Music Review: Handmade by Hindi Zahra

Article first published as Music Review: Hindi Zahra – Handmade on Blogcritics.

Most people would say four or five focused listens would probably be sufficient to write an album’s review. As far as Hindi Zahra’s Handmade (Naïve Records), I passed that threshold weeks ago. I can’t stop listening to it. I keep it in my car; no matter where I go, I find a song which speaks to my mood. To date this is easily my favorite album this year, at once sophisticated, exotic and evocative.

Though she would likely be categorized under “World Music,” Zahra fuses musical cultures freely to create her own sounds. A Berber girl born in Morocco, she takes her own musical heritage and seamlessly integrates it with blues, jazz and gypsy, among countless other influences.

As a breakthrough album, Handmade is nothing short of astonishing. Zahra wrote the songs, played instruments, sang and self-produced with a restrained hand. Each track offers slightly different tones and shades, like a rainbow scarf slipping through your hands.

“Beautiful Tango” makes you want to dance barefoot, a swirl of silk tied on, arms jangling with a hundred bracelets — rather like Hindi Zahra: “Come speak the secret words in Spanish / Where the night turns out the light of day for us to show some courage,” she croons, against a backdrop of hand-claps and hand drums.

You should listen to “Fascination” in the car with the window down, wrist swimming against the wind. Listening to her pronunciations is a pleasure; she says “sou-ven-ir,” reminding you of the word’s French origin. “Set Me Free” feels like a modern update of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: “Come on and break those chains / and leave me alone baby / ‘Cause you don’t know how to give me good love / And mine is never enough.”

“Imik Si Mik” has a faint Paris Combo flavor and is so upbeat that you can’t help but bounce along, despite the faint melancholy of its lyrics. With its chill and dreamy vibe, “Kiss & Thrills” is mesmerizing. I don’t so much as listen to this song as I do feel it, and it’s jolting when it ends.

At first I thought the live set offered at the end of Handmade might strike me as a little redundant, as several of its songs are repeated. I was completely wrong. In this unplugged context she reinvents the studio versions, stripping out the production to offer more old-school interpretations.

Zahra quite possibly is the love child of Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, alternatively warm and then cool, her voice ululating with suppleness. If Casablanca was remade (as problematic as that would be), I’d instantly want her cast as a torch singer in Sam’s Place. I want to hear her cover all the War-era tunes, starting with “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” Another standout is “Don’t Forget,” rendered in the style of Doris Day or Billie Holiday.

I spend a lot of time listening to music from past eras, and so I was slow to realize the uniqueness of the sound this young musician creates. In comparison with much of today’s frenetic, auto-tuned beats, Hindi Zahra’s music feels relievingly classic, like dipping into a pool of fresh, cool water.

Handmade was heralded as one of the most anticipated albums of the fall by New York Magazine. Do yourself a big favor and purchase this album. Share it with your friends; they’ll think you’ve been clairvoyant once Zahra achieves the massive commercial success she deserves.

Handmade will be available on Amazon.com as a digital download on September 26. Visit Hindi Zahra’s official website and YouTube channel for more information.

The Serendipity of Parent Matching

I sat in the molded red plastic chair in the hallway, staring at my bare feet. I tried wiggling one big toe and then the other. They wiggled appropriately, but I still sort of wished for a magazine or something, if I were able to read.

“NEXT!” called out the voice, booming down the empty corridor. I looked to my left and my right and saw no one, so I hopped down and toddled into the office. It was full of bookshelves filled with musty books. The dust motes caught the sunlight and sparkled, a legion of fireflies.

“Name?” came the voice again. I tried to peer over the edge of the desk to see the voice. All I could see was a podge of thinning brown hair, combed over neatly to cover a burgeoning bald spot.

“Um, don’t have one yet,” said I, tremulously.

“I know that,” was the impatient reply, “What do you wish to be called?”

“How about Brunhilde?”

“Surely you’re joking,” the bald spot bobbed and weaved as he turned another page of the massive book in front of him,”Best to choose a nice inoffensive name, like Sarah or Ellen. That will give you a lot more choices.”

“I think they should pick my name,” I offered, doing my best to keep the sulky out of my voice. “I mean, I hope I can find a pair with good taste.”

“What else?” His voice was disinterested, rather the aural equivalent of picking one’s nose and flicking it at the wall.

“Well, I’d like it if they were smart people. The kind that you could talk to about Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln and…um, paradigms.”

“Don’t pretend you know what any of those things are yet. What else?”

I crawled up into the arm chair across from the desk, but it was still a low squishy well of leather. I did manage to see the voice’s eyebrows, though; they were like ungroomed caterpillars and rather expressive.

“They should be funny. Not take each other too seriously. Maybe they could sing while they vacuum. I’d like it if they could laugh at themselves and at me too. Maybe the dad could teach me how to make funny faces in the mirror and how to dance like he’s starring in a Cecil B. DeMille musical. Maybe the mom could show me how to mummify a Barbie Doll and how to direct a room full of unruly people into doing what you need them to do.” I piped up, in a voice quite unlike my own, “It’s called ACT-ING!”

The caterpillars crawled across the furrows of his brow to a quizzical position, “This seems like a fairly specific request,” he said, rather suspiciously, “You haven’t been peeping in The Book, have you?”

“No sir,” I said, meek, hands folded in my lap in the primmest fashion.

He sighed and flipped a few more pages, the fuzzy wiggles of his brow descending towards the type. “There is one possibility here,” he said dubiously, “There’s a couple here that fulfills your requirements.”

“Really?” I perked up instantly, “Will they take me on trips to museums and nature trails and force-screen awful science fiction movies and black and white classics? Will they love me and help me, even when it’s questionable that I deserve either? Will they put me to sleep with Booshky Cream and sing You are My Sunshine and Side by Side and The Monkey Song? Will they make me cry when they sing On Top of Spaghetti with a fatal ending? Will they encourage me to write and sing and dance and do all manner of things which are not profitable in the world?”

The book slammed shut indignantly, “You, miss, have been reading The Book! How would you possibly know all that?”

I gave the only answer I could: “Because it’s my destiny.”

Finally, the voice and the bald spot and the eyebrows worked in conjunction and almost looked and sounded as though they were smiling, “Well. Well. Door 11C.”

“Thank you!” I chirped and wandered down the empty hall till I came to 11C. I opened the door and walked into the great white light and towards the parents I was meant to be with.

—–

This post is dedicated to my parents, on their anniversary. I’m not certain how I ended up with wonderful them, but this seems as feasible an explanation as any.

Fate, I owe you one.

by Artist 3001

Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn – Circa Regna Tonat

I have been immersing myself in The Tudors recently, Showtime’s soap opera of Henry VIII. It’s an insanely guilty pleasure, as they conveniently overlook how old and gross Henry was at the time of his last three marriages (Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard, Catherine Parr). It’s one of my favorite time periods of history…to read about, at least. It was a rather tumultuous time to be alive, seeing as you had to be correctly Catholic or Reformer (Protestant) at the right time and also on the king’s good side always.

Sir Thomas Wyatt, poet and courtier, is believed to have a romantic connection to Anne Boleyn; it is unknown as to whether she returned his feelings. It is believed Wyatt wrote this poem after witnessing Anne Boleyn’s execution (May 19, 1536) from the window of his cell while imprisoned in the Tower of London. The third stanza, in my opinion, is as deeply felt and dire a feeling as can be found in English poetry.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

  
Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei
(Innocence, Truth & Fidelity – My Enemies Surround My Soul) 
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,

For sure, circa Regna tonat.

Anne Boleyn (detail)

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.
 
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,

That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,

For sure, circa Regna tonat.

* Circa Regna Tonat – “About the Throne the Thunder Rolls”