Sat, 07/07/2012 - 13:22

Bulgarian music at heart of Hector Zazou's last album

Hector Zazou by Dimiter Panev.jpg

The Bulgarian Eva Quartet joined some 50 musicians from four continents on Hector Zazou's posthumously-released album, The Arch. A particularly prolific composer and record producer, Zazou is famous for his fondness of cross-cultural collaborations. His 1983 album, Noir Et Blanc, was one of the first and most celebrated ventures in mixing African tribal rhythms with electronic music.

In this last album, an array of international musicians – from the Indian Bollywood String Orchestra to Carlos Nuñez from Spain and Ryuichi Sakamoto from Japan – come together to experiment with and interpret what are predominantly Bulgarian voices and sounds. At the heart of Zazou's The Arch is the Eva Quartet of singers Gergana Dimitrova, Sofia Kovacheva, Evelina Hristova and Daniela Stoichkova.

The album title may seem to some pretentious, to others a little simplistic. Yet music is essentially a bridge, an attempt to transcend the limitations of reality. I write as someone who knows the album well and feels connected with its history. In the summer of 2004, no one talked of arches or the prospect of bringing such a vast and time-consuming project to fruition. In the cramped space between records and instruments in Zazou's Paris apartment, we talked about what it was to be "Zazou" more than 60 years after France's youth rebellion movement began, and adopted Cab Calloway's Zah Zuh Zaz as their credo. I told him about the threat of being different, like the Bulgarian Zozas and Swings – derogatory terms used during Communism to describe alternatively-dressed girls and boys who belonged to Bulgaria's cultural scene years before Zazou chose his artistic pseudonym.

When you've been a renowned artist for a long time, ideas tend to overlap and working on parallel projects can be quite inspirational. Back in 2004, Zazou listened to Bulgarian voices, commented on them and asked for different opinions. His multimedia project Quadri+Chromies was soon to be shown in Sofia, which would be a great opportunity to meet new artists. In between rehearsals, he tried to encourage solo musicians to improvise on certain themes. It was easy to feel the growing anxiety among them, some in a hurry to leave for their nightly performance in some local bar.

Seven years later I now interview producer Dimitar Panev, one of the main people responsible for The Arch. The disc is now ready and the impression it creates is beyond words. Even those music devotees who have travelled and experienced a wide range of sounds and styles will be intrigued. So excellent is each track that it would be wrong to single out just a few.

I try to get to the bottom of it, to the very alchemy of Zazou's music. "The musicians felt comfortable with the way Zazou worked," Panev tells me, "although most of the songs are entirely Bulgarian. They had the freedom to improvise but still they knew that no compromises would be made with the final product. Everyone had to find their way alone. Zazou never told people what to play." Goethe referred to architecture as frozen music, but in this case there is nothing static about the diverse, electronically-built sound dimensions. There have been other attempts to blend original foreign music with Bulgarian voices, but this is the first time the result is so satisfactory. The arch, that resilience of stones standing together, or in this case musicians, is precisely what contributes to the fine line which separates Zazou's mastery from those flat, unmemorable albums, the ones that quickly rise to fame and just as quickly vanish from the shelves.

Issue 69

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