This is the third release to U.S. listeners by Triban Lo’Jo, a French group of performance artists and musicians worthy of some attention. Though they can be characterized as being a troupe of modern French troubadours, the fact is, Lo’Jo can not be so easily categorized. Their material comes across like cosmopolitan, fluid poetry or stories shared around a surrealistic campfire under a night sky filled only with comets and shooting stars. Their music is dramatic and compelling, in the same way that skilled street theatre is mesmerizing. Their sound is a fascinating mix of North African tribal rhythms and harmonies, gypsy swing, chanson, jazz, rock, and now dub. Imagine the group performing with adagio dancers and street acrobats in front of European cafés or in front of camel skin tents in North African deserts, where the campfires’ flickering shadows can become characters who are absorbed into their spontaneous performance. Then you’ll have an idea of the effect that Lo’Jo can have on the listener. Theirs is like the music of vagabonds or strange wayfarers who always travel the unbeaten path and byways; but it is, after all, the music of a group who beckons people to Timbuktu for music festivals in the remote desert. Lo’jo has a near magical knack about them, especially of making the listener want to run away and join the circus.
On this outing, Lo’Jo continues working with their instantly recognizable sound. The first few bars of the opening song have the same effect as hearing the calliope play as a circus parades into town. The inner child gasps in delighted recognition, “It’s Lo’Jo! Lo’Jo’s coming!” Wild gypsy fiddle, snare drums, and cymbals set a tone of excitement, then Denis Péan’s rough as gravel voice directs a stream of words in French about the “Mémoire d’Homme” (“Memory of Man”). Once Péan is joined on vocals by the melismatic, vibrant harmonies of sisters Nadia and Yamina Nid El Mourid, and the remaining musicians join in with bassoon, djembé, soprano saxophone, and farfisa organ, the song not only introduces the players but sets the tone for the whole album. If the clip of the drums and the metallic shaker unobtrusively slip into the listener’s consciousness, being subtly reminiscent of the sound of horses in harness pulling a wagon at a fast canter, then the music is doing its job in accenting that small part of the tone poem. Lo’Jo might be chalking invitations to an opening on the sidewalks, but it is the listener who takes a peek at her very own Magic Theater through the doors opened by their music.
Compare Lo’Jo to a carnival-like performance troupe, and then be reminded of what the theatre and music might have really been like in Hesse’s Steppenwolf. There’s a slightly mysterious air about Lo’Jo as they travel through territories that can become sinister and dangerous at a moment’s notice. If Lo’Jo were a cabaret act, then they’d likely be found onstage somewhere in Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Lo’Jo also has a knack for allowing the listener to dream up only the best of comparisons.
A dozen songs, that somehow sound simultaneously folksy and urbane, with lyrics that are like strange but appealing folk tales, sung in French, Arabic, Spanish, and English, result in a rich album that is a dizzying mix of weaves. All elements work together to describe reflections of life as it is played out on the human stage “Au Cabaret Sauvage” (“In the Wild Cabaret”). A breathy accordion, double bass, and simple handclaps introduce the flamenco-sounding “Tangito” before the song is brightened by sisters Nadia and Yamina singing Spanish lyrics in close harmony. The gypsy-style violin is joined by bassoon for a dramatic instrumental break that might peel the patina from the walls of any flamenco café. The bouncy “Rambling Talk” begins with talking drums and a double-tracked distorted electric guitar line. The lyrics are sung and spoken in a charming but heavily accented English, with the Romany-inflected Péan alternating refrains with the French Algerian sisters. Their words are a small tribute, evoking an image of the evangelical mystique of reggae star, Jimmy Cliff: “A shape of beauty on the lip of slavery / Crossing the southern cross in the bush / When a ‘bongo man a come’”. The instrumental breaks feature a swinging Middle Eastern accent from a one-stringed fiddle (imzad), sometimes run through an echo chamber before emerging on the other side as a melodica.
Lo’Jo has a talent for coming up with rich, satisfying albums that can intrigue and charm the listener for years to come. The only precaution is that Lo’Jo is known to transform a casual listener into a music adventurer. While that not might necessarily mean a trek to Timbuktu just yet, it certainly means a determined hunt for their two previous albums, Bohême de Cristal and Mojo Radio. The artful Triban Lo’Jo are definitely an experience not to be missed.