When the new CD from Orange Blossom (Everything Must Change) was released earlier this year, it seemed to split roots-music opinion between those who found the group’s mix of fairly heavy dance beats, Arabic vocalising, samples, violin and percussion a bit hard to take and those....well, those who didn't seem to take any notice of it at all.
Then WOMAD happened. On a warm Saturday night on the Village Stage, the Nantes-based band thrilled an audience who arrived to see what on earth the programme description "brooding Massive Attack-esque soundscapes and Leftfield-like beats" might mean, and ended up projecting the album into the top ten best-sellers at the event.
What they had witnessed was a boundlessly energetic set by the four-piece. Fronted by French-Algerian singer Leïla Bounous - her stalking, fiery presence coming across like Souad Massi with attitude - and a dementedly hyperactive violinist P. J. Chabot, and backed by animated percussion from Mathias Vaguenez and drummer Carlos Robles Arenas, they delivered a tight, tough set of dance tunes. Any reservations about the use of samples and programmed beats (bar one: they really could do with a live bass player) were dismissed by a coruscating on-stage performance packed full of in-your-face attitude that resulted in the quartet's appearance in many people’s list of festival highlights.
Earlier in the day I caught up with the drummer and amiable leader of the outfit, Carlos Robles Arenas. I was curious to know why a French band with Arabic and French lyrics had an English name and album title. "We got our name from a group called the Spotniks, who dressed as cosmonauts and who did a rock instrumental version of Johnny Cash's Orange Blossom Special. The album title comes from a Nina Simone song. I like the positivity and hope that she expressed in that song, even though she was rejected and marginalised by the establishment."
So, this is a seriously eclectic bunch - a Mexican, an Algerian and two French members whose genesis began in Cuba. Carlos: "I was studying music there, and I met up and worked with many other nationalities. I enjoyed taking in many different influences. So when I returned to France, I teamed up with two French guys (Chabot and Vaguenez) and decided to bring in as many different styles as I could. Our sound was originally acoustic with violin, guitar and drums. We made a cassette which didn’t sell too well, but anyway I wanted to bring in electronic sounds, to open the music out to instruments from all over the world."
As well as the electronic aspect, Orange Blossom decided they wanted to introduce a strong Arabic element. "In 1999 we worked with Egyptians, and I enjoyed finding out about traditional North African and oriental music. I feel that it's a good idiom, appealing to a great many people. While there we had a month's residency working with Nubian group Ganoub in Cairo. It was a fantastic meeting, with a great exchange of ideas and passion."
Carlos was in Egypt till 2001, and on his return the decision was made to seek an Arabic singer. They had a particular profile in mind, as Carlos explains: "For our recordings, it's important to have someone who is not a traditional Algerian singer with a traditional outlook, we need someone who really injects passion and emotion, who has the ability to drive the music."
Bounos certainly adds passion, although Arenas bridles at the suggestion that an album that utilises electronic sounds could be deemed cold or unemotional: "I think she reflects the feeling that already exists in the music. Everything is based on emotion, even the electronic parts. But it’s not all samples and programmed beats. Twenty-five other musicians were involved in the recording of the CD, including full brass and string sections."
The CD was recorded in Nantes in 2004 and was originally released on Bonsai records in France, but it took a while to take hold there before being picked up by Wrasse records in the UK.
"In France, it’s very difficult when you make something different. If you don't sing in French or make traditional Arabic music, then nobody wants it. They say ‘oh, you play popular music but sing in Arabic, nobody did that before. Maybe no one will like it. Can’t you get a French singer?’" Somebody who did pick up on the CD was Robert Plant, a man who always seems attracted by a beefy beat and North African inflection.
"He really liked it - he said it was like a coup de couer, something that just flashed. So he asked us to play some gigs with him, and of course we said 'yes'. It went really well, we really got on together, it felt like we were part of an extended family."