Hardly have her lips approached the microphone than your ear is drawn in, gently but irresistibly. Just the slightest nonchalance in the hips with a filigree of swing in the delivery, a delicately veiled voice. Meet Hindi Zahra and her original gently undulating sense of melody. With a subtle, understated guitar accompaniment, a dash of gypsy guitar between the lines, and a hint of blues but with a capital B. Time stands still. Intense, intimate, poetic vibrations, with a velvety feline timbre. At thirty, Hindi Zahra is neither a reality show wonder nor the umpteenth shooting star fizzing across the firmament of vocal jazz. Music is the story of her life, a family affair.
The story of a Berber girl born in Morocco. Her father was in the army and her mother a housewife, occasional actress and singer of village repute. Among her uncles were musicians, into the post-psychedelic Moroccan scene of the time. She grew up to the sound of divas ¾ raï and châabi, like Cheikha Rimitti, and the great Egyptian Oum Khalsoum ¾ between traditional Berber music and desert rock’n’roll, with the blues of the great Malian Ali Farka Touré and the sensual folk music of Ismaël Lo in the wings. All this before she set out across the Mediterranean to join her father in Paris. She left school and got her first job at 18 in the Louvre. “This was my meeting with art. As a child, I was contemplative, in touch with nature. The paintings gave me the same sensations.” The Dutch masters were soothing, as music had always been. “Sound has always fuelled my imagination.” Her dreams were soon to materialise. At night she worked secretly on melancholic lyrics and wrote melodies for years. “When it comes to music I’m prepared to work long and hard.
”A fan of “the Afro-American groove” ¾ she singles out Aretha Franklin, James Brown, 2Pac, and Tribe Called Quest ¾ she learned her chops doing backing vocals on hip-hop flavoured soul before embarking on her solo career. “I soon got fed up with the machines and loops, but what I took away from that experience was the understanding of what I really wanted to do.” Starting in 2005, the self-taught composer was soon etching in the contours of the music that would reflect her personality, turning out some fifty songs in just one year. From these, two gems emerge. The first, Oursoul, is a tantalisingly ambiguous word play: what looks like English is in fact a Berber word meaning “bygones”. Against an arrangement evocative of American folk, the song tells the unfulfilled dreams of a young girl destined for marriage. Then came Beautiful Tango, a ballad rich in timeless nostalgia, a hymn to love, a sad thought with the power to pull tender heartstrings. “I had no doubts about the tune, so it was a relief when the words came naturally”, she admits. Beautiful Tango got serious kudos from The Wire, the reference in Britain’s “adventurous music” press, which heralded her as a worthy successor to Billie Holiday, no less. “Jazz is the only place where I can hear notes from my homeland. Jazz equals freedom to create.
It’s a great school.” Better still, Fink, a pure product of the Ninja Tune “chilled electro” stable, encouraged her to take her time, and fine-tune her songbook. For two years she honed her set, developing a trademark difference in style: bucolic on the edges, tinted with nocturnal blues, with ideas running through fingers and voice. Her first album has a playing time of 40 minutes and contains eleven songs, just what it takes and no more. The production and arrangements are her own, end-to-end, and already have the patina of maturity: a pared down sophisticated lady mood. “I write a lyric; I play a riff, I record the guitars and the rhythm parts. Then I fit the words.” With style in her piano and ideas in her style, Hindi Zahra chisels away at her own original groove, a finely crafted soundtrack of soul-folk-jazz ballads and south Moroccan roots, on the cusp of black culture, embellished here by some bendir, there by a ganoua bass line, or lyrics in Berber on tracks like Imik Simik and Petit à petit (Little by little), a title that fits her well.
A versatile multi-instrumentalist she has quietly, away from the limelight, gone about the business of building an authenticity, that is there in her songs, “always about love” and people, “very simply”.