One of the most original vocal artists to emerge from West Africa in decades, mezzo soprano Julia Sarr honed her reputation as a supporting singer in Paris for luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Goldmann, Michel Fugain, and Youssou N'Dour, having launched it all (closer to West Africa's polyrhythmic signatures) with live gigs with Fela Kuti's rhythmic alter ego, the legendary Nigerian Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, and with Congolese singer Lokua Kanza. Her a cappella solos graced Jean-Claude Petit's score for the film Lumumba.
Nurturing her solo aspirations and songwriting quietly for years, Sarr has found in Patrice Larose, the flamenco-influenced guitarist, just the right partner, as French critic Stephane Ollivier has said, "with whom to merge haunting individualities, stories, and traditions." For all of the richness of the respective traditions in which Sarr and Larose find their anchors, the Sarr-Larose duo is more a flowing conversation between individuals than a studied hybrid of styles, and it is precisely this conversational quality which elevates the partnership far above the often murky waters of the mere encounter of musical forms.
"Flamenco and Senegalese music appear on our record, but as shadowy rather than dominant presences, as cultural imprints which Julia and I could never undo within our musical selves, which it would have been useless to try to erase," says Larose. "Our music has taken form little by little, and it really can't be defined in terms of geography."
"When Camaron and Paco de Lucia play together," Larose further explains, "you really are hearing two parallel songs. Flamenco is a music of counterpoint, and this is how Julia and I composed our songs together: Julia's voice and my guitar pose questions to each other, and answer each other. My tastes naturally incline toward music in which the lyrics and the music are enlaced in one another, whether it be in the classical composers or in, say, people like Joao Gilberto or Joao Bosco. With them, the idea of putting voice and guitar in balance is really taken very far: one never knows which element is going to take over. It's very beautiful and yet unsettling, and this is just what Julia and I have tried to produce."
The duo's first album, Set Luna (So I've Observed, in Wolof), and their American debut at Carnegie Hall, have been hailed as scarcely like anything else ever produced from the inexhaustibly rich Senegalese vocal tradition of which the Wolof-speaking Sarr is a part. Dubbed by their Carnegie Hall patron, Youssou N'Dour, as "the fresh face of African music", and by The New York Times as a new source of "introspection" in a revitalized African tradition, Julia Sarr and Patrice Larose combine virtuosity with retenue, their exuberance tempered by a graceful restraint. Le Monde, the French paper of record, citing Sarr's "beguiling sweetness" and the "perfection" of her timbre and timing, has said that Sarr and Larose "share a similar capacity for venturing beyond the usual borders, a disdain for established codes, for stagnant templates, for rectilinear pathways."
With both a buoyant cheer and a knowing realism, several of Sarr's songs evoke a nostalgia for her native Dakar, where Sarr says she listened to "all sorts of music, from salsa to soul music, from griots to gospel, and even the music of Bollywood." She sings of the sensory experiences of her childhood, but also, among other themes, of a love for her own child, and of a love for someone "who has not arrived yet" in her life. In the album's poignant title track "Set Luna Djamanodji", Sarr offers a cautionary tale for immigrants who will face, as she has, Northern weather, inevitable money problems, and, worst of all, the dreadful feeling of invisibility: "It's a letter addressed to someone who wanted to come to live in France as I've done," explains the singer. "I tell him that here you can become transparent. Alone with your suitcase on the subway train platform, it's possible that no one may see you, no one may speak to you."
Throughout the album Set Luna, and in the warm engagement with her audiences which marks her stagecraft, Julia Sarr modestly exults in her femininity, her songs remaining half-hidden, as veiled treasures, in a state of anticipation, enveloped by reserve, which Romain Gary said is "to a woman's voice what grace is to the body."
The Sarr-Larose duo - it would be difficult and wrong to attempt to pigeonhole them into any facile world-music category - has opened one of the most novel musical dialogues to have emerged in any country, in any tradition in a great while.