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Born of a French father and Spanish mother in pre-independence Algeria, Hector Zazou first recorded in the mid-'70s under the name ZNR, as one half of a duo with Joseph Racaille. This early work is light but engaging French chamber jazz, lyrical and quirky, with Zazou playing keyboards and violin. The music has long since lost any radical edge, and the sparse instrumentation gives most of the pieces more the sound of musical sketches than fully realized compositions, but in ZNR, Zazou begins to demonstrate his interest in unusual instrumental timbres and colors, as well as his eclectic musical imagination. Throughout the rest of the 1970s and into the early '80s, Zazou's musical efforts (whatever they might have been), are not represented by any readily available recordings, but some experiments in musical erotica were apparently conducted under the name La Perversita.
In the early '80s, Zazou's music took another direction, when he began a series of very successful collaborations with Zairean singer Bony Bikaye. This was not just standard world pop, but a distinctive combination of ritualistic, tribal vocals and futuristic, percussive synth accompaniment. Zazou and Bikaye attracted the attention of European and New York City trendsetters, and their music became a fixture on the club scene for a time. But Zazou's real talent was first displayed on his next release, the bizarre Reivax Au Bongo, a so-called musical "photo-novel," with an accompanying booklet, set in the mythical kingdom of Bongo. As composer and arranger, Zazou utilizes the vocal talents of both Bikaye and another prominent African artist, Kanda Bongo Man, as well as an operatic mezzo-soprano, but in contexts far removed from Africa, traditional opera, or anything else. This is Zazou's principal gift, which he develops further on the marvelous Geographies and Geologies, two strange and wonderful orchestra suites. In his musical world, anything is fair game — operatic arias, children's songs, Afro-pop, jazzy horn charts, and delicate chamber music. And rather than sounding like a careless pastiche (which is what you'd expect), it sounds, well — like Hector Zazou. Sophisticated, charming, witty, and just a teeny bit decadent — to paraphrase one contemporary reviewer, this is avant-garde, cutting-edge music that your grandmother would love (providing she was a hip grandmother).
Having proven himself as a composer and arranger (at least to his satisfaction — his label was not widely distributed in North America), Zazou decided to try his hand at production as well, first in 1992 with Sahara Blue, the steamy and evocative tribute to French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud (with Zazou also writing and arranging the music, and contributing keyboards and "electronics"), and then, two years later, radically altering his geography with the austere but equally successful Songs From the Cold Seas, a tribute to the Arctic regions. (Again, Zazou produces, arranges, composes and contributes keyboards and electronics.) Both of these collections, and the second in particular, demonstrate the international respect which Zazou commands among the musical vanguard, as the list of contributors ranges from John Cale and David Sylvian to Suzanne Vega, Björk and Jane Siberry. The critical and relative commercial success of these two "concept" CDs (the last one on a major label) will no doubt insure future projects of the same sort from Zazou, but in 1996 and 1997, he returned to less ambitious collaborations with individual artists, including minimalist/ambient keyboardist Harold Budd and Celtic singer/composer Barbara Gogan. Lights in the Dark followed in 1998.