In a world that celebrates pop music youth, this woman sings with the dignity of an adult.
I have a project, an idea, a desire -- a small one. I'd like to listen to at least one set of songs from every country on Earth. Sometimes this is simple. Finding music from the US is no challenge at all. Getting away from it is harder. The UK is also easy, and so are Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, and France. Mali, Senegal, and South Africa are easy. Cuba is simple. So is Brazil. The Netherlands stumped me completely until my Dutch friends posted over a compilation called Pop In Je Moerstaal: two hours of songs with names like "Als Een Vogel Zo Vrij" and "Niet Of Nooit Geweest".
The problem of Brunei was only solved when I discovered a website where I could listen to Kikik Serbang Merah (Koleksi Lagu Kanak-Kanak Brunei), Semarak Kasih, Alus Jua Dendang, and other patriotik albums converted to MP3. There's also a page out there where you can download field recordings from Wallis and Futuna, the heart of a waterlocked miniature French principality in the Pacific. Besides Wallis and Futuna, this principality embraces a scattering of other islands too small to attract inhabitants, and a third reasonably large island named Alofi. We'll never know what music the Alofians made, because their cannibal neighbours from Futuna ate the last of them more than a century ago, or so the story goes.
All of this brings me to the islands of Comoros. Before Aman came along, I hadn't been able to find any Comoran albums in the shops, and the music seems to exist online only in the form of short excerpts. The Comorans, most of whom are Muslim, enjoy twarab, their own version of East Africa's taarab. They have local bands -- Belle Lumiere and Sambeco are apparently the most famous -- and there are a few recording artists of Comoran birth who live and release albums in France. One is Abou Chihabi, the source of some of those online excerpts. There seems to be less of a Madagascan influence than I would have expected, considering that the islands lie in the Mozambique Channel, a stretch of water that separates Madagascar from the African mainland. All of the musicians in the bands and all of the Comoros singers are men -- except -- aha! -- one. The press kit for Aman tells me that Nawal, who moved to France with her family at the age of eleven and continues to identify herself as a Comoros artist, is the first Comoran woman to have had a public career as a musician, and, as far as I've been able to discover, it's accurate.
She doesn't perform twarab, or anything that sounds like Chihabi's Comor-reggae. The traditions she's drawing on come originally from Arabia and Africa, but on this album she gives them the slow, contemplative measure of a Tibetan Buddhist chant. Sometimes the music is interrupted by the chime of a bell, and this moment of stillness seems also very Buddhist, pointing out, as it does, a unity of opposites: noise cannot exist without silence. Her sentiments are, however, entirely Muslim. "God is within all things. As a matter of fact there is nothing, nothing, that is not God", she chants in "Meditation". Ding, goes the bell.
Musically speaking, her Muslim background comes through most strongly on "Dandzi", a winding chant for solo voice, rising and falling in Arabic fashion, and "Ode a Marrouf", a tribute to her great-grandfather, who was a sufi spiritual leader. "Ode" sounds like a slowed and stripped-down taarab trance, a Zanzibar sound, spicy with the ringing, plucked notes of her gambusi.
Her voice is one of the great things about this album. Its grainy alto depth suggests maturity. Any song it touches acquires an immediate patina of authority and truth. This sounds like the voice of a woman who has seen life and learnt from it. How disappointing it is to hear her sing commonplace phrases in English about peace and love. You feel that she ought to be saying something more memorable.
Most of the time she chants in other languages and the appearance of wisdom is maintained. Her themes are humanistic. "Salama", or "Peace", was "inspired by September 11th"; "Hima" tells women that they need to fight for their rights themselves, not wait for someone else to do it for them. In "Leo ni Leo", she hopes that the new Comoran President, a factory owner named Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi who came to power last year in May, will govern the people well. "He spoke of development and combating corruption and in turn created great enthusiasm and hope throughout Comoros. In this song we make a wish that he will keep his promises," reports the album inlay.
All of the songs, bar one, are more than four minutes long. They work best when you hear them at full length, so it's a shame that they only exist on her MySpace page in short snippets. If you've been listening to them there, then try to imagine something much longer, a shaman-chant rather than an ordinary song, simultaneously languid and taut. Born in an English-speaking country, Nawal might have been another Norma Waterson, a compelling old folk diva, or one of those mature-voiced women who sing the blues. In a world that celebrates pop music youth, this woman sings with the dignity of an adult.