French, English and Tunisian Born Singer/Songwriter Spans Cultures And Continents With her album Back To The Roots
Zera Vaughan is an artist with a global outlook and a desire to make music without frontiers. Back To The Roots, her debut offering, is a perfect blend of North African Ethnic rhythms, European club beats and classic American pop balladry that honors the music’s ancient past while stepping boldly into the future. With her musical collaborators – producer and songwriter Amir Efrat and the French band W.S.L. – Vaughan invites us along for a journey that’s as spiritual as it is musical, with music that gently draws you deeper into its enigmatic spell with every listen.
“My name Zera, means seed in the ancient language,” Vaughan explains. “When you plant a seed in the soil, it becomes a tree. Imagine the potential power of that one seed. We all come from a seed and we all have that energy and power. I make music that’s relaxing, but it also speaks to another level of consciousness. I was born in Tunisia and raised between two cultures, the local and the European. My father loved American jazz, but the local people listened to Middle Eastern pop. I remember one hot summer night, when my dad played Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘The Moon.’ At the same time, there was traditional Tunisian music coming in the window from the street. To me, the mixture of the two seemed amazing and magical and that feeling never left me.”
That love of diverse cultures permeates every note of Back To The Roots, an album that dances sinuously from the exotically scented bazaars of North Africa, to the smoky jazz clubs of Paris and the chilled out club rooms of London and L. A. With the help of producer and songwriter Amir Efrat, whose desire to blend pop/electronica with Middle Eastern and world music styles matches her own, Vaughan has created an album that spans cultures and continents.
The production on Back To The Roots gives every track a glistening, wide-open aura, while Vaughan’s vocals have an ethereal presence that floats through the mix, imbuing the music with an ageless presence that’s both sensuous and spiritual. Randy Crawford’s “Almaz” opens with a wordless muezzin-like call honoring the unborn spirit. W.S.L. [Henri Deschamps, guitar; Francois Benichou and Amir Efrat, keys; Remy Leger and Vivi Rama, bass; J. C, Mott, drums and percussionist Benjy and Ahu Cansenven, lay down a tribal rhythm highlighted by synthesizer washes that mimic an Egyptian string orchestra, while Vaughan delivers a vocal that blends R&B and middle-eastern inflections. “Almaz is the Ethiopian word for diamond, which symbolizes purity,” Vaughan explains. “I used to sing this song all the time, hearing African drums and percussion in my head. I did this track live with the band.” “The Crying Moon” has one of the album’s most haunting melodies and a bravura vocal performance. It’s a pop tune that blends a rock backbeat, oriental percussion and Efrat’s multi-layered keyboard work to create a delirious, swirling soundscape. “The moon is deeply in love with the sun, but he’s too busy taking care of the earth and humanity to shine for her,” Vaughan says. “She changes to catch the sun’s attention, but the earth has life and the moon has none. The beat of the song is the rhythm of the heartbeat, our connection to the natural world. Humans are often too busy to notice the natural world; this song is a reminder to pay attention to the beauty that always surrounds us.” “Mona Lisa” is a straightforward rock ballad with some tasty lead guitar work by Simone Sello. “It’s another song about the everyday mysteries we take for granted,” Vaughan says. “Simon’s guitar gives the tune some minor key drama.” “J’ai (I Have)” bounces along on a jaunty Oriental rhythm track. It features a playful vocal from Vaughan and the ethnic flute work of Fred Selden, who lays down a solo that sounds both Japanese and Native American. “This Time” is a pop confection, a duet with singer/songwriter Sirsa Shekim. Efrat lays down a subtle North African pulse while Vaughan and Shekim trade vocals, Shekim in English and Vaughan in French, their voices pushing and pulling each other, creating a delicious tension before finally blending into a singular melancholy sound full of longing and regret.
The strikingly original sound of Back To The Roots sounds effortless, but its freewheeling, adventurous sound has taken a lifetime to achieve. Zera Vaughan always wanted to sing and act, even as a child. When she was ten, her parents enrolled her in the Tunisian Music Conservatory. “They sent me to study dance and classical [European] music, but I was listening to ethnic music and hung out with the students and teachers. We didn’t speak the same language, their French was as bad as my Tunisian, but we communicated musically. They taught me Malouf, the original music brought over by the Spanish immigrants that were chased from their country by the inquisition [in the 15th Century.] It’s a blend of what is today known as flamenco, tribal Arab and classical middle-eastern music. I learned about quartertones, third tones, half tones. It may sound out of tune to western ears, but I began singing it and loved it.”
During High School Vaughan was acting professionally and landed the lead role in a short film called “The Mask.” The script was based on a legend about a girl who escapes from an arranged marriage by becoming a mermaid. She also started singing American pop standards and blues tunes in nightclubs and began soaking up the international sounds that would some day color her music, the worldly pop of Sting and Peter Gabriel, the jazz stylings of Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan and the oriental sounds of divas like Egypt’s Oum Kalsoum, the most important Arab singer of the 20th century and Lebanese singer Fairouz, Israeli singer Rita and Noah who blend traditional and popular middle eastern music with Western influences.
“I moved to Paris when I was 20, to study music at the Paris Music Conservatory and psychology at La Sorbonne.” In Paris Vaughan was a session singer, providing back up vocals on many albums and working as a demo singer. “I was still singing American standards, but I was also beginning to work on my own music.” A trip to London introduced her to artists like Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack and the dark, relaxing grooves of trip hop provided another building block for the sounds she was hearing in her head. “My songs always start at the piano with a strong melody and some lyrical ideas,” Vaughan explains. “When I started arranging I had a techno, trip hop sound, although I knew I wanted to use the oriental sounds I loved when I was growing up.”
In 1998 a mutual friend introduced Vaughan to an American writer Ramzy Malouki who was in Paris looking for a woman to play the lead role in a scrip he was developing. “We had a professional interview and I invited him to see me sing in a bar. After the gig, I played him some demos and he told me people in LA would love my music. I visited him in LA and he thought I should start sending out demos of my music.” KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic loved Vaughan’s music started playing her song “Vision.” “Love, music and passion all came together. It was like a cosmic invitation to stay in the US.”
Shortly after arriving in LA, Vaughan met Amir Efrat who became her musical director and collaborator, both for live performances and the tracks that became Back To The Roots. Regular gigs at LA hotspots such as The Lava Lounge, Temple Bar, The Tangier and Whisky a Go-Go have built up a considerable street level buzz for Vaughan’s innovative brand of world electronica and the singer will be touring to support its release with her band - Amir Efrat on keyboards, Simone Sello, guitar, Ahu Cansanven, dumbeck and percussion, Sirsa Shekim backing vocals, Vivi Rama, bass and Peter Lobo and Chris Saleh sharing the drum.
Zera has also excellent skills in producing an album, putting a show together, teaching music, art, natural with kids and animals.