Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

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April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: TriBeCaStan – Strange Cousin

An alternate title for this cd could be Around the World with 180 Instruments. This is definitely a strange album, also a very clever, entertaining and playful one, ostensibly showcasing the music of the tiny and fascinating nation of TriBeCaStan, landlocked by the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chinatown, SoHo and the Financial District. In one sense, this seems to be a vehicle for bandleaders John Kruth and Jeff Greene to air out what seems to be a museum’s worth of exotic and unusual instruments. Bolstered by a like-minded cast of adventurers including oud master Brahim Fribgane, gypsy jazz pioneer Matt Darriau and seashell virtuoso Steve Turre, they have a boisterously good-natured out-of-the-box sensibility much in the same vein as sprawling avant-gypsy/klezmer/reggae improvisers Hazmat Modine.

The first cut is Mopti, a Don Cherry tune redone as rustic, hundred-year-old one-chord oldtime blues. Tonko the Zookeeper maintains the rustic blues feel, featuring Kruth on the Moldavian kaval (recorder) and Greene on the dutar (a beautifully resonant Uzbek lute). The suite continues with Yusef’s Motif, a flute composition, Greene this time on the koncovka, a wooden tube of Slovakian origin used here for its otherworldy overtones.

Raphaella is a sad tango for mandolin, mandocello, six-string ukelele and guiro. The Flowers (That I Placed at My Ancerstor’s Grave Spontaneously Burst into Flame with Their Appreciation) waltzes along sadly with understatedly poignant clarinet from Darriau. Dancing Girls (of TriBeCaStan), another sad waltz credited as “traditional,” showcases yet another lute, the Middle Eastern rebab. TriBeCaStani Traffic Jam uses a whole swamp full of reed instruments  – the Chinese sheng, harmonica, krummhorn, Pakistani taxi horn and alto sax – to very vividly illustrate a street scene where nobody’s going anywhere.

Sunda Sunday is a hypnotic but not lazy vignette with Turre on shells and Greene playing both incisively minimalist steel drum and bowed tambur (a Turkish lute that resembles a banjo), followed by Lady Dez, a swinging, Balkan-inflected minor-key harmonica tune that sounds straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog. The best song on the album is the striking Black Ice, Kruth’s kelhorn (a popular Renaissance-era wooden flute with a marvelous tremolo tone) floating darkly over Greene’s rustic nyckelharpa (a Norwegian autoharp of sorts with two sets of reverberating strings). Of the rest of the cd’s fifteen tracks, The Bottle Man takes bluegrass to Bulgaria; Otha’s Blues takes the delta to Indonesia; Princess Rahsaanica takes a soul song east to India, and there’s a gamelanesque Sonny Sharrock cover. And the title track, a blazing, blaring march sailing along on the wings of Kruth’s Andalusian shepherd flute with a Master Musicians of Jajouka feel. To say that there’s something for everybody here would be the understatement of the millennium. Suggestion to Kruth and co. – send out a few unlabeled CDRs to world music reviewers and the people who put out the Rough Guide compilations and see how many people you can dupe into believing that this is the real thing. Which in a sense it is, the triumphantly indigenous music of the fearlessly syncretic people of TriBeCaStan!

July 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment