The Different Languages of Moroccan Jazz: Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi

By Daniel Garrett

Malika Zarra, Berber Taxi
Produced by Malika Zarra and Francis Jacob
Motema Music, 2011

The Moroccan singer-songwriter Malika Zarra has a great voice, and is a confident performer; able to perform the magic of very different conjurers, such as Minnie Riperton and Miriam Makeba; and I imagine that people who like world music—whether originating in southern Europe or Africa or elsewhere—will like what Zarra does. Malika Zarra’s high voice in “Tamazight,” a celebration of the Berber woman, has the energy and complicated rhythms that one hopes for. “You are strong with a soft heart,” Zarra sings of the Berber woman in the Berber language. The Berbers are the traditional inhabitants of the northwest African country that is Morocco, and remain a large part of its population, though Arabs are prominent in the country’s cities, of which Casablanca, Fez, Marrakech, Mogador, Rabat, and Tangier are its most famous. Malika Zarra was born in Ouled Teima, a town in southern Morocco. Morocco is a rural country, with mountains and plains, that has significant cosmopolitan elements; and in many places the Berber language was supplanted by Arabic, French, and Spanish, but efforts have been made to restore it. “Even if they often don’t show you appreciation, they know that you are their pillar,” Zarra sings.

The song “Berber Taxi” is a portrait of another world that, though an imperfect world, is a relief from our own, and contains a yearning for love; and the bass and violin give the piece classical texture. On the album Berber Taxi, which has eleven songs, singer-songwriter Malika Zarra is supported by guitarist Francis Jacob, oud player and multi-instrumentalist Brahim Fribgane, pianist Michael Cain, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wright, and violinist Jasser Haj Youssef. Malika Zarra’s voice in “Berber Taxi” is delightfully feminine, which does not mean that it lacks force.

Rather somber, “Houaria” (spelled “Houaira” in the album jacket notes) is pretty, with the emphasis placed on voice and harmony, until the instrumental rhythm becomes more complicated in a way that is natural, subtle, and pleasing (there are humming and chanting too). It is easy to hear the range of Malika Zarra’s voice in the incantatory “Prelude to Mossameeha”; and there is freedom in how “Mossameeha” moves, full of groove and insinuation and surprise, as Zarra sings in a Moroccan dialect and English. Sung in English, “Little Voice” is a short piece. Sensuous, soulful, tender, and yearning is the French language “Issawa’s Woman,” a light and sprightly song. It is difficult to listen to this music, and not wonder why much, much more inferior music is better known and more popular. “Leela” is dreamy and sensual, in Arabic with a Spanish quality; and “Amnesia” is fast and pretty, though it is a song about the cruelties of history and political pride and the inevitability of change, with the music of the downtrodden becoming the beloved sound. “No Borders” is further proof—none is needed—that Zarra has mastered rhythm and has great control of tone and volume. “Mon Printemps,” about the spring season and the blossoming of love, is happily elegant and confidently sensuous.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and he has said, “Many people would prefer that we live in small, labeled boxes, and have minds to match, but to limit one’s perspective to age or class or ethnicity or religion or sexuality is an absurdity.” Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He returned to the American south, where he worked on a novel, A Stranger on Earth, begun in New York.
Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or