Vive la différence … pas de différence!

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Album: Méditerranéennes – ici ou là-bas
Label: Capitol Music France
Release date: March 2017

Julie Zenatti is a popular French singer who first came to prominence in the musical Notre-Dame de Paris. The profile this gave her was sufficient to land her a job as one of the judges on the reality competition X Factor France.

The Méditerranéennes project sees her bringing together a group of singers and musicians with a foot on either side of the Mediterranean to celebrate, collectively, their mixed roots. Zenatti herself is of Algerian, Italian and Jewish descent. The songs deal with displacement, identity and adapting to another culture. All very worthy, especially as the topic of immigration is as hot in France as it is in countries around the EU.

Many of the songs here are radio-friendly Euro-pop ballads, one of the best of these being Zenatti and Chimène Badi’s album opener, Amal (Fortes D’Esperer). The strongest tracks are those that keep it simple, such as L’Amoureuse de Casbah. A jaunty affair with a strong Moorish feel, it is surely a dance-floor filler on both sides of the Med. The duet, Adieu Mon Pays, with it’s delightful Spanish guitar, is an impassioned farewell to one’s homeland. Mustapha is possibly the stand-out track on the album: anthemic, straight-ahead and uncomplicated with lovely harmonies. The hauntingly beautiful L’Exil also gets it right. The light-touch approach allows it breathe and draws the listener into the story; and this is story-telling at its best. Sublime piano, violin and cello accompaniment add just the right amount of colour.

At times the producer uses a rather strong hand with the result that some of the songs have a super-smooth finish. Take the cover of Paolo Conte’s Sparring Partner. One of the most popular songs in Conte’s live set, it loses much of its energy here as it conforms to the producer’s template. La Maritza is a breathy la-la-la ballad which would not sound out of place at the Eurovision. La Dernier Qui A Parlé starts well before becoming just another pop-by-numbers song. Au Café Des Délices, not withstanding fine string playing, suffers from efforts to inject pace into it. The same goes for Zina and Ssendu.

Beautiful Tango sees the producer getting it just right. Singer Sofia Essaidi’s voice is gorgeous and fit easily with the harmonies provided by Nawel Ben Kraïem and Julie Zenatti.

In the soulful paean Avinu Malkeinu, Zenatti celebrates her Jewish roots with piano, strings and simple harmony backing.

Zenatti & Samira Brahmia, accompanied by piano, bring proceedings to a close, sotto voce, with the elegant Et Si En Plus Y’a Personne.

Méditerranéennes was a brave undertaking for Julie Zenatti and she deserves credit for pulling together for it. To succeed in gathering together such a diverse group of musicians shows that she has struck a chord.

The album is generally good if inclined to play it safe, especially given the subject matter. While she values “la diversité” and le mélange riche, one wonders how it might have sounded if Julie had put her foot down and insisted on taking a walk on the wild side. Peut-être, plus de “là-bas”, moins de “ici”!

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