Photo: FIFOU

As she barges into the FrancoFolies de Montréal press room on a Saturday afternoon, Zaho seems out of breath. Her schedule – co-ordinated by Warner Music, her label – seems to be planned down to the second, in an attempt to take maximum advantage of a small-scale foreign tour.

Zaho has been living in Montréal for the past two decades, yet her local shows and media conferences are so rare that she risks being forgotten. In fact, her last Montreal concert goes back to 2013, again as part of the FrancoFolies festival. “In Québec, unlike in France, I’m not enough known yet to go on tour,” she says, without a trace of bitterness. “I think it’s only a matter of media exposure: once they decide to play me, more people will be able to appreciate my music. Shining elsewhere is fine, but nothing compares to being recognized by your own people. I’m getting that in Algeria, and now, I’m starting to get it here in Québec, too.”

In short, it’s “the world upside down,” to use the expression making up the title of her third album, Le monde à l’envers, released in February 2017. A world away from the traditional path of the pre-fabricated pop singer, the 37-year-old artist has worked very hard to get where she is today.

Born in Bab Ezzouar, a suburb of the city of Algiers, Zehera Darabid fled her country during Algeria’s black decade, and settled in Canada with her family. After studying computer science at university, she discovered her passion for music, and ended up meeting the composer and producer Phil Greiss, with whom she developed a musical collaboration that has lasted to this day. Though iron-willed, the young singer has suffered major setbacks. “Record companies told me that my voice was too deep, and that you couldn’t tell whether it belonged to a woman or to a man,” Zaho recalls. “I’ve ignored those kind of comments for a long time.”

Passionately interested in the broad local urban music scene, she took refuge in France, where she met famous rappers like La Fouine, Soprano and Sefyu, all featured on her first mixtape, released in 2007. After being noticed by EMI, she found considerable success with her first album, Dima, which sold 150,000 copies and helped her gain entry into most of the world’s French-language markets.

Nine years after that phenomenal breakthrough, Zaho today re-affirms her desire to do it her way. On her third release, she “breaks [her] chains,” follows her dreams and claims a modicum of freedom in an invasive society, where people tend to talk without saying anything (“Laissez-les kouma”, with the highly popular French rapper MHD) and to make a spectacle of their love lives (“Selfie”).

Le monde à l’envers is my way of saying that diversity is a strength, and that it’s OK not to fit into the mold. I’m living proof.”

While optimistic messages and a tropical pop coating make her new album more luminous than her previous Contagieuse (2012), it also contains more intimate sections. This is particularly true of the emotional “Come tous les soirs.” As Zaho explains, “This song is based on an event in my life on which I didn’t have the courage to put words at the time. It tells the story of lovers who let routine destroy their relationship bit by bit. The song is a projection of what would have happened if I’d been able to take charge before everything turned into drama.”

A lyrically sincere and creatively versatile singer-songwriter, Zaho recently collaborated with a number of renowned artists, such as Chimène Badi, Christophe Willem and, above all, Céline Dion, who included three Zaho songs on Encore un soir, her latest album. “I had heard that Céline was working on a new album and was looking for songs that could showcase her voice,” says Zaho. “I decided to give it a try, even though many people tried to discourage me by telling me that my song didn’t have a chance to reach her ears,” she recalls, referring to “Ma Faille.” “I first asked myself what could move a great international star like her. Instead of writing about what she does have, I chose to write about what she doesn’t have. That is, her weaknesses, her fears, her concern for her family, and her children’s welfare. A month later, I got a call from Las Vegas: Céline was at the other end of the line, moved to tears.”

Such rich writing experiences now allow Zaho to take some distance from her own songwriting. “I’m someone who’s afraid of conforming, of becoming a caricature of herself,” she says, “so I have this need to get out of myself and write for other artists. It’s like a painter who’s standing too close to his canvas: if he doesn’t stand back often enough, he won’t create a good picture.”

Talking shop with a new-generation jazz musician is always fascinating. What school does he belong to? What are his influences? How is he planning to add a new brick to a building that keeps changing while always remaining the same?

“Like all composers, we’re influenced by the music we listen to, whether we realize it or not,” says Hichem Khalfa. I keep hearing new ideas, and the music just comes out. There’s no big cerebral search. I start with a bass line, I add a melody, and then I bring in a few chords and start building around that.”

At 26, Hichem Khalfa is an unapologetic pioneer, as suggested by two original albums, his 2015 Histoires sans mots and Réminiscences, released in March of this year. “It’s partly improvised, in the jazz spirit, but there are written portions too. Many of my influences show through: groove, sometimes rock, it’s more modern, less classically constructed,” he says, after claiming that he was “contaminated” as a teenager by trumpet players like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown.

“I keep my technique up essentially to avoid getting stuck when I’m composing.”

And what does he think of more contemporary trumpet players like Dave Douglas or Wallace Rooney, scheduled to perform as part of the 38th annual Festival international de jazz  de Montréal, where he and his quartet are also going to play on July 3, 2017? “I saw Dave Douglas in concert [he will be playing at the FIJM on July 6] a few years ago, and I was blown over! Wallace Roney [July 6 & 7] is unmitigated Miles Davis.”

Hichem Khalfa QuartetThe other members of his quartet – pianist and keyboardist Jérôme Beaulieu (Misc, Bellfower), bassist Jonathan Arsenau, and drummer Dave Croteau – are part and parcel of the excitement. “Being an artist,” Khalfa says, “means being able to carry ideas, and the trumpet is only one way to do it, not an end in itself. But you can’t escape it – the moment you start interacting with the other musicians [in the quartet], ideas start flying.

“Playing trumpet or any other kind of instrument is like playing a sport – you’ve to keep your level of performance up, day in and day out. No time to rest, really. I practice at home, and I’m lucky my neighbours are such cool people. But I know brass players who can pick it up without a problem after not playing for a whole week. Personally, I keep my own technique up essentially to avoid getting stuck when I’m composing. I’m not the kind of person who can write all year long. In my case, it’s a relatively short period.”

A past winner of the Festival de jazz de Rimouski competition and, last year, of the OFF Festival de jazz de Montréal’s François Marcaurelle Award, Khalfa is now preparing a series of European shows for the fall of 2017. Dividing his time between writing more rational jazz music and his playing in the Montreal funk and soul group The Brooks, he has his hands full. “The Brooks is fun to listen to, but there’s a lot of serious composing behind it,” he says. “What’s most important is to pay attention to the tone of the instrument in order to see how it’s all going to sound in the end. The Brooks is not just a collective, or singer Alan Prater’s group, it’s our group. When decisions have to be made, we make them together. The other guys, Dan Thouin [keyboards] among others, are very fussy about their sound and what instruments to use. This impacts how I prepare myself.”

We had to bring up the concert they performed as a tribute to the sadly missed Prince at the Métropolis back in 2016.  “It was standing room only,” Khalfa recalls. “We had only had two rehearsals, and the result was outstanding. We’ve been hearing about it for a long time.” Not to mention the fact that Prince himself had performed on two different nights in the very same hall in 2011, and that his presence could still be felt.

Hichem Khalfa Quartet:    July 3 at L’Astral
The Brooks:   July 5 at Dièse Onze; July 6 at Scène TD

Claude DuboisOn June 16, 2017, at the FrancoFolies de Montréal festival, at the end of his show Dubois en liberté, Claude Dubois started pointing at people in the audience while the irresistible melody to his classic hit song “Comme un million de gens” was stretching out.

“Like you! Like me! Like you! Like me!” he shouted, looking left and right, at the mezzanine, or at the floor seats. “Like us,” we could have shouted back. The communion with the audience was rich, intense.

Now aged 70 and battling cancer, Dubois probably never dreamed that this song would become a popular anthem, decades after he wrote it. As so many of his songs did.

Officially, “Comme un million de gens” – which became a SOCAN Classic in 1994,  and was inducted in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008 – dates back to 1966, at least as far as the writing is concerned. The recording of the song came a bit later, however. And a bit further, as it were, since it was recorded on the other side of the Atlantic.

A Hippie in 1968

“I was in France in 1968,” says Dubois. “It was a year of turmoil, over there. I had swung by England before arriving in France. It was the height of the hippie days. At the time, I was with a Parisian with Italian roots. I was just a guy parachuted there from America.

“I was attracted by France and its culture. I lived in a riverside apartment. And because I had long hair, they thought I was a student and I got arrested constantly. Only to be immediately released. Still, I tried to remain discreet…”

So much so that the popular Dutch singer Dave (“Vanina,” “Du côté de chez Swann”), who was living in France, helped Dubois out during these hard times. “Dave took me under his wing. We would go from restaurant to restaurant to sing and pass the hat [laughs]. Nowadays, he truly is a survivor of his generation and has his own TV show in France.”

Revolutionary Inspiration?

A few months after arriving in France, Dubois recorded the song for posterity. He believes the lyrics were an accurate mirror of what was happening on both continents at the time. “The song was inspired by here (Québec) and there (France). Québec was also going through an awakening at the time. I was inspired by the concept of family in its broadest sense. Not just mommy and daddy, but cousins too. The song said to not be fooled. That everyone had their place in society.

“When I played it for the Pathé-Marconi people, they said: ‘Don’t you think we’re already in enough shit as it is? Another revolutionary song!’ The label bosses called me the ‘maritime genie’ because of how I dressed. I told them that if they gave me back the rights to the song, they’d never have any more trouble with me. And they did. I was already perceived as free.”

When the time came to record “Comme un million de gens,” Dubois and his colleagues had very well-known studio neighbours. “At the end of that year, I ended up at Pathé Marconi’s studios. It was actually at EMI’s. We were in Studio B, and The Rolling Stones were in Studio A. We didn’t quite have the same budget. They would stay in a studio for months on end. We only had a few hours. For the recording, we used Red Mitchell, a guitarist from Québec who at the time was touring Europe with Jean-Pierre Ferland. Otherwise, all the musicians were French [from France]. The result, which is the version everyone [in Québec] knows, was absolutely perfect.”

“Comme un million de gens” was released by Columbia Records as a single in 1969. It was also released in Europe by the label La Compagnie. “That was Hugues Aufray’s label, but it came out a little later (1970),” says Dubois.

Immediate Success

“The song went straight to radio,” says Dubois. “It was unprecedented. It was a country song, but back then, country songs didn’t have socially charged lyrics about mass movements.

“I absolutely didn’t expect it to become a hit. I saw what I was doing as arts and crafts. But I didn’t become a star because it was played on the radio. To those who think Dubois was a hit at the time, I say, ‘You’re wrong.’ My career was always a rollercoaster, and I don’t even count my personal issues [laughs]. I only mean my career.

“The number of people who love you do not translate into the amount of money you have, you know. Les Classels and Les Hou-Lops, for example, made much more money than songwriters back then. You could call my success an ‘off Broadway’ success.”

But it’s been ongoing for five decades, now, as last week’s show so eloquently proved.