The Kennedy Center

Malika Zarra


Moroccan singer/composer/producer, Malika Zarra is a multi-cultural shape-shifter, an enchantress who leaps effortlessly between seemingly unconnected languages and traditions, uniting them while utilizing each to further enrich the others. The exotically beautiful artist with the velvety, sinuous mezzo-soprano voice has demonstrated a rare ability to communicate both powerful and subtle ideas and feelings in Berber, Moroccan Arabic, French and English now a much-in-demand headliner at concert halls and festivals the world over.

Malika was born in Southern Morocco, in a little village called Ouled Teima. Her father's family was originally from Tata, a city on the Sahara plain, while her mother was a Berber from the High Atlas. During her early childhood, there was always music and dancing in the house. After her family emigrated to a suburb of Paris, she found herself straddling two very different societies. I had to be French at school yet retain my Moroccan cultural heritage at home, she recalls, Like many immigrant children, I learned to switch quickly between the two. It was hard but brought me a lot of good things too.

Malika's interest in music led her to take up the clarinet in grade school. Meanwhile, she was being exposed to a wide variety of musical styles, she cites fellow Moroccan Hajja Hamdaouia, Rais Mohand, the Lebanese-born, Egyptian-based ud virtuoso/composer Farid el Atrache, Um Kalthoum and Algerian singer Warda (Al-Jazairia) as major influences. She also absorbed albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. When I decided to learn singing, I started with jazz because I was attracted by the improvisation, which is also important in Arabic music, she says. Although her family was not in favor of her pursuing a musical career, Malika nonetheless attended classes at conservatories and jazz academies at Tours and Marseille and studied privately with Sarah Lazarus and Francoise Galais.

During her apprentice phase, during which she became in fixture in France and on the Paris scene, Malika performed at a variety of well-known clubs and events, including Festival L'esprit Jazz de St Germain, Sunside/Sunset and Cite de la Musique. In the beginning, she interpreted classic material strictly in the original languages -- then a breakthrough occurred. When I started to sing in Arabic, writing new lyrics for jazz standards, I found that people reacted really strongly. There is always more emotion when you sing in your own language because your feelings are more intense. As a composer, the process was similar ; asked why and when she began writing her own songs, she says impishly, After getting tired of forgetting English lyrics !

An early visit to New York made a strong impression on her, I came the first time in 1996. It was an amazing experience. I felt that I could be more myself and learn a lot of things, musically and as a human being. In 2004, Malika decided to relocate to New York City. Having crafted a repertoire that incorporated her native Berber, Gnawa (a percussive form of religious trance music) and Chaabi (Arabic working class blues) heritages, the intellectual elegance of French pop, plus freewheeling jazz rhythms and techniques, her reputation as a solo act began to grow. Malika's vocal versatility led to invitations to participate in a wide variety of projects, including house, dance, funk and African music.

Malika eventually recorded and/or sat in with Makoto Ozone, John Zorn, Tommy Campbell (Dizzy Gillespie), Will Calhoun (Living Color), Lonnie Plaxico (Cassandra Wilson), Michael Cain (Jack Dejohnette), Brad Jones (Ornette Coleman), Jacques Schwarz-Bart (Roy Hargrove), David Gilmore, Gretchen Parlato and many others. She has recently recorded a vocal quartet album for John Zorn’s released on Tzadik records in January 2010.Among the venues she has graced are the Carnegie Hall (opening for Bobby McFerrin) (NYC), the London Jazz Festival (UK), the Montreal Jazz Festival (Canada), the Opera House Lincoln Center (NYC), the Apollo Theater, the Festival du Monde Arabe (Canada), the Salzburg Jazz Festival (Austria), Festival Nuits d’Afrique Montreal (Canada), the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival (DC), Brooklyn Maqam festival (NYC), The Blue Note (NYC), The Jazz Standard (NYC), Joe's Pub (NYC), Sob's (opening for Sara Tavares) (NYC), Smoke Jazz Club (NYC), Brooklyn Academy of Music (NYC), Chorus Jazz club (Switzerland), Porgy & Bess Jazz club (Austria), Domicil jazz club (Germany), WDR 3 (Germany), Klub Cankarjevega doma (Slovenia).

Malika's debut solo album "On the Ebony Road" (2006), reveals a firm grasp of a richly diverse bouquet of references, fusing Orient and Occident, East and West, into a lively, sensual, fresh, and deeply poem of inclusion. Working with some of the finest international world-jazz players now active, she is in her element as bandleader and collaborator, at once creating a new vocabulary and intuitively going with the flow. She is well aware that in the USA, there is still another set of realities, every bit as complex as those she experienced in France, and that it's not always easy to get past fear and prejudice. However, she remains upbeat and confident of her ability to reach out with her voice and heart. We all need to get just a little bit interested in other cultures.

Watch Past Performances

Video 6/8/2012: Malika Zarra

The Moroccan vocalist has taken her mezzo-soprano voice across the world, singing in multiple languages and crossing both musical and cultural boundaries. Part of the DC Jazz Festival.

Malika Zarra