The music pours out of the speaker, a lush string section playing a unison melody rich with Middle Eastern overtones. Then, suddenly, a woman's voice eases through the background--sensuous and throaty, her sound somehow managing to mix qualities of Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe. Even more remarkably, she is singing the song that was a hit for both Holiday and Fanny Brice--"My Man"--and singing it in ululating Arabic fashion.
How's that for a world music experience?
The singer is Amina Annabi (she uses just her first name professionally), born in Carthage, Tunisia, raised in France and dedicated to a belief in music as a universal language. The dynamically charismatic performer's onstage presence is enlivened by a swirling mane of black hair, and she invests a song such as "My Man" with the same sort of no-boundaries emotions that course through her original material.
"I'm like an actress," says Amina, who has appeared in a number of films, including Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky" and "The Advocate" with Colin Firth. "I like when I can go from one style to another style. I like to play one character and then another. The music is for me the same. I can do something very traditional, and then I can go and do something in which I use my voice as an instrument."
Amina performs at downtown Los Angeles' California Plaza on July 21 as one of the headliners in the third annual performance of "Vive La World," a program focusing on music from countries around the Mediterranean. Also on the bill: French trio Ekova, fusion-oriented ensemble Lo'Jo, Moroccan-born gnawa artist Hassan Hakmoun and the tarantella music of the group Musicantica. The program is part of a three-day, post-Bastille Day series of Francophone concerts at the plaza that also includes rai singer Cheb Mami next Friday and French-Algerian musical activist Rachid Taha on July 23.
Listening to her two current CDs--"Annabi" (Polygram) and "Amina: Nomad--Best Of" (Mondo Melodia)--it's difficult to understand why Amina has had such low visibility in this country. In part, the cause may be her reluctance to be over-categorized. Referring to her Arabic background, she underscores her refusal to accept a preconceived identity for herself.
"Arabic women, in their country, are expected to be totally Arabic," she says. "But that's not being free. And I'm not like those women at all. I'm a free spirit in the body of a woman. I think I am French intellectually, in my way of thinking, but that my heart is really Arabic. And I try to make a bridge between both, between my heart and my head."
Amina's personal sense of liberation seems to have been present from an early age. Her grandmother played the oud and her mother, a poet who has provided Arabic words for most of Amina's recordings, was also an amateur singer. In her traditional family, however, women of good backgrounds did not perform in public. But seeing James Brown and Tina Turner, as well as the great Arabic singer Oum Kalthoum, when she was still a preteen in Carthage inevitably drew Amina to the stage. And when her family moved to France when she was 13, the path was opened.
Her eclecticism surfaced early. Signed to a contract by the legendary Paris music venue the Palace Theatre when she was 20, she recorded a single in which she rapped in Arabic over a piece of music by hip-hop artist Grandmaster Flash. Her first album, "Yalil" (Philips), included a track, "Belly Dance," that mixed North African rhythms with a sample from James Brown's "Cold Sweat."
In 1991, Amina made her breakthrough via the song "Le Dernier Qui a Parle," the winning entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Written with Senegalese performer Wasis Diop, it was the first number by a North African artist ever picked to represent France in the competition.
After the release of her second album, "Wa di ye" (Philips), Amina shifted her focus somewhat, concentrating on acting and soundtrack work Equally important, she focused on raising her daughter, now 15.
The arrival of her third album, "Annabi," coincided with an active revival of Amina's singing career. But her approach to her art remains the same--the unflinching, open-eyed willingness to embrace whatever touches her, regardless of genre or style.
"My Man" is the most obvious example of her omnivorous eclecticism, but other compelling blends surface throughout her work: an Arabic version of a Yugoslavian song, "Ederlezi"; "Dis-Moi Pourquoi," a hook-oriented pop hit in France; a trance-techno original titled "Lirrili," based on a traditional Tunisian melody; the Spanish-Arabic sound of "Atame," inspired by Amina's favorite film, Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"
Amina insists that she will not allow the demands of marketing to intrude on her artistic vision.
"I have to feel that if I want to mix jazz with Arabic or suddenly sing in Chinese, I am free to do it. Because, you know, you can't eat the same foods all your life. It's not good for the health.
"After all," she concludes, "there is succeeding in your career and there is succeeding in your life. When I'm an old woman, with all my little grandkids, I don't want to tell them, 'Oh, I was on top of the heap, and I was on TV and so forth.' No. I want to say that I toured Africa and Europe and America, and that I saw the world, that I heard wonderful sounds and played with amazing musicians."
* "Vive La World," July 21 at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave. L.A., 5 p.m. Free. (213) 687-2159.