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.