Even before her first smoky phrase fades away on “Beautiful Tango,” there is no doubt Hindi Zahra will conquer North America, her third continent. “Put your hands on my hips, take it slow,” the Moroccan seduces with a sure and trilling coo.
Part of us wants to drop off Handmade, her debut, at the Starbucks headquarters with a note congratulating the music department on its next big discovery. Part of us wants to hide the album away as an intimate secret. Call her the Berber Billie Holiday—though jazz hardly begins to encapsulate the 30-year-old’s slinking desert soul.
A folk and pop omnivore who moved to Paris as a teen to work at the Louvre and sing hooks on hip-hop cuts, Zahra fuses Saharan blues, raï, tango, fado, California coffeehouse and the indigenous sounds of her homeland. The looping, lulling “Oursoul” (Berber for “Bygones”) grooves with the low swing and slack twang of traditional Gnawa. She raps mellifluously on “Music.” Elsewhere, she could be Colbie Caillat fronting Tinariwen.
Yet Handmade is more than some pan-global mishmash. Zahra’s influences are deeply steeped, not sewn on her sleeve like zebra print clashing against tartan. Perhaps because she’s patiently developed her sound, the balladeer oozes a sexy ataraxia like nobody since Norah Jones. She’s more comforting than fresh bread and fleece. The silliest thing she does is plead, “Don’t you forget about me.”