Sunday, January 02, 2011

‘HANDMADE’ by Hindi Zahra- Expect the Unexpected

Were you expecting Chipmunk-like vocals from some Hindi-language Bollywood-based diva, maybe? Or perhaps you were thinking of tablas and sitar serving in devotion to a few hundred gods? Guess again. Hindi Zahra is Moroccan with Berber roots, French branches, and… English flowers. The name of her first album is ‘Handmade. Now I don’t usually like non-native English singer-songwriters, not so much for the accented singing itself, but for the typically lame compositions from such ‘cross-over’ artists, the subtle nuances of language usually lost in translation. But you’ll have to admit that the quality is getting better, proving not only that the music typically predominates over the lyrics, but that foreigners are increasingly mastering our medium. For a Moroccan Berber- or a Belgian or a Chinese Malaysian or almost any African, for that matter- you’re growing up with three languages already… so what’s a fourth?

The lyrics may be English, but the musical style is unmistakeably French, old school. We’re not talking Manu Chao here; we’re talking Django. And though she counts jazz as her main influence- the album is being released on Blue Note after all (visualize hand swishing a lapel)- be careful: we’re talking Billie Holiday, not Cassandra Wilson. The first song- ‘Beautiful Tango’- a surprise hit in France, illustrates this old-timey quality best, down to the earthy vocals, slow and moody- “beautiful stranger, take me by the hand… sweet music, sweet sweet music”. You can cut the smoky air with a knife.

The next two songs, ‘Oursoul’ and ‘Fascination’, continue in the same vein- yes, THAT vein- doing what Hindi does best (and what the French audience apparently wants), getting sweet and lowdown, albeit in the Berber language on ‘Oursoul’. With ‘Set Me Free’ she explores some new ground, more of a Spanish-Gypsy feel, with percussion and clapping and guitar, with increasingly bluesy vocals- “I know you’ll never be the man I used to know… please set me free, look what you do to me.” ‘Kiss & Thrills’ continues the lament with “in your heart, in the dark…who’s gonna’ love you like I do?” ‘At The Same Time’ tells us why. She’s a hopeless romantic- “I should die in your arms right now, and give it all to you… love is so beautiful and cruel at the same time.” Sooo French. At least that gives it a break from the standard verse- verse- chorus- verse format.

The album’s third third gets more experimental musically… to good effect, in my opinion. ‘Stand Up’ is faster, more lively, and even adds banjo; now that’s very old-school jazz! Ditto the lyrics- “stand up on your two feet baby… you want me to be your mother, but you know I’m too young, and you want me to be your sister, but you know I’m too old”. Then she shows us a side as yet hidden with ‘Don’t Forget’ (“don’t forget about me when you say good-bye”) and the album closer ‘Old Friends’, slower but not moody, instead trippy and dreamy, a side I like a lot- “Old friends and young ones, all the angels and preachers became one… for this heaven we live, reality may come in”…

The one thing this album does NOT include are any Arab standards, or hardly even any influence, surprising given Hindi’s Moroccan origins. The influences are jazz, gypsy music, and French chansons, in no certain order. Given the romantic sensual nature of much of it, it might even be considered a rebellious album, almost anti-Islamic, harking back to an era when Islam was not concerned with fundamentalism. Expect a call from the Brotherhood any day. In fact the album reminds me of no one so much as K. D. Lang, pure torch and twang, and… constant craving. But I won’t go there. YOU go there… and check it out (a brief word about the title: it’s accurate, complete with that ‘lived-in’ feel, family production values), 'Handmade’ by Hindi Zahra.

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