Malika Zarra‘s story echoes those of so many of us who share the immigrant’s experience. Originally from a village in southern Morocco, Zarra’s family moved to France, where she was forced to live a hyphenated existence. For some, having to adapt to a new culture while maintaining ancestral ties can be stifling. Many, however, see the possibilities that lie in drawing from the best of both worlds and do not see it as an either/or proposition, but rather seek an amalgamation of old and new as a distinct cultural identity.
“I wish to share my mix of cultures with the audience, and I hope that they will feel that music has always traveled around the world, and also understand a bit more how our cultures are indebted to each other,” said Zarra during a recent interview with DCist.
Zarra found this distinctiveness, quite literally, through her voice. Now based in New York, the talented singer-songwriter is making music that is a singular blend of all the sounds to which she has been exposed. Her breakthrough came while studying music in France, where she began experimenting by writing Arabic lyrics to jazz standards. Nowadays, she not only writes in Arabic, but also her Berber mother tongue, Moroccan Arabic, French and English. These lyrics are set to melodies which float over rhythms that come from equally disparate influences.
While the source of the music may be foreign to many of her listeners, the emotions Zarra aims to convey are not. “I would say that music is a universal language that anybody on earth can relate to,” Zarra said. “Anyone can feel the vibration and the honesty of an artist.”
Touring in support of her latest album, Berber Taxi, Zarra will be performing this weekend at the historic Bohemian Caverns. The album is so named because themes of travel and tradition permeate through her lyrics. Musically, she wanted to go deeper into her Moroccan roots. Gnawa is a percussive style meant to accompany people entering a religious trance. She also delves into chaabi, a more popular form that is the Arabic equivalent of the blues. Also on the album is music from the Issawa and Houara cultures.
As a writer, Zarra tends to work out bass lines over specific rhythms, and if those rhythms are not played with the proper feel, the songs will lose their essence. Accompanying her will be bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wriht and keyboardist Manu Koch. She chose the musicians specifically for their deep understanding of these styles and rhythms.
While her music is the sum of her experiences, and is meant to appeal to anyone open-minded enough to give it a listen, we were curious as to whether European and American audiences react differently to her sound.
“Maybe from a general point of view, I would say that Europeans might have more of a tendency to analyze the music, while Americans would just try to feel it,” Zarra observed.