Moroccan-born, Paris-based Hindi Zahra can speak to mountains or whisper in your ear. She can turn rustling plastic bags into Berber beats and Parisian kitchens into soul incubators. Playfully savoring East and West, she writes infectious and hip songs, plays any instrument she can get her hands on, and records her own voice in the middle of the night to capture that perfect spark of intimacy.
Hindi grew up in southwest Morocco improvising melodies at her relatives' urging; singing along with Egyptian hits on the radio; and drawing inspiration from her hardworking father and the rugged ranges and verdant valleys surrounding her village. For the young Hindi, natural beauty was about more than aesthetics. The places around her were filled with spirits, and the mountains reminded her of "plump and generous old ladies," she recalls fondly. They became her first audience, as she sang to them.
With a singer and actress for a mother and uncles who loved to jam on guitars and percussion, Hindi found her own voice early. "I had to go to my room, close the door, and practice making up melodies on my own," Hindi explains. "I had to be alone, with only my voice."
Surrounded by English-language music, she savored the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley, whose revolutionary spirit had a powerful impact on young Moroccans. Rock and reggae intertwined with the bluesy Berber and swirling Arabic melodies that made up her heritage— her paternal grandfather was a respected musician and dancer.
Yet a major music revelation struck when Hindi heard nimble jazz divas like Ella Fitzgerald and talented but neglected Peruvian singer, Yma Sumac. "I was really shocked by this music. The melodies felt like something from the East," Hindi remembers. "How could that happen, I asked myself. When I heard jazz, I started to sing in English, but mix in Arabic and Berber melodies. It was a game at first, to associate things that didn't fit. But jazz revealed to me that they can go together."
Hindi's experience mixing East and West deepened when she moved to France as a young teenager, at her father's insistence, to pursue her education. By age 17, she had dropped out, taking a job as a guard at the Louvre. When she wasn't studying the paintings, she sang. "I was singing in the big rooms in the Louvre," she recounts. "Some days there wasn't anybody around but we still had to guard the objects. I would practice with that big reverb, that big sound, and art all around."
Other sounds — particularly American funk and hip hop — also began to seep into Hindi's voice, which can move easily between soul-inflected purrs and growls, and a gentle, clear resonance. For a decade, Hindi worked with French R&B and hip-hop artists, studied operatic and jazz voice, and played with Parisian Middle Eastern groups. But none of it felt quite right.
"I was frustrated. I was playing in jazz clubs and I think it was a bit odd for them. I didn't want to do covers; I wanted to improvise and use my Arabic influences. But I started to lose friends," she reflects. "So I went to meet people doing hip hop. It was the same. I wasn't into the samples. I went to the Arabic scene. But it was the same again. Those boxes didn't interest me. I wanted to do my music."
Hindi's sultry and enthralling debut, Handmade is out digitally Sept 26 and on CD Oct 11 on Naïve.