Given the limitless ocean of music in which the world is currently swimming, or rather drowning, it makes sense for any artist who doesn't want to sink into anonymity to keep afloat with regular new product. But if quality weighs more than quantity then a sign of real success could be Hindi Zahra, the 36 year-old French-Moroccan singer-songwriter who has drawn a sizeable crowd to the intimate, sultry Elgar Room in the same building that houses the Royal Albert Hall on the strength of just the one album, Handmade. Which was recorded five years ago, long enough to be well forgotten in the click-to-download age. Tellingly, Zahra thanks the audience for remembering ‘Beautiful Tango’, the coup de coeur from said CD, when she launches into its chorus at the highpoint of this enchanting performance.
The appeal is easy enough to hear and hard to resist: Zahra’s voice is a focused blend of boldness and delicacy, serving well a wholly personal compositional signature that draws a coherent line from the blues to chanson francaise, or rather réaliste, via north African folk, and if one wanted to name-check some of the spirits that float across the stage then Nina Simone, Damia and Cheikha Rimitti would be the prime contenders.
Indeed, musically Zahra has inherited something of Nina’s eclecticism and her well-drilled 6-piece band continually shifts stylistic ground as electric guitars and trumpet sway tantalizingly between understated Latin rock and mariachi-ish pop on material that is predominantly drawn from a new album, Homeland. As is the case with the previous set the melodic content is consistently rich and the clearly mapped verses give way to hooks that are instantly memorable without being obviously ‘hands in the air’ catchy. Zahra often holds legato notes over minimal chord changes to allow songs to breathe and the musical poise is mirrored by a discreet stance under the spotlight that lets an unforced charisma come to the fore. Interestingly, the central component of the band is neither brass nor strings. It is the crisp percussion of Ze Luis Nascimento whose continual movement from bongos to tambourine to claypot imbues songs such as ‘The Moon Is Full’ and ‘Cabo Vede’ with a tightly channelled dynamism. When he pulls out metal castanets and launches into a brash, bucking, snapping gnawa groove at the finale of the concert Zahra stoops and starts to swirl her long lustrous black hair like a woman possessed.
No sooner does she whip the audience into a frenzy than the band takes its leave and she returns to strap on an acoustic guitar and play ‘Broken Ones’ unaccompanied. This beautifully wounded ballad in which Zahra enquires of ‘a place instead of running, maybe there’s a way instead of nothing’ brings to mind the deeply plaintive longing that she imparted to Sword & Gun, her fine collaboration with Jose James that featured on his 2013 album No Beginning, No End. Zahra’s ability to invoke a spirit that is as ancestral as it is youthful may also explain why her audience has elaborate tattoos that spell teenage wildlife as well as the glinting silvery crests of an adult menagerie.
– Kevin Le Gendre