‘Stand Up’ for Hindi

Paris-based, Moroccan-born singer Hindi Zahra is winning accolades for her debut ‘Handmade.’ Performing in Israel, she hopes to ‘tap into that Tel Aviv energy’

Hindi Zahra 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Liron Pinhasi/PR)
Hindi Zahra 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Liron Pinhasi/PR)
No wonder it’s impossible to contain Hindi Zahra inside a musical category. When the 32-year-old singer/songwriter was growing up in Khouribga, Morocco, a typical day’s playlist in her home included music by The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, traditional Berber music, raï and châabi divas like Cheikha Rimitti, the desert rock of Malian Ali Farka Touré and the sensual folk music of Ismaël Lo.
All of those influences and more shine through in the intoxicating world music that naturally flows from her hands and mouth – music that has thrust the Paris-based singer into the spotlight thanks to last year’s acclaimed debut album Handmade and praise that has compared her vocal style and delivery to everyone from Billie Holiday and Patti Smith to Sade and Norah Jones.
“I heard all that music growing up. My mother was big fan of The Beatles, my uncles loved reggae and there was always traditional Oriental and African music around,” said Zahra this week in a phone call from Paris.
“And I was receiving all this culture at the same time, so there wasn’t something I liked more – I liked Berber music and reggae, I didn’t categorize them.
When you hear it as a child, you just hear it – you don’t make judgments about it.”
Zahra’s musical development received an added boost when she left Morocco at age 15 to live with her father in Paris, where he exposed her to the music of French artists like Claude Nougauro and Serge Gainsborg.
But she was receiving most of her inspiration from hip-hop-flavored soul artists like 2Pac and Tribe Called Quest, as well as from an unlikely source – the Louvre.
“I started working at the Louvre when I was 18, and what I learned there is that art is knowledge, and that what I wanted to do in life was to express myself through music,” she said, adding that the idea had never been so foreign to her.
“My parents were both musicians, and I grew up with the idea that every family was immersed in music. By the time I realized that this wasn’t the case, I had already decided that music was going to play an important role in my life.”
By her mid-20s, she had written dozens of songs, and in 2009, released an EP in France containing tantalizing songs like “Beautiful Tango,” “Stand Up” and “Oursoul,” which means “bygones” in Berber. Zahra mixed up the lyrics and languages in her songs, singing mostly in English, but sometimes in French or in the case of folk songs like the single ‘Imik Si Mik,’ in her native Berber.
THE RECORD got the attention of jazz label Blue Note Records who signed up Zahra and produced Handmade the next year. Western Union also took notice, using “Stand Up” in one of their television ads. Since then, her star has been rising, along with the comparisons to the singers like Sade, which she accepts as the ultimate compliment.
“I’ve heard a lot of her music and she’s inspired me in my approach to singing – really emotive, sometimes sad or nostalgic. The other comparisons are a bit of a stretch. With Patti Smith, maybe it’s about songs of mine like ‘Music,’” said Zahra, referring to a trance-like, half sung, half rapped song on the album reminiscent of the punk priestess.
The use of different languages in her songs is based on how she feels at the time of writing, said Zahra.
“I find it very natural to switch languages, and really use my instincts, about what the song is telling me,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s kind of an exercise. For ‘Imik Si Mik,’ I wanted to put Berber language into a folk song, and I looked for the melody that would fit it best. It turned out to be quite easy and interesting, because when I used to improvise as a child, the thing I was enchanted about was the link to different cultures through music.”
Zahra will be bringing that link to Tel Aviv this weekend as the headliner of Bonsoir Tel Aviv – a two-night France-Israel music festival taking place Thursday and Friday at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. Co-sponsored by the French Embassy in Tel Aviv, the festival’s first night – called the Elect-Rock-Chic Night – features the French electronica rock duo Lily Wood & The Prick and Israeli indie poppers Umlala. Friday’s theme is Mediterranean Vibe Night and features Zahra and her band along with Riff Cohen, an Israeli jazzy popster living in Paris.
Zahra said that she’s excited about making her first visit to Israel with her band, featuring a French guitarists, an Algerian mandolin player, a background singer, percussionist and bassist.
“Every time we go to a country for the first time, I know I’ll discover something special,” she said.
“Everyone has already told me about the energy in Tel Aviv, so I’m hoping to tap into that.”
She should find plenty, much of it self-provided, at the Bonsoir Tel Aviv festival.