While France in recent years has proved a crucible for boiling up some amazing sounds from the collision of Arabic, African and DJ cultures, there have been few bands that have really pushed the envelope. Aïwa, founded in 1998 in the French city of Rennes by Iraqi bassist Wamid and rapper Naufalle, do just that. Their self-titled début album is one where you learn to expect surprises. It opens simply enough: an Arabic wail of ‘Yiyi’ gives way to woodwind and drums before it is caught up by Severine, a chanteuse whose darkly moody vocals constitute one of the highlights. And then she's gone: overtaken by fast-paced grooves, blistering rap from Swank and, from DJ Koulechov, rimshot beats that ricochet with energy of their own. At other times, sounds emerge that have an imagination and association of their own. Could that be a coiled spring being stroked on ‘Azeri’? And what is the dispassionate lyric – a text from a medical pharmacology book, perhaps – being intoned on ‘Poz’?

If a minor downside is that the lyrics aren't always audible and that the sleeve offers no notes, then it's made up for on Aïwa's nine-minute closer, ‘Baghdad’. A rampage of groove, rap and prayer, it's a work of pure emotion that needs no translation.

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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