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‘I always believed in the power of music and art’: Malika Zarra on ‘RWA (The Essence)’

Malika Zarra
Gabriela Cais Burdmann
Malika Zarra

For decades, it has been my great fortune to witness the arrival of the new/next musicians who come to New York City determined to fake it, make it or take it—jazz—to the next level. The Jazz Gallery had become a welcoming center and a hub for young musicians coming from Cuba, Israel, Africa and Europe. It is at The Jazz Gallery that I remember meeting the Moroccan-born vocalist, Malika Zarra, in 2004 when she moved from her home in Paris to find her groove in the Big Apple. And find it, she did. Malika eventually recorded and/or performed with John Zorn, Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Gretchen Parlato and many others and earned her rightful place as an important world-jazz artist on New York’s multicultural music scene. Malika moved back to Paris in 2019 but she is heading back to New York City for the release of her latest recording RWA (The Essence). I had a chance to catch with Malika and to talk about her upcoming show at Joe’s Pubin New York City on May 26, 2023.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript: 

Lezlie Harrison: You were born in Morocco and you were raised in Paris. I read that you took up clarinet in grade school, an instrument that actually I once played. That's how I got started in all of this music business. When and where did your love of music take place?

Malika Zarra: First of all, I always believed in the power of music and art. That was my first relationship, to art and to music. At some point I felt that if I wanted to produce and work with artists, I should be able to understand the process of an artist. I decided to start learning something and I started singing.

You were exposed to a variety of musical star styles from Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, as well as the music of American artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Thelonious Monk. When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in singing and what brought you to New York City?

I came to New York because I felt that since it's the mecca of jazz—at that time I was really interested in jazz—I should go to New York to see, to understand, to meet people and to try to understand this culture. I discovered a lot of amazing artists and the freedom in jazz and the improvisation which really touched my heart.

You met quite an impressive group of people that you worked and recorded with—Makoto Ozone, John Zorn, Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Gretchen Parlato, just to name a few. How did working with these musical collaborations help shape you as an artist? Because these were some pretty heavy hitters. Still are.

That's actually the point to this new album, RWA, which means essence. That was the meaning of this album. After all, I had the chance to live and grow and meet people in Morocco, the place where I was born, and also in France and Europe, the U.S. and New York. I wanted to dedicate this album to all these people that I met because without all these people, I wouldn't be who I am to today. It’s really a tribute to all of these people, all of these continents and countries.

Malika Zarra - Feen (Official Video)

There's quite a mélange of musicians that you've worked with. How did you pick the musicians who recorded with you on this album?

Yes. RWA is the expression in the Amazigh or Berber language that a tribe or group of people get together to help somebody from the tribe by extracting an essence of an oil. By extracting something together, you are able to produce something together.

On this album you produce something together with like 10 different musicians from different continents. Am I correct?

Actually, more than that. More like 17 musicians.

Tell us about that process and organizing that recording.

It took me a while because I really took my time, as you mentioned. It started with a residency at John Zorn’s Stone. I composed these songs in Morocco and the first time that I played this song was in duet with Amino Belyamani, the piano player who is on the recording. We performed these songs and then I thought that maybe a trio or a quartet would really give much more power to the songs.

I wanted to have Amino and bring him to Paris, because Paris has an amazing pool of musicians. For me, it's the capital of world music and of African music. There are all of these young African musicians that grow up listening to all this Western music so they know all these different languages.

It was complicated to bring Amino to France because of the visa so I ended up starting the recording in New York. I brought one of my percussion players from Morocco to New York. We recorded with Bam Rodriguez, the upright bass player. I came back with that to Paris, and I worked again with Adhil Mirghani, a bass player from Senegal, that used to play with my band in Europe and Africa. We worked more on our production, and then I said, “Well, maybe we can ask this guy and this guy.” I also recorded a part in Agadir Morocco.

That’s quite a few people. Now, when you come to Joe's Pub, will you be bringing 17 musicians with you, or how will you be configuring?

No. We are going to be six musicians on stage. Amino will be there as a piano player and my regular band with whom I've been playing for almost 20 years. In New York will be Alune Wade from Senegal. I have Harvey Wirht from Suriname. I'll have Josh Deutsch on trumpet and Dan Blake on saxophone. A real world music event.

You speak French, Berber, Moroccan, Arabic and English. What is your preferred language to sing in? I ask because I hear lots of singers who come from other countries singing in English, and it doesn't always feel like the essence of the song is brought out. But since you speak three languages fluently, which one is your preferred language to communicate with?

I have a theory about that. When I started singing, I sang all these jazz songs and standards. I could definitely see that when an English-speaking person sings these same songs, it doesn't sound the same for sure, the emotion is very different. When I sing in my mother tongue, I can see the audience reacting differently. I don't stop myself from singing in other languages because as a singer I'm in interested in the openness of different songs and different languages. Even in this recording I sing in Malagasy which I don't speak.

Malika Zarra - Zrigh

It's a beautiful language. I had a best friend from Madagascar, Anna, so that's interesting that you learned it.

Yes, I learned it. And this song, “Mamalia” is a combination between Darija which is Moroccan Arabic that comes from the traditional song from the south of Morocco. The other part is in Malagasy. A Malagasy author and writer who is quite famous on this side of the ocean wrote this song: Jean-Luc Raharimanana. He took like a little piece of the story of my mother, and he wrote something from that.

You wrote most of the music on the recording?

Yes, absolutely. I really wanted to have this experience of collaborating with more people. I have a lot of songs that are written in Moroccan dialect, in the Arabic dialect from Morocco. I collaborated with two writers from Morocco, two ladies. I wrote, texted and asked them to rewrite. They also rewrote a completely different text from scratch and it was a very interesting experience.

Tell me about your writing process. I'm kind of interested in how you take it from here to paper to production. Is it natural? For me, I'm learning how to write and I often talk to singers about the process of writing—to communicate what is here in your head, in your heart, and the process of sitting down and putting it to paper. Do you collaborate with other musicians? Is it personal? Is it off the cuff?

I have a lot of ideas [when] walking. When I’m walking is when I have a lot of basslines and melodies coming to my head most of the time. But for this recording, I really forced myself to start with the lyrics instead of the music. It was very, very interesting to do it that way.

I'm starting to learn the process of writing and it is an interesting journey. In your album notes for RWA, I read that it exemplifies a proverb from Sub-Saharan Africa about the old man who only lived in his village and therefore has only one intelligence. Can you talk a little bit about that proverb?

It's actually my story, you know because, first of all, my parents, they were immigrants in France. I ended up continuing this life of migration. I lived in London. I lived in Berlin. I moved many, many times around France. I lived in Morocco. I lived in New York. I think it's an amazing experience. Nothing can replace having the experience of living in different places and experiencing different cultures and behaviors—how people move, how people dance. These are the things that you can learn only from living side by side with people.

Yeah. Travel is very important. But I want to read the proverb because I thought it was very nice. 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. So you have lived in many villages and traveled through many, so you are extremely intelligent.

I don’t know about the intelligence but moving and living in different places definitely nourished me.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.