John Zorn's Stone Commissioning Series presents: Malika Zarra
6pm doors • 7pm show
New Music. New Jazz. Curated by John Zorn.
The John Zorn Commissioning Series celebrates The Stone, Zorn’s revolutionary venue non-profit venue that was “dedicated to the experimental and avant-garde” and served as a vital spot for new music in Manhattan’s Alphabet City for over a decade. Held on the last Wednesday of every month, National Sawdust honors the spirit of the Stone, hosting the world premiere of new works.
This month’s concert features Moroccan singer, composer, and producer Malika Zarra performing her own works, which blend classic jazz with Moroccan blues forms and French pop into a captivating style like no other.
Moroccan singer, composer, and producer Malika Zarra is a multi-cultural shapeshifter, an enchantress who leaps effortlessly between seemingly unconnected languages and traditions, uniting them while utilizing each to further enrich the others. The exotically beautiful artist with the velvety, sinuous mezzo-soprano voice has demonstrated a rare ability to communicate both powerful and subtle ideas and feelings in Berber, Moroccan Arabic, French, and English, and is now a much-in-demand headliner at concert halls and festivals the world over.
Malika was born in Southern Morocco, in a little village called Ouled Teima. Her father’s family was originally from Tata, a city on the Sahara plain, while her mother was a Berber from the High Atlas. During her early childhood, there was always music and dancing in the house. After her family emigrated to a suburb of Paris, she found herself straddling two very different societies. She had to be French at school yet retain her Moroccan cultural heritage at home. Like many immigrant children, she learned to switch quickly between the two.
Malika’s interest in music led her to take up the clarinet in grade school. Meanwhile, she was being exposed to a wide variety of musical styles, including fellow Moroccan Hajja Hamdaouia, Rais Mohand, the Lebanese-born Egyptian-based oud virtuoso-composer Farid el Atrache, Um Kalthoum, and Algerian singer Warda (Al-Jazairia). She also absorbed albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. When she decided to learn singing, she started with jazz because she was attracted by the improvisation, which is also important in Arabic music. Although her family was not in favor of her pursuing a musical career, Malika nonetheless attended classes at conservatories and jazz academies at Tours and Marseille and studied privately with Sarah Lazarus and Francoise Galais.
During her apprentice phase, during which she became in fixture in France and on the Paris scene, Malika performed at a variety of well-known clubs and events, including Festival L’esprit Jazz de St Germain, Sunside/Sunset, and Cité de la Musique. In the beginning, she interpreted classic material strictly in the original languages — then a breakthrough occurred. When she started to sing in Arabic and write new lyrics for jazz standards, she found that people reacted really strongly. There is always more emotion when you sing in your own language because your feelings are more intense. As a composer, the process was similar: Asked why and when she began writing her own songs, she says impishly, “After getting tired of forgetting English lyrics!”
An early visit to New York in 1996 made a strong impression on her. She felt that she could be more herself and learn a lot of things, musically and as a human being. In 2004, Malika decided to relocate to New York City. Having crafted a repertoire that incorporated her native Berber, Gnawa (a percussive form of religious trance music), and Chaabi (Arabic working class blues) heritages, the intellectual elegance of French pop, plus freewheeling jazz rhythms and techniques, her reputation as a solo act began to grow.
With the release of Berber Taxi on April 12th, 2011 by Motéma Music (home to legendary innovators Randy Weston and Geri Allen), Zarra takes her rightful place as an important world-jazz artist on New York’s multicultural music scene. Berber Taxi takes up its journey following Zarra’s self-released 2006 debut, On the Ebony Road, which has sold over 2,000 copies, largely from her gigs and by word of mouth reputation. Whereas that first album was recorded jazz-style, mixed and mastered in two days, Zarra has fought long and hard to make this one sound exactly the way she wanted it to.