[17 November 2008]
Hector Zazou died in early September at the age of 60. “[A] legendary figure in contemporary French music,” mourned World Music Central. Jon Lusk at The Independent called him “an adventurous, eclectic and prolific musician.” Zazou, he wrote, “made an international name for himself with his sensitive and accessible world music fusions.” In Lusk’s obituary there is a translated quote from the French journalist Jean-François Bizot: “In England they have Peter Gabriel, in America they have David Byrne, in France we have Hector Zazou.” (“Les anglais ont Peter Gabriel, les américains David Byrne, les français Hector Zazou”)
Idolator admired Zazou’s “well-loved body of work,” which accommodates collaborations with Värttinä, Björk, Siouxie Sioux, Laurie Anderson, various Inuits, Nanai, and Ainu, the Zairian singer Bony Bikaye, and Uzbekistan’s Sevara Nazarkhan. “[O]ne of world music’s great adventurers,” reported RFI Musique. He “travelled to the four corners of the globe, bringing his musical finds back to Paris. Here, he would reconstruct, rebuild, rework and remix his raw material into albums that proved to be both innovative and timeless.” His discography is not only innovative, it is also large. Between 1976 and his death, he released 20 albums and worked as a producer on nine others. In the House of Mirrors was the last. This is album 21. There will be no more.
Zazou was an eager cross-cultural collaborator. It seems right that his final album should be a cross-cultural collaboration. For Mirrors, he travelled to India where he worked with a core group consisting of three Indians and an Uzbek. The guest musicians come from Spain, Hungary, and Norway. There is an oud, a violin, a Gaelic-sounding pipe. Zazou was never timid in his choice of instruments. He liked music that flowed and engulfed: swimmy washes of sound, veils and curtains of it, miasma like scented candlesmoke. I sometimes found him cloying. When I heard the backing he provided for Sevara Nazarkhan on Yol Bolsin, I wished that she had worked with someone else. Other people thought differently. “It’s a difficult trick, to protect a distinctive regional style while rendering it accessible to a more general audience, but French studio wizard Hector Zazou has pulled it off here,” wrote Charlie Gillet, reviewing Yol Bolsin for the BBC.
House of Mirrors is India-themed. The swimmy washes have a raga sound, but declassicalised and shortened. The spaciousness of this music is an Indian spaciousness, the sound of notes plucked and left to linger and be contemplated. The first noise we hear is the sound of slide guitar strings being struck. They are allowed to fade slowly. Little murmuring electronic effects nose their way in. The guitar goes on: more strings are struck, there are more long, lingering die-aways, more electronic murmurs, and the noise of tiny insectoid electronic peeping. Eventually the guest musicians make their appearances. None of them stay for very long. Diego Amador and his piano arrive, vamp for a while, spar with a flute, then go away. The piano is too loud. A gong sounds. Why a gong? Why the piano? There’s a war going on here between the simplicity of the composer’s evocative soundscape ambition and the obstacles he keeps throwing in to make it more complicated, these pianos and gongs. They are distractions. They’re in the music for a little too long, or they leave before we have a chance to relax into them and soak them up. (This is an album made for soaking and wallowing.)
In Debashish Bhattacharya’s Calcutta Chronicles, which was released earlier this year, you had two men, one with a guitar, one with a tabla, also working with the idea of raga spaciousness. With only two instruments to draw on they had to be ingenious. The opposite seems to have happened in House of Mirrors. With a larger stable of instruments and a library of electronic noises, Mirror sounds lazier. It might have been better if they had left the three Indians and the Uzbek to provide all of the acoustic instrumentation, and limited the ornamentation to a controlled palette of Zazou’s electronics. A more delicate contrast between roominess and precision might have stopped this itch of mine, this longing for something less cushiony, less flumpy and spreading and soft.
However. If Zazou is your man there’s nothing here you won’t like. In the House of Mirrors is a roomy, enveloping, generous work. This is probably the way he would have imagined his last album sounding, if he had thought at all, years and years ago, of death—if he had imagined that he would have to stop making music as regrettably soon as he did.