Born in Casablanca and based in Marrakech, Oum El-Ghaït Benessahraoui is a Moroccan singer songwriter who launched her career in the early 2000s with pop and hip-hop influenced songs featuring lyrics in English and Darija, the Maghrebi Arabic dialect widely spoken in North Africa. Her third album The Soul of Morocco (2013) signalled significant shift towards a more acoustic and soul-jazz sound with a quartet of musicians (double-bass, flute/saxophones, guitar and drums) and guest oud/oboe/percussions. Following in the same live and acoustic vein, her last album Zarabi was released on 22nd September 2015 on Lof Music/MDC/Harmonia Mundi.

Oum - Zarabi (2015)
Oum – Zarabi (2015)

Epitomising the diverse European, African and Oriental cultural heritage of Morocco, Oum’s singing blends with jazz and soul music elements from the North African Berber music, Andalusian classical music, her own Sahrawi roots as well as Gnawa, Cuban or Ethiopian rhythms.

Adopting a similar approach to many contemporary jazz formations, Oum also records her sets live in studio, or more recently in a makeshift outdoor studio in the desert of Southern Morocco. More than an aesthetic choice, this is also a way for the singer to reflect the musical practice of locals and nomads in the Sahel region who would often improvise a few verses, play music and drink tea over extended late afternoon sessions.

The soulful performance of “Lik” from her previous album for instance is truly bewitching and finds the perfect balance between voice and acoustic instruments in an informal setting.

Featuring two Cuban musicians (Damian Nueva on double bass and Yelfris Valdés on trumpet), Yacir Rami on oud as well as Rhani Krija on percussions, Zarabi was recorded live over seven days in M’hamid El-Ghizlane (province of Zagora, Southern Morocco), a rural community bordering the Saharan desert and a traditional meeting place for trans-Saharan trade caravans. This is also where the Festival Taragalte (the former name of M’hamid El-Ghizlane) has been taking place since 2009. Sponsored by Oum, the festival celebrates the ancient artistic and cultural heritage of the region through a series of annual concerts, debates and workshops.

The name of the album itself (“Zarabi” meaning “Carpets” in Darija) is a reference to the work of the local weavers:

“Zarabi” works as an homage to local women who make carpets out of old garments and recycle them into beautiful pieces where several textures and colours come together. These carpets also symbolise our work as musicians blending different colours and influences into a single record. Oum – TV5

Drawing inspiration from the collective oral traditions of her country, Oum and her musicians create on Zarabi a wonderfully elegant, authentic and vibrant tapestry of contemporary Moroccan music with a traditional song (“Ah Wah”), a cover of Cuban singer Maria Teresa Vera’s “Veinte Años” in Darija and eight new compositions.