Music: Jazz chops and gravy

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The Independent Culture


THE OLD saw about the parlous state of French pop is in swift retreat these days, largely through the techno stylings of such as Daft Punk and Air, but also thanks to the more organic work of Lo'Jo, a septet from Angers whose Mojo Radio offers this year's most persuasive blend of pan-ethnic sounds. Led by the barefoot, be-suited figure of pianist Denis Pean, Lo'Jo draw on native French and North African modes, which are gently integrated with elements from further afield: a bassist with deep dub grooves; a phenomenal percussionist whose jazz chops have gravy to spare; and the harmonics of two female singers, the sisters Nadia and Yamina Nid El Mourid.

The band employs a violinist and accordionist, and both are masters of their instruments' diverse qualities - a gentle middle-Eastern drone here, some pizzicato offbeat there. With Yamina doubling on soprano sax, Lo'Jo are deft at whipping up a heady Arabic whirl, but are as likely to follow it up with a Romany-flavoured polka or a dub-reggae skank.

Over it all, the gruff bohemian presence of Pean settles like a cloud of Gitanes smoke; he's like some mutant combination of Serge Gainsbourg and Tom Waits, croaking out songs about mysticism, genocide, togetherness and mercy, and taking occasional, and bizarre, electric piano solos.

Bearing out Lo'Jo's message of universal harmony, the individual elements combine in a compelling performance that manages to balance virtuosity and a robust, earthy approach. They have to be one of the best live bands in the world now.

So do Madagascar's Tarika, pronounced "Trk", we are informed by the lead vocalist, Hanitra, a woman who could probably make a mint modelling but prefers the melodic cut-and-thrust of Tarika's infectious music.

Multi-instrumentalist Donne plays the valiha and the marovany, native Malagasy stringed instruments that provide delicate, twinkling flurries. With a bassist skilled in elastic African rhythms, and an acoustic guitarist with the casual brilliance seemingly native to East African guitarists, theirs is a highly sophisticated yet simple sound, nowhere better illustrated than in the percussion that Hanitra and fellow vocalist Noro add to the groove.

Tarika's songs embody the engaging oddity of their island home, especially when they sing about the tradition of digging up the dead and dancing with them. "That's what we do with the dead. Imagine what we do with people who are half alive!" quips Hanitra, as yet another dance invitation falls less on deaf ears than on trapped buttocks; a sit-down venue like this is hardly the best place to respond to two such infectiously rhythmic bands.