Hindi Zahra is on tour in France when we speak. It’s late, but she has just come off-stage and is wide-awake from post-performance adrenalin. It’s a few days before the horrific events in Paris unfold, and yet our conversation frequently turns to a relevant topic, which is on her mind. “We fight against other cultures because we don’t accept that what is coming is a universal culture,” she says. “The first contact is war, unfortunately, but after the war there will be friendship.”
For the Franco-Moroccan singer, music is a medium for bringing people and cultures together, and she herself is a well-placed conduit. Vocally, she is often likened to Patti Smith, Billie Holliday and Norah Jones. But she is a product of her own cultural blueprint; she pours into her work all the touchstones she’s known.
She was born and lives in Morocco, a country with a diverse mix of cultures. There’s “French, Arabic, African, Spanish and Portuguese influences,” she says, and many languages. Zahra sings in French, English and Berber. She grew up nomadically because her father is Tuareg, a Berber people whose name you may recognise from the worldwide gig-and-festival circuit of recent years. Turareg group Tinariwen, and guitarist Bombino, have both had crossover success in Western cultures. Zahra (who has supported and worked with both) attributes this success to the recognisable soul, blues and rock-music influences in their distinct desert sound.
Zahra’s musical education was just as eclectic. “I grew up in a family of musicians, we were like a tribe.” She recalls her mother, a singer, playing in village theatres and listening at home to Indian music. “My grandmother was listening to traditional music,” she says, “and for my uncles, it was all about African-American music – rock, blues. For my part I discovered jazz music alone and it was a big discovery for me.”
Ella Fitzgerald captivated her first. “She used her voice like an instrument. Also, it was a mix of different music: it was like Oriental music, black music, Western music, everything was in there.”
“I’m always obsessed by mixing and making the links between music,” she says. “Because if you look into the links between blues, jazz and rock, for example, it’s the same family. For me, people who create bridges between cultures are the angels of the world because I think they do what humanity should be doing.”
Zahra now lives in Marrakech, which has also weaved itself into her music. “It’s raw,” she says. “A lot of people from the mountains live there and there’s still a tradition of handcraft. The roots are still alive and the pace of life is very slow – people take things very easy and can live with simple things. I need to be in that kind of energy.”
Her latest album, Homeland, is something of a tribute to this energy: it has a slow easiness matched with an earthy heat, smoldering in some places and burning bright in others.
She’ll bring all of this to Australia when she performs at So Frenchy So Chic in January. It will be Zahra’s first visit to Australia, and she’s looking forward to it – she has met and played with Aboriginal musicians before. “I discovered a new world,” she says, of learning about Indigenous art and philosophy. She believes all Australians are connected with nature: “They’re connected to the ocean, connected to the earth, connected to the food.”
Hindi Zahra performs at So Frency So Chic on January 16. Tickets available here.