Hindi Zahra's smoke-and-mirrors exoticism

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Hindi Zahra
  • Hindi Zahra
Most of what I’ve read about the singer and songwriter Hindi Zahra over the last year has made a big deal about her Moroccan roots. She was born in the North African country to a French father and a Berber mother, and she moved with her dad to Paris when she was a teenager. On her debut album Handmade (released today in the US on Naïve, although it was released in France a year ago by Blue Note) she sings exclusively in English (with the exception of the Berber-language “Oursoul”). Her collaborator Thomas Naïm plays the Moroccan frame drum called the bendir on “Stand Up,” which breaks into a quasi-Arabic riff for a moment, but that’s about as a deep as the Maghreb runs here.

Zahra’s style certainly plays up the exotic, but the music really doesn’t do the same. You can hear a touch of West African blues on a song like “Kiss & Thrills,” but if the same licks and solo stabs were used on a record by a white American they would never register as an outré flourish because they’re so elemental. That said, Handmade is a delightful piece of work, a kind of pop-folk fusion that suggests a funkier, Patchouli-scented Norah Jones. Zahra is a raw student of American music, notably in her adaptation of Billie Holiday’s emotion-stained warble, but her sensibility owes just as much or more to the charming cultural mash-ups of Franco-Iberian superstar Manu Chao, with bits of reggae, acoustic blues, and coffeehouse folk in polite collisions. Zahra has made an auspicious, entertaining debut, and I’m more than curious to hear where she’ll go next. Below you can watch the video for the album opener “Beautiful Tango,” followed by another song from the album called “Fascination.” Zahra makes her Chicago debut this evening at Lincoln Hall.

Hindi Zahra, "Fascination":

Today’s playlist:

The Awakening, Hear, Sense, and Feel (Black Jazz)
Henry Mancini, Midnight, Moonlight & Magic: the Very Best of Henry Mancini (RCA/BMG)
Edison Machado, Edison Machado é Samba Novo (CBS/Sony Brazil)
Whitefield Brothers, Earthology (Now-Again)
Jonas Kullhammar Quartet, Från Och med Herr Jonas Kullhammar (Moserobie)

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