many others.

When we spoke in late September, just before her album was released, Kadoura was still recovering from her injury but was nearly all better. It was clear that she was shaken from the experience, and she choked up a few times as she recounted it in detail. But despite what she had been through, Kadoura, with her newfound wisdom, said that she wouldn’t want her life to have gone any other way.

“I would go through it again.”