Ms. Zarra became a focus of rapt attention

Jazz is global. Starting in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century, within a few years one could find jazz (as we understand in our current context) practically all over the world, including Europe and China. Today, jazz can be heard all over the planet (except perhaps North Korea), from Russia, to South America, Australia, Japan, and South Africa. What’s more, the internationalism of jazz has come full circle. In New York City, for example, in the last year alone Baruch College’s Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives concert series hosted a panoply of jazz performers with non-American jazz-root passports: Indian-born jazz guitarist Rez Abassi, Italian-born chanteuse Roberta Gambarini, and Columbian-born jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda. Each performer brought to their respective performances a strong dose of their social and musical roots. Other examples abound. Last Friday night at the refurbished Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street) in New York City Moroccan-born Malika Zarra shared her own multi-cultural, eclectic musical vision of world jazz. From the moment she stepped on the stage, despite the awkward, self-conscious rock-concert like lighting provided by the Le Poisson Rouge stage crew, Ms. Zarra became a focus of rapt attention. Her exotic physical presence, her engaging eyes especially, brought the audience into her musical world. Saying little by way of introduction, she began to sing. It did not matter whether she explained the meaning of the songs or not. It did not matter that she sang completely original songs in several languages—Berber, Moroccan Arabic, classical Arabic, French and one in English—the presentation was always interesting, always musical, always compelling. It was clear from the start that this 75-minute was not going to include the usual repertoire from the American songbook. Moreover, there was a tone to the performance that was definitely not American-as-usual. In more than a few moments, the feel of the show was more European than American. There was a sophistication to the presentation that said loud and clear: “Not made in America.” It made for a fresh performance. The all-original, mostly foreign language lyrics contributed, certainly, to this impression. But it was also the music. None of it was straight ahead in the conventional American sense. It was, on the other hand, a mixture of jazz elements, but you could also hear the Middle-Eastern scale influences, with generous dollops of funk, blues, and fusion. And none of it was a reference here or a reference there. It was a well-proportioned and seasoned blend. Zarra’s musicians, as well, added to the seamless blend of cultures. Her pianist, Manu Koch, is from Switzerland. Electric bassist Brad Jones is from New York City, and drummer Harvey Wirht, is from Suriname, described by some as a South American multicultural paradise. These were all excellent players in their own right who knew how to work with Ms. Zarra to produce a culturally seamless performance. This multi-culturism is no accident. According to her bio, Ms. Zarra was born in Southern Morocco, in a little village called Ouled Teima. Her father's family was originally from M'Hamid, an oasis just off the Sahara, while her mother was a Berber from the High Atlas. During her early childhood, there was always music and dancing in the house and Malika sang almost from babyhood. After her family immigrated to a suburb of Paris, she found herself straddling two very different societies. “I had to be French at school yet retain my Moroccan cultural heritage at home,” she recalls Malika’s interest in music led her to take up the clarinet in grade school. Meanwhile, she was exposed to a wide variety of musical styles. She cites fellow Moroccan Chiha Hamdaouia, the Lebanese-born, Egyptian-based ud virtuoso/composer Farid el Atrache, and Algerian-French singer Warda (Al-Jazairia) as major influences. She also absorbed albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Although her family was not in favor of her pursuing a musical career, Malika nonetheless attended classes at conservatories and jazz academies at Tours and Marseille in France and studied privately with Sarah Lazarus and Françoise Galais. During her apprentice phase, during which she became a fixture in France and on the Paris scene, Malika performed at a variety of well-known clubs and events, including Festival L’esprit Jazz de St Germain, Sunside, Baiser Salé, Hot Brass, Espace Julien, Pelle Mêle and Cité de la Musique. In the beginning, she interpreted classic material strictly in the original languages -- then a breakthrough occurred. “When I started to sing in Arabic, writing new lyrics for jazz standards, I found people reacted really strongly. There is always more emotion when you sing in your own language because your feelings are more intense.” I asked Ms. Zarra what was at the center of her performance. She replied: “I grew up in a Arabic/Berber traditional family in France. Naturally, my music is a blend of North/South, East/West, African/Arab and Europe/American. Also, since my younger days I faced tensions and segregation. I’ve always believed that music is a powerful tool for peace and to show how different cultures have adapted and borrowed from each other—how they are interrelated. I see myself challenging the separation between East/West, Europe/America, Africa/Middle-East. I enjoy being all these things at the same time.” From the performance at Le Poisson Rouge it appears Malika has successfully integrated her various cultural heritages. Furthermore, Ms. Zarra, like many other successful singers, also knows how to bring an audience into the performance. In addition to dancing in a very traditional Arabic manner while her musicians are improvising, on several occasions, particularly in the second half of the set, she invited the audience to clap to the pulse of the songs. Towards the end of the set she even attempted to teach the audience a vamp in Arabic. In this instance, the device was not as successful as it could have been, not because of the spoken sounds but because of the rhythmic pattern of the line. It was a bit too syncopated for the audience listening that night. Nonetheless, Ms. Zarra is a singer who can write compelling melodies and lyrics. She knows how to arrange them for small ensemble. She knows how to pick musicians to play with who fit her musical aesthetic. She knows how to arrange a set that reaches a climactic moment at just the right time. Most importantly, she has learned how to blend various musical cultural traditions into a weave that makes sense and engages the ear for an extended period of time. All in all, it makes for an entertaining and multicultural experience. Eugene Marlow - JAZZ.COM