Music » The Hum

Peace and Love from Comoros


  • Nawal

Unless your knowledge of geography is far greater than mine, it's likely you have no idea where the Comoros Islands are, and thus would also have no clue what it means when the singer Nawal is described as "the voice of Comoros."

First the geography: The Union of the Comoros is a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique, a former French colony that's a crossroads of cultures.

As Nawal explained when I talked with her last week, "They are little islands. We are mixed with Arabic, Indonesian, Malaysian, African Bantu, French, Portuguese, all together." She describes her sound as "identity music" drawing on all her roots, adding, "and coming from Comoros my roots are really wide."

Listening to her album Aman, you hear a strong Arab influence, something easy to understand when you look at Comorian history: Arab traders settled on the islands a thousand years ago. Comoros did not become a French colony until the 19th century.

The islands' recent history is somewhat troubled. Independence from France in 1975 was followed by one coup d'├ętat after another. Because of the political strife, Nawal's folks decided to take the family to France when she was just 11, so she has not lived a typical Comorian life. "I am also Parisian," she says, a fact that offered her opportunities she would have missed if she had stayed on the islands. "You know, I am the first woman [from Comoros] playing an instrument in public," she points out. "Women played instruments at home, but never in public. The island is Muslim, and even in Bantu [culture] the woman's place is closely defined. In a family bourgeois, a woman had to live in a kind of closet. She could see out, but nobody can see her. You just wait to be married and nobody can see you before that. It is changed now, but we still have a long way before women of Comoros are free."

Her sound is truly international with flavors from all over. Her primary instrument is the gambusi, an ancestor of the Arab oud, but also akin to the banjo -- she also plays guitar and a hand drum. Her trio includes a standup bass and a woman who plays mbira, the Zimbabwean thumb piano. You can hear that mix of cultures she mentions with the Arabic strains coming through strongest, particularly on "Salama," the opening track on her new album, Aman. The word salama translates as "peace."

"The song Salama,' I wrote after the 11 September," she says. "I begin the song with a quote from the Prophet Mohammed, not from the *Koran* but from the *Hadith*. He says,God is beauty and he loves beauty.' You don't have the right to use God as a reason to kill people."

The song itself is a thing of beauty, Nawal's voice floating over strummed chords and a gentle rhythm. The Arabic lyrics were beyond me, but she shifts into English at the end to sum things up with a sentiment I grasped instantly singing, "What we need is peace and love. What we need is peace and love."

"I think that peace must come individually," she says explaining further. "People don't understand that they have to care about themselves, to find a harmony inside themselves, to find peace. We are all responsible for what happens. I think that we are all one and all connected. The spiritual revolution must begin with each person."

When I spoke with Nawal she had just arrived on the West Coast to play at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. She works her way up the coast next week and stops in Eureka Tuesday, June 5, for a show at the Pearl Lounge.

When I caught up with the members of Tussle the band was barreling down the highway on the way from San Fran (home) to San Diego. Warren, one the band's two drummers, was driving, so, noting, "Safety first," he passed the phone to Nathan, Tussle's resident knob-twister. Tussle's sound is a bit unusual in that there's no real lead player just drums, bass and effects. "It's all a giant rhythm section," says Nathan. How does it work? "We have one traditional drum kit and another with non-traditional elements like bottles and buckets, and metal drums that Jonathan [the other drummer] built in art school. He also has electronic drum pads. The drummers are at the front of the stage facing off against each other, working off each other's vibes, then bass and a table of electronic effects are in the back. I program sequences with samples and weird noises and also tap out samples live."

The end result is something I interpret as minimalist rock. A good example is "Warning," the second track on their new album, Telescope Mind. It starts with a blippy bass line that, at least for this baby boomer, seems to be straight from the opening of "Satisfaction" by the Stones. The drums come in and the rhythm is set, you wait for the guitar or vocals, but they never come, instead the rhythms become increasingly complex, a simple synth line shows up now and then, but it's mostly just rhythm, and you know what, when it finishes, you don't care that the guitar never showed up.

Tussle's extended West Coast tour brings them to the Accident Gallery Sunday for a show with local metalloids The Lord's Burning Rain and the much quieter Swimming.

The Marc Ford Band hits the Red Fox Friday, June 1. At first I thought this was the guitar-slinging bro of Robben Ford, but that would be Mark Ford. This Marc (with a c) is a different bluesy guitarist who started out leading a power trio called Burning Tree in the late '80s, then joined Southern rockers The Black Crowes and played for them through their heyday, most of the '90s. Since then he's had a couple of combos of his own, played with the Pink Floyd tribute band, Blue Floyd, became one of Ben Harper's Innocent Criminals, returned to the Black Crowes for a moment, then quit to reunite with his Burning Tree bandmates ultimately retaining drummer Doni Gray to record a Marc Ford Band album, Weary and Wired, released earlier this year.

The Eureka Symphony concludes its first season at the Arkley Center Friday and Saturday, June 1 and 2, with Carol Jacobson conducting a program of familiar classics: Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte Overture," Rimsky Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto in E minor" featuring soloist Susan Hytken.

There's classical music of a different sort at the Arcata Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 3: Indian classical music performed on sitars by a master from India, Pandit Shivanth Mishra, a lecturer and head of the music department at the Sanskrit University of Benares, performing with his son, Deobrat Mishra.

Humboldt Blues Association presents its monthly Blues Jam Monday, June 4, at the Jambalaya with The Cryin' Shame and blues jam vet Doug Vanderpool serving as house band. (What happened to Big Earl?) Extra bonus: The Generatorz.

Could a week go by without a reggae show? No way. Wednesday, June 6, at Six Rivers it's the oh-so N.I.C.E. Pato Banton playing two sets backed by Chico's Mystic Roots, an early all ages show at 6 p.m. then an 8 p.m. show for the older folks.

And yes, there's reggae at Mateel's 31st annual Summer Arts and Music Festival down at Benbow this weekend. Peter Rowan and Crucial Reggae close the show Saturday night and Jamaican veteran Winston "Flames" Jarrett from Alton Ellis' band is on earlier that day; Toots' son, Jr. Toots plays Sunday evening. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for the multifaceted mega-event with over 100 bands and other entertainers on five stages. You've got your funky hip hop from Bayonics on Saturday and Crown City Rockers Sunday, jambands galore including Melvin Seals and JGB on Sunday, international flavors from SambaDa's Afro-Brazilian grooves to Tempest's Scandinavian Celtic rock, plus pretty much every musician you can think of from SoHum and a whole bunch from NoHum, way too many to mention. And let's not forget the art, and the food, and the river, and thousands of groovy people dancing in the sunshine. As with that fabled benefit for Mr. Kite, "a splendid time is guaranteed for all."


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