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15 février 2009

Hector Zazou & Swara: In the House of Mirrors

Pitchwork, Joshua Klein, February 12, 2009

Hector Zazou & Swara: In the House of Mirrors [Crammed; 2008]

French-Algerian composer Hector Zazou, one of the world's most prominent-- and most prolific-- musical synthesizers, died last September. He spent much of the past 30 years crossing border after border and culture with culture, with sometimes striking results. His was the rare name linking disparate Western avant-pop luminaries (such as Björk, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and many, many more) with a host of similarly diverse fellow composers and performers gathered from around the globe. He often dealt in concept albums, with inspiration drawn from the Arctic, Africa, and all points in between.

In the House of Mirrors, released just a few weeks after Zazou's death, features the composer's final fusion, bringing together four primary players from India and Uzbekistan-- Toir Kuziyev on tambur and oud, Milind Raykar on violin, Ronu Majumdar on flute, and Manish Pingle on slide guitar-- to record in Mumbai compositions envisioned as modern updates of Indian classic music. But for a man who loved his concept albums, Zazou here keeps the focus woozy and blurry. It's like a Ry Cooder record by way of Fripp & Eno, all over-lapping notes and drones, the melodies often entrancing but also tantalizingly open-ended and prone to meandering

Like similar-minded projects from Cooder (among other well-intentioned culture-vultures) the curiosity factor is one of the primary attractions of In the House of Mirrors, though the link between Uzbekistan and India is less than obvious. The musical traditions of the Central Asia country and the Indian subcontinent may overlap somewhere down the Silk Road, and one way or another the pan-Asian quartet (who call themselves Swara) wound up in Mumbai as eager collaborators. But their roots have less to bear on the results than the way they individually and collectively lend a tactile exoticism to what might have ended up just another mushy of electro-acoustic project à la Bill Laswell.

Which isn't to say tracks such as "Wanna Mako" don't flirt dangerously with new age, like the aural equivalent of burning incense. Or that the nearly 12-minute "Darbari (With Soul Without Rules)" doesn't sound like a film score wandering about in search of some visuals to. But Zazou, like many of his more ambitious fellow travelers, at least understood the importance of discord and darkness to his music, with mystery and ambiguity undercutting the more smoothed over surfaces. Certainly "Sisyphe" hums with a spooky sense of dread, while "Twice as Good as We Are" mines the collision of jazz, traditional Asian music, and the evocative echo of empty space with results worthy of the best of the ECM label.

Taken as a whole, however, Zazou's swan song is ironically hurt by one of its most prominent attributes. Zazou is such a seamless synthesist that he neglected to leave more of those aforementioned rough edges intact. For all its shadowy turns, In the House of Mirrors still remains simply too placid to make the most of its various and varied ingredients. After all, one of the most exciting things about fusion of this sort is the sense of recognition, parsing where all the pieces of the musical puzzle meet and how they may have mutated. In the House of Mirrors, on the other hand, is tour-brochure slick. While the collision of centuries old traditions with contemporary sounds has produced countless curiosities in the past, this particular one is ultimately missing the dirt and feet-on-the-ground grit needed to help it transcend the sterile bounds of the studio and achieve something more affecting rather than merely effective.

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