Meliza - Meliza (Hot Mule, Secousse, 2020)
Like a beautiful dip through time, the latest record from the Parisian imprints sees the wondrous vitality of Jeannine Sifflet and Alex Dorothée come to life on a series of bountiful and genre crossing cuts that surely represents one of this year's best reissues.
Sometimes genres simply sweep you off your feet, some sit you down and grab you by the heart strings, but very rarely does one genre do both so expertly. Genres that represent the heart, souls and musical cultures of the performers, a sound channelled through purpose, knowledge and passion, music that helps you loose yourself in the rhythms but also tenderly encapsulates us at our most emotive, our most sedate and reflective, a duality in experience that helps guide us through moments of release or moments of reflection. A purposeful sound that considers all when applying itself to our ears, a depth, scale and creative spark comes into view as some of the key drivers that sparkle and shine through the beats and keys, music that prides itself on diversity and demonstrating its complete potential. One genre that comes to mind when we think of these qualities is certainly Zouk, and to this day the genre continues to capture the hearts and minds of the many who have graced its presence. Zouk is a mesmerising genre, in terms of its wide variety but perhaps more so in its musicality, with a sometimes highly complex rhythmic feel on display that really wraps itself around the listener. The genre originated from the French West Indies, with its origins found in Beguine music, which was one of the predominant musical styles in the French West Indies for the first half of the 20th century, with Zouk largely coming out of the genre during the late 70s and early 80s. The genres share much in regards to sharp, sweet melodic riffs, dense and beautifully considered drumming patterns, and fast paced vocal lines that demonstrate a high amount of call and response between lead and backing personnel. Vocals too are a significant aspect of the Zouk sound, with their overtly rhythmical qualities often imprinted into tunes, acting as a superb counter balance to the enriching melodic and rhythmic sections which hints very much at the genres roots in African music, of which it shares similar qualities and shared cultural identities. Around the turn of the 80s, the genre became more electronic in its feel, with musical excursions finding even more time to experiment in regards to sound and tone, with audial elements becoming larger, deeper and sometimes faster, all the while pulled off with such high quality musicianship. It felt like a very natural evolution into a new era of soundscapes, and Zouk as a genre was better prepared than many others to bridge the divide. Records that were released during this time under the Zouk moniker often showcase a traditional side to the genre, where the intricately layered high tempo grooves run wild through the bodies of the dance, but finding the time to explore other avenues of expressionism, with elements of further afield genres coming heavily into the tone and style of the instruments more than anything. Its a phenomenal blend of instrumentation and the voice, a powerful mix of densely layered and well conceived progressions that only becomes more enriching as you explore deeper into the varying releases that graced our collective presence. The genre may have had its most prolific and celebrated outputs during the 80s and 90s, but so much of that music is profoundly engaging and simply beautiful to listen to, with its purpose and grace still resonating so much within the contemporary music scene.
With such a remarkable sound, you often get stories and narratives to match, as the artists who dwell within the genre often display an uncanny ability to overly impressive and provide magnificent moments within their music. As already mentioned, Zouk is an impressively dynamic genre, with its stylistic qualities able to traverse across a very wide plain of musical intentions and blends, and when talking about dynamic duos within the genre its hard to overlook the musical symbiosis that formed between producer and song writer Alex Dorothée and singer Jeannine Sifflet, who is also known by her stage name Meliza. The pair had met when Sifflet was 18, with Dorothée really touched by her vocal talents, which began her doing vocals for a number of his projects, which would then evolve into Dorothée's offer of writing and producing what would become Meliza's debut album. Dorothée had already made a fairly substantial name for himself in the world of Zouk music, with his music highly regarded within the scene for its dynamics and flow, its infectious rhythms and Dorothée's magnificent vocal work, all of which were hall marks of the genre and yet Dorothée was able to imprint his own visions into the music with ease. The soft and tender and the large and energetic all feature within his numerous studio albums, all of which highlight his personal abilities in conveying mood and tone in his music that feed into the Zouk story and beyond, along with his emphasis on self-releasing records demonstrating his credentials as a top producer. Its tricky to find a fair amount of his works online, but some records to check out include the 2018 reissue of 'Au Krisma Discothèque' on Harmonie Exotic, which features one of Zouk's biggest anthems, 'Afro Zouk', along the gorgeous 'Mi Sa Yo Vle' and the intoxicating 'Douvan Jou' LPs, all of which were released sometime in the 1980s (we think!).
It only seemed right that a arranger of such class would team up with a equally impressive vocalist, with Meliza contributing vocals to records such as ' Pa Ven' Tè La !' and 'Hésitation', before the duo's attentions turned to Meliza's debut album, which is the subject of todays review. As Sifflet put it, Dorothée was messing around with a synth and drum machines during recording, which both had a dramatic effect on the sound, with the underbelly of the sound now incredibly concise and fluid, a sound that became a brilliant blend of Zouk, Beguine and Calypso, the genres completely electrified by the usage of hardware. It represents a significant tonal shift for Dorothée, who utilises Meliza's vocals to maximum impact to craft a utterly unique series of experiences, with each cut offering up its own incstrinic blend of sounds and styles, with the synths in particular offering a guiding hand through the first portion of the tracks before the final two really take things to new places and contexts. Its wonderfully eclectic in the most refined way possible, an exemplar of the Zouk genre but drawing from Guadeloupe's rich musical heritage whilst also injecting so much of the 80s flair into proceedings, its hard to deny its unraveling energies and succulent progressions. The record, entitled 'Meliza', has been a holy grail for many a Zouk enthusiast in the past few years, and now via the shared passions of French labels Hot Mule and Secousse, we are blessed with this mini masterpiece. So, without further delay, lets dive deep into the realms of the sophisticated, the elegant, and the mystifying......
Up first comes 'Paradis En Moin', and we take a big dip right into the sounds that will unravel from this record. The intro brings together the full extents of the rhythm, with the drumming suitably swinging and sultry, with the keys laying down an extra level of pulse, with the guitar lines operating on both sides of the pan, with the bass softly exuding its sound through the middle. This excellent bedrock of sound provides the perfect foundation for Meliza's voice to really shine, her voice so pure and clear cut as it rises and falls with the melodic sequences, both so in tune with one another, a tandem operation that creates such a totality in experience. The verses remain short and sharp, with their transitions into the chorus signalled by the introduction of the choral lines, that craft a sense of progression as the track moves onwards and upwards. The vocals don't shy away for long, but after chorus lines the track usually descends into a instrumental plain, where we get to experience the gorgeous interplay of synth, guitar, bass and drums, with the experience always coming full circle as Meliza's voice comes back into view. There's even time at the end for the choral backing lines to do a wonderful interplay with a vibraphone sort of solo, and it just adds yet another dynamic into the mix.
As an opener, it really does the business in opening up proceedings to the rest of the album. Top draw. Up next comes 'Anragé', and this one begins in similar surroundings to the previous cut. The intro sees the single chord chime into life, as the drums - suitably fluid and rhythmically intricate - craft the pulse underneath, as the movement into the extended melodic section begins to pick up traction. The keys are highly expressive, acting as a key interchange between the varying instruments, with their set up leading right into Meliza's vocal lines ringing out across the groove. The track contains a high level of variety in elemental switches and changes, crafting a series of transitions that flow so intuitively and delightfully, the overall sound wrapping itself around our heads as we simply nod along with a big smile on our faces. The track moves into a key solo which exemplifies the whole feel of the track, with the audial narrative switching between the voice and the varying instruments, with the soaring chorus lines a particular highlight, as Meliza and Dorothée sing in tandem with such synergy and meaning. What a beauty. Next comes 'Automne Oublié', and this one takes the tempo down just a little bit but with just as much forward momentum. The key line leads the way over the top of a very hi hat and cymbal heavy percussive structure, and before long we are joined by Meliza and her voice, which in this track sings at a fast rate but impeccably matching the music swimming about underneath, once again showcasing how all the varying elements work so so well together on this record. The chorus sees a high level of vocal energy, before moving into a stunning instrumental break, where first the keys then the guitar get a moment to add their lines into the ongoing narrative, before the high octane 'Calypsooo! Calypsooo!' rings over the track, the chorus acting as this energetic release, a bookend to all the instrumentals. An absolute joy of a track.
'Tou Patou Sé Zouk' arrives next, and you feel the room's temperature reaching fever pitch with this one. The drums are more straight cut, their elements more stripped back in order to provide spaces for incoming instrumentation, and the illusion is complete with the intro of the arpeggio vibraphone style sound, that fits in perfectly with the drumming sequence. The track quickly flows into the first verse, with Dorothée assuringly taking the lead with his softly spoken lines, which leads into the Meliza led chorus, a wonderfully high octane affair that keeps the fire burning with such intensity, going through the line four times no least, with the set up for the instrumental bridge to come fully in motion. The breaks is intensely groovy, as the guitar riffs, keys and drums work in such motion together, their one quest to get your body moving and the heart racing, and as the vocals come back into view we are totally swept up by all the track has to offer. Its raw, its concise, its highly emotive, its an absolute burner, the groove never letting us go as it takes us away to new plains of rhythmic understanding. The track maintains a somewhat consistent structure throughout, and after the third or so verse the tune lets up a little bit, before slamming right back into view with all the purpose in the world as Dorothée delivers a deep and bountiful line that flows across the whole track, taking in all that is on offer and doubling it. There's time for one final saunter through the choral line, as we find the lines getting caught in our heads as we close our eyes and smile. There aren't many better grooves out there. Up next comes 'Pou Moun"Ki Ka Soufé', and this one begins off with the 'Happy Birthday' theme! but its just a precursor to what is going to flow next. The track moves into a hypnotic dubby Beguine kind of affair, with a slow jam Calypso feel running through its core, with the track moving between Meliza and her vocal lines and extended instrumental sections, with the whole track displaying a very free flowing and highly expressive kind of progression, with the musicality on show one of excellence but also one of absolute joy. Its such a delight to get involved in the various comings and goings, to wrap your head around the solos, the switches in tonal arrangements and grooves, the layers mingling and resting on each other, finding solace in one another, content to move along to the rhythms of life. Meliza's voice acts as an anchor to it all, her words a guiding life, a lamp for all the other elements to flicker and fly around, transfixed by her boundless vocal energy and ability to move between the ranges with such ease. The contrasts between the vocal sections and instrumental segments are wonderous, and see this talented collection of musicians at their most ambitious, their most daring and musically complex, showcasing their abilities to shift between gears and give us the fullest experience possible. And finally, to cap this wonderful piece of music off, we have perhaps the most perfect send off in the slow burning 'Anne Marie'. It kicks off with the soft hums of the drums, bass and piano, with the guitar interlaced within the left hand side of the view, as the soft stabs of the synth add the final ingredient into the mix. After all that energy, all that excitement, all that joyous expressionism, we descend into the slow dance, the holding of the hands of a lover, the night sky crept upon by the sunrise, as the soft calls of the melodies brings it all home. Its incredibly beautiful, the progression acting as one precise momentum, bringing together all the elements together under one ever present and ever rolling on experience. Its highly evocative, a slow burning light that lifts you up and places you on cloud 9, a stunning saunter through the breeze, its life force reminding us of better times to come, or the moment in which we reside within. We leave the experience we have just undertaken with the warmest of feelings in our hearts, content in ourselves and feeling emboldened to the fullest extent. This album is simply a winner, in every single conceivable way.
In 1984, Alex Dorothée and Jeannine Sifflet got together and recorded the debut Meliza album, and whilst the pair lost touch in the years proceeding, the magic that they created together here will forever live on. When getting into 'Meliza', you see the creative wills of two highly charged and musically intuitive musicians, who weaved their musical identities into the tunes they made, and the result is something extraordinary indeed. The diversity is apparent from the word go, with wonderful balances between instrumentals and vocals taking place across the board, with the subtle variations in tone and arrangement keeping us constantly on our toes as we meander through the smoothest and most groovy of progressions and arrangements. Its a special record, with an essence that contains the energies that remain rooted in its conception back in 1984, but its passion and its excellence reverb through time as its feel and drive remain as compelling now as it did back when it was released. Joy, ecstasy, delight, passion, its hard to deny these feelings that resonate within you when you get through this record, and perhaps that is its greatest achievement. A masterpiece of a record, and perhaps, for us, the reissue of the year.
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