Hector Zazou

Songs from the cold seas

Published in SOS June 1995
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

French musician Hector Zazou's quest for sounds and songs with a difference took him North, to find ethnic drumming from Siberia, joik chanting from Lapland, and the disappearing folk music of the world's Northern tribes -- which he combined with contributions from himself and world-famous artists, to create a unique musical experience. PAUL TINGEN gets some Northern Exposure.


One of the most striking albums you're ever likely to hear is Songs From The Cold Seas, brainchild of French keyboard player, composer and sound sculptor Hector Zazou. Released earlier this year, it's a long musical voyage across the seas of the North -- the Chukchi Sea, the Greenland Sea, the North Sea, The Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, the Barents sea, the Kara Sea, Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Berings Sea, and many others. Eleven times during this voyage, land was visited and local traditional songs and rhythms were sampled and brought back. Thus Songs From The Cold Seas contains exotic singing and percussion playing from the Ainu people of Hokkaido Island, from Eskimos in Baffin Island, from shamans and Yakuti people in Siberia, joik chanting from the Sami people of Lapland, and music from more familiar Nordic places such as Finland, Sweden, Ireland, The Hebrides, Greenland, Iceland and Newfoundland.

Hector Zazou, virtually unknown in this country, but well-known in France, has long been a champion of what's usually called 'World Music' these days. During the early '80s, he was one of the first to fuse African music with Western music styles such as rock, techno and ambient, and by the late '80s he was delving into the polyphonic vocal music of Corsica, making an award-winning album, Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses, that achieved cult status across the Continent. And now there's his excursion to the North, musically an undiscovered country -- though this, explains Zazou, was exactly the point: "I had some propositions to work again on Mediterranean music, or on Rai, or other things, and I wasn't excited about any of them. So I decided to find something completely unknown, to work with music that hadn't been heard before in the West. The music of the South -- the Caribbean, Brazil, Africa -- has been done to death, so the only place to go was North."

His pioneering spirit was rewarded. Songs From The Cold Seas contains sounds so unusual that the dropped-jaw effect is inevitable, even with our overloaded Western ears. The amazing breathy throat-singing of shamans and call-and-response singing of the Eskimos might sound vaguely familiar to some, yet the yodel-like throat singing of Yakuti singer Lioudmila Khandi, the siren calls of the Swedish singer Lena Willemark, or the traditional Karelian rapping of the Finnish women's group Värttina are simply stunning. On top of this, there are moving vocal performances by well-known artists such as Suzanne Vega, John Cale, Bjork, Siouxsie and Jane Siberry. Yet these performances are only half of what makes Songs From The Cold Seas such a perplexing record. The other half is the context in which Zazou has placed them. He explains that his brief to himself was not only to cover unusual sounds from the North, but also to ensure that they were "songs that related to the sea, that told stories and legends about the sea."


In his backing tracks, Zazou has tried to embody the cold and magnificent grandeur of Nordic seas, and the dramas of the often harrowing stories told; he succeeds, to often spine-chilling effect. On previous records -- for example, the atmospheric Sahara Blue (1992, with, amongst many others, David Sylvian and Ryuchi Sakamoto) -- he has already shown himself a master of slow, spacious synth, sample and electronics backings, yet on Songs From The Cold Seas he has surpassed himself. Using the instrumental skills of Harold Budd, Mark Isham, Renault Pion, Marc Ribot, Jerry Marotta, BJ Cole, the Balanescu Quartet, and the sound sculpting skills of French ambient band Lightwave, Zazou conjures up a wall of sound that is vertiginous in its height and depth, full of cold air in its space and freshness, and mysterious, melancholic and continually moving. Laced with Zazou's extensive sampling and sound treatments, the vocals on Songs From the Cold Seas are embedded in a translucent and largely unidentifiable parallel universe that has to be heard to be believed.

"I wanted to have a musical sound where everything would be part of a whole and where it's difficult to identify individual sounds," comments Zazou. "It's like the difference between a classical orchestra and a rock 'n' roll band. With the latter you have bass and drums and guitar and everything is easy to define and easy to recognise, whereas with a classical orchestra, the arrangement as a whole has an identity of its own, and the instruments are a part of the colour and texture of that whole picture."

Zazou utters these words whilst we're sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Notting Hill, West London, on one of the first truly warm days of the British Spring. Zazou, 46, tall, round glasses, short hair, relaxed and good-natured, and speaking fluent English, has just embarked on the inevitable round of interviews that follows the release of a record. Not surprisingly, given the unusual nature of Songs From The Cold Seas, he has a long and interesting story to tell, and it takes him well over four hours of animated talking to tell it all.

He recounts that his decision to try to work with the unknown music from the Northern seas had unexpected consequences. When he began the project, Zazou himself was hardly familiar with the music, and his first task was to gather information and material. Yet he was determined not to simply plunder ethnomusicological recordings of the North, but rather to record his own material locally, thus becoming familiar with the singers, their songs and their cultures, so that he would be able to do a better job representing them in his background sound sculptures.

Yet finding material, let alone singers, proved rather difficult. It turned out that the North wasn't only a forgotten musical territory for Joe Public, but also that many of the countries in question were not taking their musical heritage as seriously as one would imagine. As a result, the project took much longer than expected.


Zazou began work in June 1991 and spent, he says, the first half year as a "bureaucrat", doing research, much of it from behind his desk. For six months his time was occupied with making phone calls, sending faxes and letters, and visiting embassies, cultural attaches, music libraries, record shops, ethnomusicological institutes and music festivals, and so on, seeking out samples of music of the North. To his surprise, Zazou was often met with disbelief or disinterest, and the material he found tended to be incomplete or unusable: "I was very disappointed. For example, I could hardly find any Alaskan material. Indian and Eskimo scores or music examples that I found often didn't have explanations with them. The records that I did find were made a long time ago and the people who had made them had disappeared or died. It was a truly undiscovered country and that made it exciting. After a long time I started receiving parcels with stamps from Greenland and other places. But most of the music was disappointing -- like people singing Bob Dylan songs in Greenlandic or playing straight rock 'n' roll. However, I did discover some good singers during this period that I ended up using on the album."

Slowly Zazou's collection of songs and chants grew, as did his list of contacts with musicians and singers. Some places proved harder than others: Scandinavia has a vibrant folk scene which honours the country's musical traditions, so it was relatively easy for Zazou to find good singers and interesting songs. But Iceland, for example, proved "a complete black hole. There was nothing. I couldn't find anything. So I asked Bjork, who in turn asked her mother. Her mother sent her what I believe is the only record that exists of traditional Icelandic songs, and we recorded one of them. I couldn't find any music from Alaska that was interesting enough, probably because the Indian culture there has suffered a lot. And Eskimo music was a big problem too, as there was little material, and I was told that Eskimos weren't generally prepared to sing for strangers. I became desperate, because I really wanted some Eskimo singing on the album. We only found some by chance on Baffin Island in Northern Canada. On arrival we couldn't find a hotel, and had to stay in a bed and breakfast, where an old Scotsman introduced us to two young Eskimo women who were prepared to sing for us. They did so the next day in the dining room."

Zazou recorded the Eskimo duo during one of his many almost ethnomusicological 'field' trips. For a total of more than three months, he travelled to Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Hebrides, Japan, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia, armed with an Alesis ADAT recorder and a set of microphones. A cameraman also travelled with him, and a television documentary about the making of Songs From The Cold Seas will be completed later this year. Apparently Zazou was "very inspired" by One World One Voice, the magical world music 'chain tape' made by Kevin Godley and Rupert Hine, featuring a host of artists, amongst them Peter Gabriel, Suzanne Vega, Sting, Youssou N'Dour, Ryuichi Sakamoto and many, many others, which was broadcast by the BBC in May 1990 (and of which an excellent CD is available on Virgin Records).


After his long voyage across the icy worlds of the North, Zazou returned to his home studio in Paris, where he worked for a full two years, mostly alone, sometimes with help from guest musicians, sifting through the material and sculpting his esoteric backings. He returned with not only a wealth of astonishing sounds, but also a collection of anecdotes, ranging from the hilarious to the surreal, and often resulting in unexpected technical complications. There was for example the drifting Atari click on his recording of Värttina, which meant that Zazou had to ask Pro Tools expert Vincent Kennis to time-stretch the Karelian rapping back into time. And Zazou remembers how, in another case, a tragi-comic episode turned into a technological nightmare: "I went to the Hebrides to record Catherine-Ann MacPhee, a famous Scottish singer. She had reserved a very beautiful church for us to do the recording. But when we arrived it turned out to be windy, and in the Hebrides windy really means windy -- there was no place on the entire island where you could get away from the sound of the wind. I spent several days trying to find a place where it was quiet enough to record, and finally found one, but it was in the toilets in the basement of a hotel. So I said to Catherine: this is the only place, so if you don't mind... She was rather disappointed, because she knew she was going to be filmed, and she had prepared herself with a nice dress and this beautiful church, and now she was being filmed here singing whilst sitting on a toilet. But she did it and she did it very well."

However, because of the primitive and cramped surroundings of the hotel toilets, Zazou had been unable to supply MacPhee with backing percussion and backing drone, as he normally did. On coming back to Paris he discovered, to his horror, that she had drifted almost a semi-tone in pitch from beginning to end: "I gave it to Vincent to see if he could correct the pitch in Pro Tools, but that didn't work. I don't know why, but there was something that didn't sound good. The Värttina track was very rhythmic, so absolute purity of sound wasn't so important, but here, with the slow singing, I could hear where the pitch had been altered. So I had the choice: either not use Catherine-Ann's singing, or instead of changing the voice, change the instruments -- and the latter is what happened."

Zazou's solution is truly an indictment of how far modern digital technology still has to go, and how old-fashioned hands-on solutions, however unlikely, often still have the edge: "What I did was change the pitch of her vocals by ear whilst recording overdubs -- manually, using the varispeed on the ADAT. The result was that on playback the keyboards would drift with the vocals. I had made notes of the places where the vocals were drifting, so we had these very strange scores with lyrics on them and next to certain words it would say +0.02% or -0.05% and so on. In order for Harold (Budd) to be able to overdub to the voice without being put off by the pitch changes, I took all the other instruments out, and whenever there was a problem with the voice I would simply take it out of his monitors. The wind instruments on this track weren't a problem, because they're only at the end and at the beginning, and never during the singing."


Zazou's main home studio tool is, apart from three ADATs, his Emulator III. Virtually all the backing sounds on Songs From The Cold Seas were created or sampled or processed in the Emu III, with only a few exceptions, such as the keyboard sounds on Bjork's track, which were Lightwave-designed and played on a Roland JD800, the electric piano on Jane Siberry's magnificent Newfoundland song, 'She's Like A Swallow', played on a DX7II, and some Emulator SP12 that was applied to the stark-sounding Ainu lullaby 'Yaisa Maneena'. For other Lightwave sounds, Zazou would visit their studio in Paris, record the sounds he liked on DAT and sample them with his Emulator III back at base. Various synth sounds, such as sounds from Jean-Michael Jarre's ARP 2700 (heard at the beginning of 'Yaisa Maneena') were also sampled and processed in the Emulator.

Zazou's sounds are very clear, with a strong, modern, digital quality to them, yet also have true warmth and depth. Zazou explains: "For Sahara Blue I used the Emulator II, and for Cold Seas it's mainly Emulator III and a little bit of the II. I'm very very happy with the Emulator III, even to the point that when I have created a sound that I like in my TX816, I will sample it with my Emu. I think that DX7 sounds are too cold and recognisable, and the Emu makes them warmer and gives them more character. The Emulator has a great warmth and a huge, beautiful bass that you don't get from the Akai samplers, for example. I do many sound treatments in the Emulator: using the LFO, or the reverse function, or the EQ, or the filters. I find that by putting everything through the Emulator I have been able to create a coherent sound universe.

"The Emulator gives a new lease of life to old sounds, which is why I have sampled most of my old synths on it, and sold them or put them in the attic. I used to have many synths -- Juno 106, JX8P, Oberheim OB8, OBX, ARP 2600, M1, D50 and so on -- but I find that when you're going back to the same sounds on them for most of the time, it's better to stop using them. It doesn't mean that the instrument is finished and that you can't find something new on it, but you're simply losing too much time with it. Now when new equipment comes out, I borrow it from a shop, work with it for two weeks, sample what I want, and give it back, because I think that very few of them are actually worth having, especially since I much prefer the sounds of older, analogue synths. So over the years I've built up an enormous sound library."

Another part of the unique sonic universe of Cold Seas comes courtesy of the effects signal path Zazou used for all his sounds. For Sahara Blue he was advised by engineers to wait until the mix before adding sound treatments. For Cold Seas, he decided that this was nonsense, since a treated sound is the sound he wants, and there was no reason to tie up outboard gear during the final mix by putting untreated sounds on tape: "So I developed a special way of recording for Cold Seas. I have a small, 20-channel Roland keyboard mixer, which I put sounds through purely to make them dirty -- digital sounds, especially, need that. From the Roland, the sound goes into an Ensoniq DP4 multi-effects unit, which has great EQ, great distortion and great phasing. It's all very strong stuff that you wouldn't normally use because it is too strong, but I love it. After the DP4, the sound goes into a Quadraverb, which I don't use for reverb, but more for chorus and delays, a Urei limiter or an old Roland analogue delay, and finally the sound goes via a Jansen mic pre-amp directly onto the ADAT. What this setup gives me is maximum compression, maximum dirtiness and maximum definition."


Zazou's home studio sports three of these Roland mixer-DP4-Quadraverb treatment chains, one for the Emulator III, one for his Yamaha TX816 sampler and one for the SP12 -- although he used the Emulator chain almost exclusively for Cold Seas. His mixing desk is a Mackie, his monitors Yamaha NS10s. The Frenchman stresses that his playback and monitoring equipment is rather basic, because "I'm not interested in hearing everything at the same time all the time. I prefer to hear each part separately and from beginning to end, and build the piece gradually in that way. Also, all the sounds go via these treatments, so short of having dozens of DP4s and Quadraverbs, I couldn't possibly listen back to them all at the same time. It's another reason why I've decided to put my sounds on tape with treatments, and it's also the reason why I don't work extensively with sequencers." Instead, Zazou employs the Emulator's internal sequencer, which he prefers to computer sequencers, he says, because: "I don't like computers. I try to avoid them. They're not musical. You have the tendency to start thinking in terms of what's possible rather than what you want. You build your arrangement on the screen and sometimes this can make what you see more important than what you hear. When I'm using the Emulator sequencer it prevents me from becoming too analytical."

So Zazou records his sequenced Emulator III tracks one by one to ADAT -- how does he manage not to run out of tracks, especially when a song like 'The Lighthouse' which features Siouxsie, was built out of at least 30 layers of sound with "almost everything taken from rap samples, and then layered"? He explains that he works with mono submixes of his arrangements, whilst keeping the original tracks, with many of the sounds in stereo, on separate ADAT tapes: "I filled five or six ADAT tapes for 'The Lighthouse' in that way."

For the final mix, which was done in Parisian studio Plus XXX with engineer Gilles Martin, Zazou reconstituted every track by transferring the relevant tracks onto a Sony 3348 digital multitrack, synchronising everything with the BRC. Zazou stresses that the mixing stage is very important to him; it's during this phase that he adds another set of treatments: "I add many treatments to various instruments, like mandola, koto, pedal steel guitar, wind instruments and so on, either in my studio or during the mix. It's usually the same things: reverbs, delays, chorus -- I used a lot of flanging on the synths.

"Even though I don't like digital synths too much, I don't have a problem with digital effects. I like digital reverbs, and I've used digital distortion on the Ainu song, 'Yaisa Maneena'. We tried to use digital distortion in the same way that one normally uses analogue distortion. I think we're afraid of using digital distortion, because it's not as nice as analogue distortion, but I think that it can be very interesting. It may be difficult to do something pleasant-sounding with digital distortion, but when you want an unpleasant sound, you can create interesting effects with it. 'Yaisa Maneena' is a lullaby, but I wanted to put some nastiness into the sounds, to call attention to the terrible fate that the Ainus have suffered, a fate similar to that of the American Indians."

This is only one of the many ways in which Zazou managed to find ways to construct fitting backing tracks that are as arresting as his source material. Thus 'Annuka Suaren Neito', the Karelian rap track, gets an aggressive, grunge-metal feedback-driven backing, Bjork's 'Visur Vatnsenda-rosu' gets an almost classical music treatment with grand piano and clarinet, the mesmerising mandola of Ale Moller is pasted between Lena Willemark's astounding vocals, Jane Siberry's heart-rending performance in 'She's A Swallow' is accompanied by tender, unhurried electric piano and gorgeous pedal steel guitar, and the two 22-year old Eskimo women are framed by some of the most striking industrial sounds you're ever likely to hear. Everywhere it's Zazou's electronic treatments that provide the icing on the cake, and pull everything together in a sonic universe that's as stark and alien as the endless ice and snow-filled plains and cold seas of the North.



A poignant story was Zazou's trip to Siberia, where he arrived in the capital, Novosibirsk, only to be met by complete official indifference: "Folk music doesn't interest anybody. There was something comparable to a Ministry of Culture, and they were horrified when I told them that I wanted to listen to traditional music. They had arranged meetings with 10 different local musicians for me, but I said: 'this is not what I'm looking for.' I suggested that we should go and hear some peasants sing, so they took me to a small town and we listened to a Russian choir. The ministry people looked disgusted, because the voices were quite rough. When I told them that I wanted something even more simple, they finally put me in touch with a teacher at the local conservatoire, Ivan Sopotchine, who they said was interested in traditional music.

"Ivan turned out to be brilliant. He's a very intelligent and sensitive guy who had spent all his life collecting shamanic songs. What was very sad was that he had been collecting all these treasures of music and here he was, completely broke, without money for petrol or cassettes. If he wanted to record new material, he was obliged to recycle valuable old cassettes. And his cassette recorder was incredible, like something from the '50s, extremely bad, with a very bad mic. But he had this deep passion for shamanistic songs and knew many of them by heart. Together we visited several remote places and I recorded many voices and a lot of drumming." As it turned out, Zazou's Siberian trip was one of his most fruitful, and the results can be heard on many of the tracks on Songs From The Cold Seas. The shaman Tchotghtguerele Chalchin behind Siouxsie, the vocals of Demnine Ngamtovsovo, the ethnic drumming of Sargo Maianagacheva and Ivan Sopotchine, the mouth harp of John Johan Andersen, the balalaika bass of Orlan Mongouch and the distorted, industrial effects in 'Song Of The Water' -- constructed from heavily-treated drum samples -- all came from the Siberian trip.

During most of his field work, Zazou had gone out to record the performers after he'd made preparations at home. Usually he'd approached the singers beforehand, discussed the material with them that they were to sing, and generally decided on two songs per singer. One song from each was to be recorded completely unaccompanied, and this collection will later this year be released as Songs From The Cold Seas II, featuring the songs without backing tracks. For the other song, Zazou generally prepared a simple drone and backing rhythm, with the ADAT's BRC as synchroniser.

Back in his home studio in Paris, with many thousands of miles and much musical material under his belt, Zazou started work on the backing tracks. The ADATs remained his main recording medium, and in the few cases where he had recorded artists on other multitracks, because he had worked in a commercial recording studio, this material was transferred to ADAT as well. The ethnic drumming he had recorded in Siberia (but also in Sissimut in Greenland, the Sakharine Islands -- a Russian island next to Japan -- and Hokkaido) was recorded both as regular drum playing, and as individual sounds, so he could either use the patterns as played and speed them up, loop them, and treat them sonically, or use the individual sounds to create completely new rhythms.

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