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Malika Zarra

By Phil Freeman
Published March 13, 2007

The lines between Middle Eastern music and jazz are there to be drawn. Ornette Coleman has played with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and Pharoah Sanders recorded an album with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, of the Gnawa tribe. Now, Moroccan vocalist Malika Zarra is arriving at this crossroads from the opposite direction, infusing the music of her native culture with jazz. Her self-released debut CD, On The Ebony Road, mixes rhythms from chaâbi, Berber and Gnawa music with jazzy improvisation and smooth, seductive vocals.

Both jazz and Middle Eastern music view improvisation, and particularly the ability to let the song carry you where it wants to go, as crucial. “When I started music, I decided to study at a jazz school,” says Zarra, “because I thought, in terms of Occidental music, this is the one that has also this improvisation space like in Middle Eastern music.” Her band, composed of French/Swiss guitarist Francis Jacob, Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Brahim Fribgane, Senegalese bassist Mamadou Ba and Surinamese drummer Harvey Wirth, has an intuitive communication that can only come from long-term gigging and jamming. Zarra’s soft, birdlike voice is ably supported by rhythmically supple grooves, whether she’s singing in English, French or Moroccan. “I sing in 3 languages because I’m trying to make people understand what I’m saying,” explains Zarra. “When I write in English, first I think in French then I translate and I ask my friend to correct my lyrics. In Moroccan dialect, usually I write directly in this language.” Ultimately, though, the sound of the human voice, cushioned by sympathetic instrumentalists, is communicative no matter what the specific words are.