As an American, French music tended towards the side of the listenability spectrum that was frankly bland. The chanson genre is a French specialty that just didn’t cross borders as well as other imports like-in cinema-Amélie or l’Auberge Espagnol. It seemed too comfortable and sentimental. Recent years have seen a burgeon of new border-jumping artistes that have translated very well, such as Prototypes, Yelle, and The Dø. These artists are all skewed towards indie flavors, far from mainstream.
Zaho, however, is one that translates better than all the rest of this nouvelle vague de la musique française with a mainstream pop/R&B sound called pop urbain. In brief, Zaho is an Algerian-born artist who moved to Montréal at 18 years old, hung around studios, befriended Phil Greiss, and emerged thanks to a mixtape by DJ James (previous bio-esque post). Dima (EMI France, 2008), Eternally in Arabic, is partially her journey, being away from her homeland and partially typical pop.
Her life provides an enlivening distinction in her music. Arabic words are used with the confidence and sentimental pride of looking back to where one comes from. The music itself has a more exotic feel, akin to early Nelly Furtado, as with the drums on Assassine and Serpent. Others follow a more pop-orientated formula, as with the first single C’est Chelou while expanding away into the tropical, acoustic and bass laid-back vibe of Tu Ne Le Mérites Pas.
Track 3: La Roue Tourne
Overall, I can’t help but get the same impression an early Nelly Furtado when she emerged with Portuguese embellishments. Zaho holds onto her roots, and that is what distinguishes her from the plethora of pop. Gems like Petit Jeu show a versatility few urban artists can match, and easily warrant keeping an eye on this emerging artist. Even if you have never heard French music before, this is the best stepping stone I can recommend.