American-Fried Raï, to Go
Unusual semi-success story, here: young Shani Rigsbee can sing beautifully, so her parents up and move from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Los Angeles to help her achieve her dreams. Once there, she falls in with Persian musicians who live in the same apartment complex, forming a musical partnership with Andy Madadian, a local giant of the genre. She starts singing in Farsi, tours around the world, gets the gig singing the end-title song for the Parasite Eve video game, and releases an album of songs, mostly written by herself and Madadian. On the basis of this, she gets signed to Miles Copeland’s Ark21 label, and now has released her second album. Head-spinningly weird, but very American.
Sure, we could be cynical here, and see this story as naked careerism all the way—but why not see it as a great story? Why always look for the bummer? Point is, Shani is a sweet-voiced enough singer with dark ‘40s-film-siren good looks and a big enough soul to embrace this music—it sounds like the Algerian/disco/Spanish hybrid form raï to my ears—and that should count for something. So stop with all the “she’s not really Arabic” comments, and don’t bother to examine her for street credibility; that’s beside the point.
To the album, then. There are 10 songs, plus two re-sung in Spanish, plus a video of the title track, on this CD; of these, five appeared on her first album, Undercurrent, which was released in 1999. (I am pretty sure they’ve been remixed, but there’s not a lot of info on that. So it’s not really all that “new” an album after all—but, again, why be cynical? Shani’s take on raï—and Madadian’s, too, I guess—is a very pumped-up version, or at least more Americanized: lots more bass than your average Cheb Mami or Cheb Khaleb track, a lot more four-on-the-floor rhythm than can be found on my Absolute Raï compilation, acoustic Spanish guitars, a slightly less cheesy sound on those fake-horn keyboards. But the basic elements of raï remain: simple and beautiful Middle-Eastern melodic lines crossed with African- and American-derived dancebeats that propel listeners and dancers into a slight trance without even having to assault them with repetitive synth lines. And, for that street cred thing, there are still “exotic” percussion instruments on just about every track: darbuka, shvi, dahola, daf action everywhere.
The big twist here is that we get to hear raï sung in English, and it sounds great. Shani’s voice is a very pretty instrument, and floats above the uptempo stuff like a fluffy cloud. I won’t say that she’s quite capable of carrying slow ballads like “Dancing in a Minefield” yet, but that might be more the fault of the sappy Ricky Martin-esque arrangement rather than any problem with her voice itself, so let’s ignore the ballads altogether, because there aren’t that many of them. It’s stirring to hear her come in after the straight-outta-Oran intro to “Undercurrent” (complete with kick-ass heavy metal guitar riff) with her Arkansan/Persian voice, so much so that it doesn’t really matter that we have no idea what she’s talking about: “I give you a Freudian slip of the tongue / The beat of my heart’s keeping time / And through all of this aural anti-stimulation / You measure your weapon of line”. Huh? You can tell Shani writes her own lyrics, can’t you? But even though it looks kind of nonsensical here, I give her points for at least trying. And it doesn’t matter at all, because “Undercurrent” sounds seductive and cool, and completely justifies itself with a crazy middle techno section and some hooks that cannot be denied.
This is the pattern on Call of the Wild. The songs sound good, very much like American-fried raï, and Shani sings her slightly-off lyrics so nicely that we forget to analyze them for content. Sure, the chorus to “Who’s the Fairest” is an ugly thing (“Mirror mirror on the wall / Who’s the fairest of them all”); but “Overcome” has a nice college-poetry-reading thing happening (“If I were hollow, you’d swallow me whole / And if I were water, I’d freeze from your cold”) to a funky sexy beat. And when the beat is funky and sexy it’s really hard not to like Shani’s songs. Maybe next time she’ll do more than five new tracks (and get rid of the lame rap guest appearance, and forget about doing Spanish-language versions of songs) and really surprise us all.