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World Music Features

Julien Jacob

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published February 20, 2006

Only Julien Jacob has a clue what he’s singing about. A notation on the back cover of the CD informs that Jacob “writes about inner and outer peace and his lyrics can be interpreted as you wish as they are a creation of his own imagination.”

It’s a common complaint of those who reject the world music experience that they can’t understand the words. Fair enough—world music asks the unilingual listener to work a little harder than usual. The music must be ingested as a package, the mystifying vocalizing considered as a component of a greater whole. It asks us to imagine, to feel around for the emotion, intent and attitude. Frustrating? It can be. Rewarding? Considerably.

          The language barrier isn’t an issue in loving Julien Jacob’s Cotonou (Wrasse). Why? Because only Julien Jacob has a clue what he’s singing about, therefore no listener has an advantage over another. A notation on the back cover of the CD informs that Jacob “writes about inner and outer peace and his lyrics can be interpreted as you wish as they are a creation of his own imagination.” There’s something relieving in knowing this upfront—immediately the burden of understanding evaporates, the listener freed up to take the music on its own terms, literally.

          Jacob hails originally from Benin, in western Africa, however he’s been living in France since early childhood. His official resumé points out that he’s digested rock and jazz, hung with Miles and Fela, that he’s written books (presumably in a known language) and that he released one prior album, Shanti, some time in the late ’90s. One gets the impression it’s all been leading up to this.

          Cotonou goes through its mood swings, but overall it projects a quietude that would seem to reflect its creator’s self-professed spiritual and poetic leanings. Jacob’s minimalist guitar and sparing usage of African percussion don’t so much accentuate but rather provide a weave for his resonant vocals—whatever the heck they’re about. Rachid Taha, Jacob’s more celebrated labelmate, pitches in a guest backing vocal on “Yacob” (each of the CD’s titles are one word), which may or may not be autobiographical.

It’s tempting to think of Cotonou as a novelty, with Jacob’s co-conspirators in on the joke. But it’s not, and they know that. There’s nothing about this richly textured piece that suggests otherwise.

          Julien Jacob isn’t the first artist to substitute a made-up language for one recognized by others with working tongues—scat singers have been improvising for decades and some vocalists garble their words so badly no one knows what they’re saying anyway. Quite the opposite here: Jacob’s for real, and by the end of Cotonou you’ll have a very clea