Vocalist, composer Malika Zarra honors the ties that bind in RWA

Vocalist and Composer Malika Zarra.
Vocalist and Composer Malika Zarra.
Photo by Gabriela Cais Burdmann

Hailed by The New Yorker as “an enchanting pioneer of Maghreb jazz,” and by CNN International for “redefining the term fusion and adding her unique sound to the world,” singer, composer and bandleader Malika Zarra has woven together the complex and varied strands of her musical journey on her third release, RWA (The Essence).

Pronounced “Er-WAH,” RWA is a term from the Amazigh (Berber) language meaning “essence.”

“It originates in the act of people from a tribe gathering together to help somebody by extracting oil collected from that person’s land,” Zarra said. “It’s about bringing people together to extract an essence.”

Zarra does just that on RWA, released Feb. 3 on her own D. Zel imprint, teaming with a stellar group of musicians, as she put it, “to pay tribute not only to where I was born, but also to all the people I met in the places where I lived and grew.”

Pristine, richly-layered sound and infectious grooves are abundant throughout RWA. From the start, with “Feen,” there is an urgency but also a playfulness in Zarra’s vocal delivery, as she glides over complex and funky beats laid down by band members whose seasoning and broad experience is unmistakable.

Even within relatively concise tracks such as “Ouhelt” and “Dreamer,” there is compositional depth and a sense of narrative development.

In the rhythmic charge and precision of “La !” or the deftly executed transitions of “Loukt,” we hear Zarra’s exceptional range, imagination and focus.

Zarra said her journey began in her southern Moroccan birthplace of Ouled Teima and continued with her immigrant upbringing in France.

After establishing her musical career on the scene in Paris, she relocated to New York in 2004. She released her debut On the Ebony Road in 2006 followed by Berber Taxi in 2011; became a member of John Zorn’s innovative vocal quartet project Mycale; and appeared as a featured artist with Arturo O’Farrill’s GRAMMY Award-winning Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, among others.

In 2019, after a transitional period spent in Casablanca, Zarra said made the move back to France. She is currently a member of Aruán Ortiz’s Flamenco Criollo and the vocal group Les Sahariennes, bringing together singers from Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.

Zarra said RWA is the story of her vibrant lived experience on three continents, brought into focus by top-tier musicians hailing from 10 countries.

She said the album exemplifies a proverb from sub-Saharan Africa: “The old man who only lived in his village has only one intelligence. But the young man who has traveled through 10 villages is enriched by 10 intelligences.”

Cover art of Malika Zarra RWA.
Cover art of Malika Zarra RWA.

RWA fully embraces this African wisdom. Its main lyrical message is to question the delusions of our world, in particular the borders erected to curb the movement of humans since the dawn of time.

The vibrant sound represents a new Moroccan urban-world-jazz, using traditional North African chaâbi, Berber and Gnawa polyrhythms, to underpin Zarra’s distinctly contemporary urban compositions, all the while maintaining a sophisticated improvisational modern jazz approach.

Zarra said the initial recording for RWA was done in New York, with a core Paris-based crew including pianist Amino Belyamani and percussionist Adhil Mirghani, both of Morocco, and upright bassist Bam Rodriguez of Venezuela.

Soon, she said multi-instrumentalist Alune Wade of Senegal came onboard as co-producer and arranger for the project.

Zarra said recording continued in Paris as the album grew to encompass a contingent of horn players on several tracks: trumpeters Carlos Sarduy, Miron Rafajlovic and Philippe Hulot; and saxophonists Dan Blake and Hugue Maillot (on bass clarinet as well).

In addition, Senegalese kora virtuoso Cheikh Diallo and keyboardist Leo Genovese (on Rhodes and Farfisa organ) lend their artistry on two tracks.

The lyrics heard on RWA, too, involve collaboration. Five songs are in Darija, the Arabic dialect specific to Morocco, rich with loan words from French, Spanish, German and Amazigh.

Zarra said she conceived the initial themes for these but turned to Moroccan visual artist Touda Bouanani and poet Hafsa Bekri-Lamrani to bring the lyrics to fruition.

“It was important for me to collaborate with women, especially women in Morocco,” said Zarra, though she also brought onboard novelist Jean-Luc Raharimanana of Madagascar for the lyrics to “Mamalia,” a unique blend of Moroccan folkloric song and text in the Malagasy language.

Khadija Aakirane contributed vocals on “Mamalia” as well, recording in the Moroccan city of Agadir.

The French lyrics of “Comete” are Zarra’s own, while the lullaby “Yallah Tnam Rima,” the one non-original on RWA, was made famous by legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz.

Accomplished Malian vocalist Mamani Keïta sings on the track and contributes additional new lyrics as well.

“Zrigh,” the closing song, is in the Amazigh language and is a significant reworking of the song “Run” from Zarra’s debut On the Ebony Road.

Rooted in Africa, Europe and America, RWA evokes on one level the triangular trade that bled the African continent for centuries.

But from the forced meeting of Africa and Europe in the plantations of the Americas was born a myriad of popular music: blues, jazz, rock & roll.

This, too, is Zarra’s musical inheritance, and, through her own triangular journey, she has arrived at a unique and fully mature musical conception with RWA.

“This album,” Zarra said, “is an invitation to celebrate the essence of what we are, what is unique and free inside us, but also to pay tribute to the ties that unite us, beyond any borders or division.”