|Mina Agossi sexes up the stage at Liban Jazz
|French-Beninian singer brings her own brand of sensual, seductive pseudo-jazz
Because they seem to have no idea what to make of her bristling sexuality, music critics tend to describe the 33-year-old French-Beninian singer Mina Agossi with an onslaught of alliterative opposites - wild and winsome, crazy and cute, ambitious and amateurish. To be sure, she straddles the same line between genius and madness as other such genre-busting musicians as Bjork (the pixie-sized Icelandic singer) and Leila (the reclusive London-based composer and producer Leila Arab, who was first signed to Aphex Twin's Rephlex Records and is now on XL).
Because Mina Agossi also lives - somewhat threateningly - in the house of jazz, pinning her down is even harder still.
"I'm a pseudo jazz singer in 2005," she says, face bespectacled, magenta-tipped hair piled on top her head, and dressed in delicate white some 12 hours before she's set to take the stage at Zouk Mikhael, where she performed as part of the second annual Liban Jazz festival on Wednesday night. "I'm never gonna sing jazz standards like it's the 1950s. If it's me and I'm with my friends, we're never gonna be Billie Holiday, and we're never gonna be Sarah Vaughn, so what's the use? My approach is very simple. When I pick up a standard, I wonder what the person would do if she was living now. And then I pick up the other influences I have. I hear electro, I hear salsa, I hear whatever, and I make my own mixture."
Agossi was born in France in 1972. She studied in Niger, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast before moving to Spain for two years. She was preparing for a career in theater when, back in French and 20 years old, she walked into a cafe one night that was empty except for a lone saxophone player performing on a barren stage, accompanied only by a small, prototypical computer.
He said to her: "You, yeah you, I'm sure you can sing. Get up here."
She replied as if it were a challenge, "Oh yeah? Okay." So began her career.
Skip ahead 13 years and Agossi has just finished mastering her third, fully solo album, to be released in Europe this fall under the title "Well, You Needn't," after Thelonious Monk's upbeat, percussive jazz standard of the same name. "Well, You Needn't" follows Agossi's "Carousel" and "E-Z Pass to Brooklyn," which she recorded in New York just after September 11, 2001.
"I wasn't supposed to record anything then," she recalls. "I was booked for gigs" at venues like the Knitting Factory and what used to be Sweet Basil. Although airplanes were grounded internationally for a few days, Agossi and her band took the first flight they could from Paris. "When we arrived there was this smell, the smell of ash, and it was all very weird. And we realized we had to do something. We had to put our sensations down."
That primacy and immediacy of the senses, perhaps more than anything else, defines Agossi's style. She keeps her backing band spare, limited to a drummer and a bassist. This arrangement creates an occasionally abstract sound that leaves both space and depth for her voice to fill. "I have a lot of melodies in my head all the time," she says. "But I didn't choose not to use the piano, not to use the guitar, not to use the harmonic instruments. It's just that what I hear ... I hear bass. I hear drums."
Agossi's band leaves room for her to literally sing the parts of missing instruments, sounds, and effects. She has amazing vocal range and the guts to use it for the purpose of creating noises that aren't always sweet or pretty. In her intense cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun," her voice approximates the fuzz and feedback of an electric guitar. At Zouk, she emulated Louis Armstrong in full - the whine of his trumpet, his low-register growl, his rapid-fire scat. On stage, she beatboxes, she howls, she gurgles, she sounds, at times, like a strangled cat struggling for its last breath.
But what Agossi uses her voice for most is an expression of raw, explosive sexuality. Three songs into her concert at Zouk, she performed "Closer," off the album "Carousel," like a seduction. Already the song opens with one sexy bass line that becomes two and then three. Then, with her voice and come-hither glances, Agossi had the crowd practically eating from her hands by the time she finished. Throughout her covers of Billie Holiday's "Ghosts of Yesterday," Duke Ellington's "Caravan," and Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" she vamped and scamped on stage like a screen siren.
In this, Agossi is a rare thing in 2005. (She has the pipes to make it as a mainstream singer but she deserves credit for both refusing to capitulate to commercial concerns and for keeping things experimental, as evidenced by her unpredictable on-stage collaboration at Zouk with Bechir Saade on flute and clarinet, percussionist Bachar Khalife, and DJ Ramsay Short.) And these days, sexuality in music, whether it's Joss Stone or Jessica Simpson, has been seriously stripped down and emptied of meaning.
"This is a question of heart," says Agossi. "Why is it empty? Because all these people are signed up by producers that are only focused on business because this is their job. These singers, they're like pieces of soap. They come in all these different colors but it's always the same s***. It's always nothing. It's the producers. It's something they create from A to Z. The producer comes to a musician and says: 'You, little girl, you need to do this.' It's a business for kids because they are very easy to manipulate. People I think are fed up. I am fed up. It's our role, as independent artists, to really say every minute, 'Stop that s***. Leave the music to the musicians and the business to the businessmen. Music is something else.'"
Kaelen Wilson Goodie
The Daily Star