A freelance writer and father of two, I am interested in almost anything the ever-changing city of Brisbane has to offer. When I am not seeking the kid-friendly and affordable, I am tracking the home-grown and the unique... Come and discover with me!
Join Mzaza's Fireside Tour this winter and warm yourself in a whirlwind of world music with one of Brisbane's most-loved bands
You don't need a crystal ball to predict that the upcoming Mzaza Fireside Tour (August 20 – 31) will ignite flames of delight in the hearts of music lovers everywhere from Maleny to Melbourne. Neither do you need a fortune-teller's foresight to know that you'd better book your hot-seat very soon if you want to catch this sizzling sextet of sound-sorcerers at the Brisbane Fringe Festival (Wednesday August 20, 7pm); Maleny Music Weekend (Friday August 29, Bunya Stage 7:20pm); Gypsy Crystal Ball (Saturday August 30 6pm, Spotted Mallard, Brunswick); or Lorne Festival of Performing Arts (Sunday August 31 5pm).
The Gypsy Crystal Ball - Mzaza rocks the Spotted Mallard, Brunswick, with friends Vardos and Kavisha Mazella
From the cheery comfort of A Conversation With Mzaza in balmy Brisbane to a scorching session at the Gypsy Crystal Ball with fiery Melbournian friends Kavisha Mazella and Vardos, world-music maestros Mzaza will mix up a funky fusion fondue to suit all tastes, blending the flavour of familiar favourites with fresh new tracks as they prepare for the release of their second LP in December of this year.
The Moroccan word Mzaza means "crazy", and to see this six-piece take the stage with violin, double-bass, piano accordion, darabuka hand-drum and acoustic guitar—not to mention an array of exotic noisemakers with names such as cajon, kaval, ney, and shah keman—is at first to wonder whether that name is perhaps a little too appropriate. Do these guys think they're magicians, or are they just plain mad? Is that powerhouse front-woman (Pauline Maudy) really singing original French lyrics to a Bulgarian melody supported by Persian "shah keman" violin (Greta Kelly), Flamenco guitar (John Robertson), accordion (Stephen Cuttriss), double bass (Chloe-Ann Williamson), and Turkish percussion (Jordan Stamos)? Click here for a taste of sweet madness via Reverbnation.
As soon as you realise that these six outrageously-talented Queenslanders are not only managing to blend these eclectic elements into a harmonious whole, but doing so with easy grace and engaging passion, you will also begin to suspect that Mzaza might have been named after the response of its audiences rather than the diversity of its influences. This suspicion, however, will be your final analytical thought for an hour or more, before you simply can't fight it any longer and have to abandon yourself to a magic-carpet ride spanning seven continents, six languages, at least fifteen centuries, and a dozen or so musical and poetic traditions.
This writer was recently fortunate enough to catch up with core Mzaza conjurer Greta Kelly, who kindly took time out from her hectic preparatory schedule to reveal a little more about the Fireside Tour, the forthcoming album, and the inspirations which power this home-grown world-music phenomenon.
Greta Kelly pictured with the 'shah keman' - the King of the Violins - photo reproduced with permission, all rights reserved
A highly-respected violinist with a collaborative style grounded in the unwritten traditions of the Irish pub session, Greta is one of the two founding members of Mzaza, following a 2005 meeting through Brisbane's West End cafe scene with enchantress-in-chief Pauline Maudy. Both were also participants in the harmonic hothouse of the Waziz Middle Eastern jam sessions—a long-standing Brisbane institution which has since been immortalised in an award-winning documentary by Julie Romaniuk, and which continues to this day at the Brisbane Ethnic and Multicultural Arts Centre (BEMAC). To hear stories from Greta's background is to hear the very heart-beat of the dazzling multi-faceted creature which is Mzaza today:
I began playing violin when I was very little, my great-grandfather played, my grandfather played, my sister played. She's now in the Barleyshakes, an Irish band originally from Dublin who relocated to the Sunshine Coast... I first got into world music in Prague when my sister would take me to her sessions in Irish pubs.
I came back from Prague in 1999, and I went to the National Folk Festival that year, then to Woodford Folk Festival every year since then, doing something or other. It seems like I've been moving east this whole time: I was into Eastern European music in Prague, and got exposed to Balkan music through Linsey Pollak, and then Turkish music through Bill Anderson's Waziz sessions, and then I joined an Egyptian belly-dance group, Muziz, that now calls itself the Australian Arabic Orchestra. That's where I got into Egyptian and North African music. Then I studied at the Labyrinth Music School in Greece with an Iraqi teacher, and learned some Iraqi repertoire… and then I married an Iranian, and got into Persian music. And now Indian musicians keep saying, "Let's jam, let's jam!"
As well as being a quest to warm the hearts of winter-bound world-music lovers, The Fireside Tour was also conceived as a road-test for new tracks destined to appear in Mzaza's third album. As-yet untitled, this collection of traditional tunes, highly re-worked folk standards, and originals will join the EP Parliament of the Birds and the LP Journey Over Skin as another unique milestone on the cultural treasure hunt which is Mzaza's raison d'etre. Says Greta of the band's core mission:
We are all big believers in music facilitating intercultural understanding, it's something that we all care about and that the world needs a lot more of today.
Another thing that really inspires us about world music is finding treasures, or things that are in danger of getting lost. That could be a mode, a funny scale, or it could be a really unusual rhythm, or a language that is not so common.
Both Parliament of the Birds and Journey Over Skin received widespread critical acclaim, and secured Mzaza an esteemed place on the Australian world music and folk circuits—a place from which they are now mining some deeper, more personal places in search of inspiration. Some of the most precious gems, as Greta explains, will be brought to light in the form of songs from the little-known Ladino tradition:
[Lead singer Pauline's father] Jacques Maudy belonged to a Spanish-Jewish family which lived in Morocco, and when things got a bit hectic there back in the '60s he moved to Paris, where he met Pauline's Mum. Pauline's background is Sephardic Jewish, and the language of the Sephardic Jews is Ladino. It's a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew, and it's not spoken that much, but it's still alive in their songs.
We started writing songs inspired by the journey that Pauline's family took as they migrated through various historical upheavals in Europe and North Africa and took that concept to a more universal place exploring the idea of migration and the feelings that go with that experience whether it is personal or the experience of ancestors.
Journey Over Skin - the first Mzaza LP - available at www.mzaza.com - amazing cover art by Sarah Hickey sarahhickey.com.au
It's indicative of the depth of talent in the Mzaza ensemble that this remarkable creative influence is nevertheless only one thread in a shimmering tapestry woven by no less than four band members:
It's pretty much Stephen and Pauline writing originals – also John's written one, and then my contributions have been two tunes, one of which I learned when I lived in Prague – that's a Gypsy folk tune, very Slavic—and then there's another one that's more of a Turkish folk song. We've taken some very simple Turkish and Eastern European folk songs and given them a complete re-working; so they've had their tempo changed, there's key changes, there's bits added, then Pauline's written lyrics. So that's the sort of mix we've got – I'd say 50% original, 20% highly messed-with, 30% traditional repertoire that's not been arranged that much.
Parliament of the Birds - Mzaza's first CD release (EP) - available at www.mzaza.com
And as if all this didn't seem tantalising enough, the high regard in which Mzaza is held by Australia's world-music community can also be seen in the calibre of the friends who even now are preparing to welcome them to Melbourne. Of the other acts—Kavisha Mazella and Vardos—scheduled to play with Mzaza at the Gypsy Crystal Ball on August 30, Greta says:
They're amazing. I saw Vardos first in 1999 at the National Folk Festival, and Kavisha too, she's been around since then.
We've got an amazing crossover there. Their bands are all women... Vardos play Eastern European-inspired music, and Kavisha was the one who had the idea to call it the Gypsy Crystal Ball and have a costume party. Vardos are amazing because of their energy on stage – their violinist is just hyperactive, she runs around the stage, she's really inspiring, the accordionist also, she really lays into it.
No great amount of psychic power is required to predict that much the same will one day be said of the marvellous Mzaza. Please get out and see them live—assuming you can still get a ticket—and join their Facebook page here for updates on the crowdfunding campaign which they'll be launching via the Pozible platform in September to fund the recording of their new album.
To book your very own seat by the Mzaza Fireside this August, and for further information regarding venues, click here for Brisbane Fringe Festival, here for Maleny Music Weekendhere for the Gypsy Crystal Ball at the Spotted Mallard in Brunswick, Melbourne, or here for the Festival of Performing Arts in Lorne, Great Ocean Road, Victoria.