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World Music Features

Nawal

By Derek Beres
Published January 9, 2008

Creating an acoustic roots-based fusion, Nawal's unique sound combines influences from her native Comoros islands (located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Africa) and far beyond. Derek Beres checks in with this amazing new voice on the scene to talk about her unique backround and music.

Sometimes in order to believe, we must disbelieve first. In fact, it is often the process of disbelief that strengthens our faith. Blind belief results in unquestioned devotion to ideas both external (war, religious division, social tension) and internal (doubt, fear, uncertainty), whih proves more dangerous than believing in nothing at all. Still, there's something funny and inspiring about listening to Nawal discuss her days of not believing.

The thing is, listening to her latest record, Aman— a gorgeous 12-song collection that includes Buddhist and Muslim chanting, a call to universal peace in a post-9/11 world and various stanzas taken from her Sufi heritage– you'd never guess she'd dabbled in atheism. But there's a science to both her faith and her music: they reside in life experience, not abstract idealism.

Nawal was born and raised in the Comoros Islands a tiny country comprised of three islands in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar and Mozambique. But her family left in 1976, when she was 11 the year before president Ahmed Abdallah had been removed by force, replaced by an Islamic fundamentalist named Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar. (Jaffar himself was the subject of a coup a few years later, and was killed.) Nawal's mother was not a supporter.

"He said everybody have to work for free every Sunday, we don't care if you're bourgeoisie or not," Nawal says, cringing at the communist ideals of her past life. Her mother moved the family to a hippie community in France, where Nawal continued to play with the fishing-line-strung guitar she had picked up at seven.

In France, she was afforded a certain freedom unavailable in her homeland. She was raised on the music of the Doors, Pink Floyd and James Brown, as well as a family and community “into Jimi Hendrix and bell-bottom pants, black power and smoking joints.” But the native politics and folk music of the Comoros were all around, as well.

“In 1975 my uncle beat me because I was playing guitar on stage. A woman never did that. Women singing, yes, but a woman that played guitar, like a man? They said ‘Sorry, not our family.’ Even today, some of the young ones say I’m not really Comorian. Comorians can’t be like that. Then I realize how far we are away from the understanding between a man and a woman.”

Nawal mentions this several times: how she is defined as masculine for her steadfastness in playing music publicly, as well as her actual performance style, swinging her guitar and gambusi (a unique oud-like instrument) in tranced-out fury. It’s not a stretch, superficially anyway. She sits erect, firm and toned, with sharp features and short hair. When she repeatedly chants “Allah Hu” for emphasis during our talk, there’s a deep resonance to her voice, noticeable on Aman. She takes it in stride, pleased to be considered a strong and passionate figure.

Her deep voice recalls the way Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s cut straight into listeners’ hearts. In fact, it was the same Sufi poetry, the timeless wonder of Rumi, that brought Nawal back to spirituality. More recently, this Sufi template has been colored by a study of the Indian chakras, and how sound affects the psyche and body of the individual.

If, as she says, “the voice is the muscle of the soul,” hers is one with the strength to heal. There’s something soothing in the a cappella “Dandzi,” which translates as “a woman’s blues.” It’s a traditional Comorian song about a woman in a polygamous marriage that loves her husband, receiving none in return. As is often the case, it is through the expression of an ailment that the ailment is cured. This is the reason that, during heartbreaking times, we listen to sad music. It uplifts by reminding us we’re not alone.

“Aman,” too, sounds sad, but it’s a