Nawal ~ Voice of Comoros
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Nawal ~ Voice of Comoros

Band World Acoustic


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Remote and often overlooked in the Indian Ocean, the Comoros Islands, like their distant neighbors Zanzibar, Reunion, Mauritius, and Madagascar, present a complex, one-of-a-kind amalgam of African, Arab, Asian, and European cultures. This album’s notes claim that Nawal is Comoros’s first woman singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist to perform in public. Whether or not that is strictly true, she is the first we’ve come across on CD. And she is a find. Her voice is deep, at times almost husky, and rich with experience, seriousness and moral authority.

The production here has a light touch, all acoustic instruments: nylon-string guitars, sanza thumb piano, breathy, wood flute, warm-toned, deep-pitched hand drums, shakers and cymbals. “Al Djalilu” (The All Powerful) sets the mood with a chanting refrain, a restlessly cycling guitar ostinato, and periodic bursts of low drum and shaker that sound like a mountain’s sigh. All this sets the stage for Nawal’s elegant vocal, strong, dry, and commanding at center. Songs like “Sana” (Try) and “Naritsangagnihe” (Let Us Unite) play as folk music, but the instrumentation and arranging give them a theatrical, almost visual character. These eleven songs create their own sonic realm, earthy but delicate, cloistered but always with an eye to the heavens.

Nawal’s cool, spare cover of Jacues Brel’s “Ces Gens La” (These People) benefits from a tasty hint of Malagasy trilling in the guitar work. And the energized propulsion of Malagasy folk music also echoes in “Mwaha Mwena” (Best Wishes), probably the most pumping song in the set. Elsewhere, as on “Hegne” (Pay Attention), the rolling 12/8 feel found throughout these Indian Ocean islands is just barely present, more a hint of possibility than a full-blown rhythm. Most of these songs feel restrained and reverent, expressive, but rarely celebratory. The album makes an impressive international debut. Nawal may be new to us, but this kind of maturity and integrity was clearly many years in the making.
- Review of "Kweli" by Banning Eyre

"Global Rhythm"

Bridging traditional acoustic instrumentation with soulful yearning, it is Nawal’s mostly-French-but-who-cares-what-language-it-is-vocals that tear in and grip onto that space, the one only music can find inside us... Nawal proves herself nothing short of a legend in the making.
- Review of "Kweli" by Jill Ettinger

"New York Times"

"[One] of the most notable world music CDs released over the last year...
Nawal sets her gritty voice to sparse, staccato patterns of upright bass, thumb piano and the banjolike gambusi on "Aman." ...her music is a personal fusion that draws on the repetitive power of Sufi chants, along with modal acoustic vamps that can sound both African and Arabic. Her songs are lean and incantatory, and .... more often, she can be hypnotic." - Big World of Music by Jon Pareles


A self-styled vocalist, composer and string player (guitar and the long-necked lute called gambusi), Nawal hails from Comoros, an Island nation in the Indian Ocean. She has a silver-in-the-rough voice that conveys wisdom and experience, and her music is an unorthodox blend of Comoros tradition, Sufi spirituality, and more. Completing Nawal’s unusual trio are Melissa Cara Rigoli on mbira dzavadzimu and percussion, and Idriss Mlanao on warm-toned, sure footed contrabass. These collaborators bring elements of Shona (Zimbabwean) spirit culture and the more contemplative forms of acoustic jazz to the mix. They also contribute harmonized backing vocals that hover dreamily, and shadow Nawal’s bone-dry soul songs. On this, her second self-produced album, Nawal balances a mood of loving celebration with unsentimental contemplation of world conflict, suffering and oppression.

The set opens with “Salama,” a hypnotic prayer for peace inspired by the September 11 attacks, and wryly drawing its words from Muslim Hadith. “Narizambe (We Must Say It)” melds Shona and Sufi moods with prominent mbira, and a subtle marriage of 6/8 and 4/4 time. Some pieces—“Meditation,” “Kweli II (Truth),” “Amani (Peace of the Soul)”—have an almost ritual feel: spare soundscapes with forthright rhythms and cyclic vocal melodies, some taken from Sufi dzikr chanting. Other songs lift with the celebratory, 12/8 swing of more conventional Comoros folklore, or even Malagasy music. Malagasy guitarist Solorazaf is a guest on three tracks, including “Swing ta Vie (Swing your life),” on which his clean, electric guitar melodies contrast intriguingly with the dry, woody plink of Nawal’s gambusi. But even when the mood is up, it never feels frivolous; light and happiness are never entirely free from the darkness and weight of a troubled world.

Nawal’s voice has world weary moral authority that sustains even her boldest experiments. On one track, “Dandzi (A Woman’s Blues),” she sings alone, lamenting the difficulties of life for women in polygamous marriages. The most satisfying pieces here assemble disparate sounds to create unexpected effects. “Ode to Maarouf,” which honors Nawal’s great grandfather, a Sufi marabout, builds from the ancient strains of solo gambusi to an understated, polyrhythmic groove with the subtle swing of Afro-Peruvian music. Nawal is a modern original with deep respect for the past, and passionate—though never naïve—hope for the future.
- Review of "Aman" by Banning Eyre

"LA Weekly"

Nawal whips African, Arabic and Indian sounds into Brazilian-tinged jazz

Multi-instrumentalist Nawal makes three local stops. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Nawal is from the Comoros, an island nation nestled between Africa’s eastern shore and Madagascar, awash in the cultural influences of the Indian Ocean. On Aman, her new tour de force, the nearby African rhythms — that kalimba, and the drumming and call-and-response — mix with Malagasy melodicism and tunings and the complexities of Arabic and Indian musical traditions. Nawal’s years in France have left their impact in some Django-tinged guitar playing, and her trio is backboned by a strong contrabassist, which gives most of the tunes a jazzy thrum down the middle. The variety of songwriting and styles, that mix of sweet melody and energetic rhythms, reminds one a bit of much of Brazil’s best — the variety of Caetano Veloso, of Gilberto Gil at his rootsy finest (and her voice often sounds remarkably like Tom Zé’s). The long tendrils of Islam are never far off, and Sufism suffuses the entire project, lyrically (“God is in your mind/God is in all things”) and in long Sufi trance passages that must be remarkable in person. (Her live shows reportedly are even better than the album.) And dig Idris Mlanao’s jazzy bass lines — it’s what jazz fans can grab onto as we listen, soaking in all the exoticism of the rest. Nawal makes three appearances in town this week, first at the Mint on Fri., June 1, at 10:30 p.m.; then out at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, Sat., June 2, at 3 p.m.; and finally at Motherland Music in Culver City, Sat., June 2, at 8 p.m. - Whirled Music by Brick Wahl

"Financial Times"

Nawal is, apparently, the first woman from the Comoros Islands to perform publicly with an instrument. Aman has a mesmeric slow burn, combining the African and Islamic influences of the archipelago. Nawal plays the gambusi, a form of lute from Yemen. "Meditation", almost too pretty for its own good, sets quotations from Marianne Williamson (half in French) against complicated percussion before ending in Buddhist chanting. "Dandzi" is traditional blues, the lament of an unloved wife in a polygamous marriage. - Review of "Aman" by David Honigmann

"Boston Globe"

June 22, 2007
Chalk it up to globalization: The foremost cultural ambassador of an obscure Islamic island nation off the coast of East Africa can be found, when her schedule permits, taking the waters at a Northern California yoga and meditation spa.

Such is the habit of Nawal, the singer and instrumentalist who is the first female performing artist of the Comoros, an archipelago of four islands of which three are an independent republic, and the fourth, Mayotte, is a French territory. Though she moved to France as a child and is today based in Paris, she has become an object of Comorian national pride and returned to play there with her trio, which includes an American woman, to rapturous stadium crowds.

Her music takes as its point of departure traditional Comorian sounds, which resonate with Arabic and African influences accumulated over centuries through the Indian Ocean trade. The instrumentation showcases the gambusi, a string instrument akin to the oud. On Nawal's new album , "Aman," her lyrics draw in part on Sufi incantations and on traditional laments that Comorian women perform at private gatherings.

But if its predominant component is Comorian roots, "Aman" deviates in many ways, each one offering a glimpse of this woman's unusual journey from a highly conservative family in a highly conservative nation to the liberated spirit that she has become. "Meditation" quotes Nelson Mandela (himself quoting Marianne Williamson) and ends with a mix of Muslim and Buddhist chant. "L'Amour Sorcier" is a tribute to the late French singer and songwriter Claude Nougaro. The songs that open and close the album, the groovy "Salama" and majestic "Aman," are both prayers for peace.

"I mix different things," Nawal says of her spiritual practice, by phone from her California hideaway during a break in her current American tour. (She visits Ryles on Wednesday.) "The Sufi roots of my ancestors, Arabic styles, and animism. In France, I discovered yoga and qi gong. I've created my own practice." Referring to a line by the poet Rumi, she says she has one foot in her own culture and the other in that of all nations. "I take from everywhere."

Nawal, who is in her early 40s, had more than a few hurdles to overcome be fore fully blossoming as a musician. Though her family immigrated to France, they tried to retain their strict Comorian habits. "My mother insisted I wear traditional clothes," she says. "I would have to stop the elevator in my building to change my clothes. I had to jump through the window when I wanted to go play in the evening. I was punished a lot."

Undaunted, she got involved in local radio in Valence, the city where the family lived, suffering her mother's wrath when she caught her on the air. Finally, she broke out and went to university in the southern city of Montpellier. "I studied psychology," she says, and still practices it. "Even now sometimes I do workshops to help people be more happy, more in harmony. I use the voice also. I love to sing with people."

Nawal happily owns up to her crunchy tendencies. Valence is close to the Ardèche, an area with a Vermont-like reputation as a haven for free spirits. She credits as a shaping influence her exposure to those "hippie people from the peace and love epoch, with this peace and love life." It's also, she says, why she's comfortable in California.

It was at a jam-session party in Oakland that Nawal connected with Melissa Cara Rigoli, an American player of the mbira, the "thumb piano" of traditional Zimbabwean music. "I was playing the mbira in the mellow area, outdoors under the sky," Rigoli says. "And all of a sudden this voice started singing that I had never heard before." Not only that, but Nawal took charge of a shaker and started playing the complex Zimbabwean rhythm faultlessly. It was similar to what she knew from the Comoros. "She said, 'How come I have to come to the US to find the music of my cousins?' " Rigoli recalls.
Rigoli found herself traveling to Paris to play with Nawal and eventually decided to move there, playing mbira and percussion in the trio, which is rounded out by Nawal's brother Idriss Mlanao on bass.

Last year, the group returned to give a series of concerts in the Comoros. Nawal was stunned by the welcome: "I didn't know how much people loved me there," she says. "But the ones who live in the Comoros are more open-minded than Comorians abroad."

At one show, she asked a group of women players of traditional music to play with her in public. The women, she says, asked forgiveness of their brothers and fathers, but nonetheless took the stage.

The Comoros, she says, are experiencing the ambiguous benefits of change: On one hand, traditions are fading; for instance, she says, keyboards and CDs are replacing traditional instruments at weddings and ceremonies. "But also at the same time people have a more open mind and women are a little more free."

That, in the end, is an important benefit in her mind. "Hima," one song on the new album, tells women that no one but themselves can fight for their rights. The a cappella "Dandzi" is a traditional song in a genre that women use to express their grievances indirectly.
Not only has Nawal followed her own message, but so has her family. "My mother used to not speak to me," she says. "Now, she's not happy I'm still not married and don't have babies, but she can respect me for my job. She accepts it."

And Nawal finds herself returning the favor, the sharp edges of her youthful rebellion now mellowed by accomplishment and experience. "I see things differently now," she says. "I'm trying to practice what I think. Each one has a story, each one has the right to be who he is. My family, my mom, they have the right to want me to be different. Don't judge the other."
- Nawal's Musical Journey To Liberation by Siddhartha Mitter

"Around the World (Spinner)"

In a recent Around the World, Nick Gold -- the mainstay of groundbreaking label World Circuit Records and one of the prime movers of the Buena Vista Social Club projects -- mused as to whether there were any undiscovered lands, musically speaking, left to discover after the explosion of interest in international music of the past couple of decades. Just a few weeks later, though, a discovery took place in a very unlikely locale -- the tiny Coffee Gallery cafe in Altadena, California, a quiet community in the foothills above Pasadena.

It was one of several Southern California stops for Nawal, a woman who bears music that originated in a locale with which even few in the audience that had come to see her were more than nominally familiar at best: the Comoros Islands. The Comoros are four specks in the western Indian Ocean, cradled between the northern tip of Madagascar and the protruding coast of Mozambique, pretty much unknown except to dedicated geography students and devotees of the history of the spice trade. The latter, though, is crucial to the nature of the music. While it seems very little music has made its way off the islands for others' ears to this point, for centuries the sounds of lots of outside cultures made their way to the Comoros. That comes with the territory when you're a coveted locale on fought-over trade routes for centuries, a time during which which the African-originated population was ruled by Arabs and then the French, with heavy traffic from India and beyond, before gaining turmoil-filled independence in 1975.

"We have East African, South African, Bantu, Arabic, Persian, Indonesian, French, Yemeni, Ethiopian -- all these influences," explained the lean, stately Nawal before the Altadena performance. There are musicians in the Comoros, she says, who work with varying traditions from those roots. She, though, has tried to encompass it all. That's very clear to any discerning ear taking in her two albums, 2001's 'Keweli' (which means "Truth") and the new 'Aman' ("Peace of the Soul"), both released through her own company. All those elements are infused with a prayerful quality drawn from her Sufi Muslim grounding.

'Aman' opens with a serene chant of 'Salama' ("Peace"), a track written as a call for unity after the September 11 attacks on the U.S., and 'Meditation' was taken from a speech by Nelson Mandela, whom Nawal later learned was quoting from American poet Marianne Williamson. The essential line, which she speaks in English, is "There is nothing that is not God." In the concert, she gave the music even more warmth and intimacy, weaving her musical threads with her own fine touch on nylon-string guitar and gambusi, a rough-hewn stringed instrument carved from one piece of wood and stretched with goatskin. As on the new album, she had colorfully intuitive accompaniment from her brother Idriss Mlanao on double bass and San Francisco musician Melissa Rigoli on a variety of percussion including African calabash gourd, Indian clay pot, mbira (thumb piano) and bells.

"My music is one that is not traditional," she said. "I'm trying to make all that is my identity." Yet she has found that her identity is, in fact, very much reflective of an emerging sense of national identity in her home country. Technically, she's something of an outsider. For one, her Sufi orientation makes her part of a small minority in the Comoros, where Sunni is by far the dominant sect. And for much of her life she has lived in Paris, returning to the Comoros only on occasion. "I am what they call a 'double culture,' " she said, noting her removal from truly traditional Comoros music not just by geography but also by gender. "It's expensive and far away, and hard for a woman to make music there," she said, stressing that even for men, music is rarely a full-time occupation there, but for women it's considered an inappropriate pursuit. "They say, 'Play like a man.'"

But when she returned to perform at a concert there late last year, she found that her music has resonated. "I was there in November, playing there for the first time in 10 years, and it was really magic! Things have changed," she said. "People came to my shows with signs saying, 'We believe in you,' and they knew my songs already! 'How do you know that?' They say, 'How can you do traditional that's not traditional?' We're all seeking harmony between old and new." In the process, it's as if she herself as discovered -- or rediscovered -- her impoverished native islands, where she is working on instituting a music, dance and theater-arts program to help others, both there and in the rest of the world, have chances to do the same. "I'm a universal woman, a world citizen. I'm at home everywhere. Comoros, I was born there and it's my country and I want to help." - Steve Hochman


“…downright gorgeous music…a record that’s going to become a long-term favourite”
- Review of "Aman" by Ian Anderson


“There are few singers I know that connect so deeply with their audiences on personal, spiritual and cross cultural grounds as Nawal. She is truly an ambassador for the healing power of music to bring peace and reconciliation between cultures that so regularly misunderstand one another.”
- Thomas Simpson, Artistic Director


Aman (Self-Produced 2007)
Kweli (Mélodie - 2001 / Self-Produced - 2005)
Putumayo's "Women of Africa" CD compilation (Putumayo World Music - 2004)
Island Blues CD compilation (Network - 2002)
Donna Africa CD Compilation "Afrique des Femmes" (Caravanes - 1999)
Malgache Connexion CD "Bilo" (Silex Records - 1992)



Nawal originally comes from the Comoros Islands, also known as the "Perfume Islands" or "Islands of the Moon," located in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa. Born into a family with many musicians, Nawal bathed in both popular and spiritual music from a young age in her native islands, as well as later in her new home in France.

Nawal released her second full-length album “Aman” (peace of the soul) in the United States in the summer of 2007 and in Europe in the spring of 2008. A self-produced artist, Nawal’s powerful voice and message are as engaging as ever. Music critics for the New York Times, the Financial Times, Global Rhythm and fRoots among numerous others greeted “Aman” with enthusiastic reviews. Her first full-length album, "Kweli" (Truth), was released in 2001 and was also very well-received by the critics, as well as fans.

An acoustic roots-based fusion, Nawal’s unique sound combines influences from her native islands Comoros and far beyond. Between traditional and contemporary, Nawal's music weaves a rich dialog of cultures, a reflection of the diverse character of life in her native islands. Indo-Arabian-Persian music meets Bantu polyphonies, the syncopated rhythms and Sufi trance of the Indian Ocean. Nawal sings mainly in Comoran, also with Arabic, French and English. An acoustic roots-based fusion, her music is rhythmically compelling and beautifully lyrical.

Nawal has gained international praise as a self-produced artist with her powerful voice and socially progressive commentary. Known as the "Voice of Comoros," Nawal is also the first Comoran woman singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist to give performances in public. Nawal has performed professionally for twenty years, and has toured in Europe, the United States, Canada and the Indian Ocean. As a multi-instrumentalist she plays the gambusi (Comoran banjo-like instrument, cousin to the oud), the daf (Iranian frame drum) and guitar, among others.

Nawal is currently performing and touring as part of a trio. Along with Nawal, the trio includes Idriss Mlanao on contrabass and Melissa Cara Rigoli on mbira and mixed percussion.