Gulaza ‘Ya Mehija’ CD (1018333 Records DK) 4/5

After their appearance at the prestigious 2018 WOMEX Festival which took place in the Gran Canaries last October, Gulaza strikes again with a more profound second album, ‘Ya Mehija’, which abound in colourful sounds from distant lands.

The album is addictive, the melodies rich in textures and we never get bored of listening to their singer, Igal Mizrahi’s voice. He has utter control of it, being simultaneously extremely masculine and dramatic and yet offering us a remarkable sensuality. His rendition of the songs are highly evocative and very poetic.

Gulaza digs its repertoire from traditional Jewish Yemenite women’s songs of love, mystery and longing for freedom.

Departing from the previous black cover of the first album and choosing to go with a bold fuchsia colour, Gulaza’s message is clear behind that striking choice of colour. Just as the lotus flower can blossom above muddy waters, the women from Gulaza’s songs can be released and rise, revealing their joy, compassion and splendor.

The album opens up with ‘Ya Mehija’, a traditional song from the Yemenite diwan, and which immediately introduces the listeners to Ben Aylon’s beautiful djeli n’goni playing.

Ben Aylon, a border-breaking percussionist who played in the past with Doudou N’diaye Rose and is currently performing with Yossi Fine, is not new to Gulaza, as he appeared on the band’s first album, toured the world with them and finally produced this last album. Passionate about West African music, he brings in the n’goni, a multi-faceted instrument, which offers a very primal and raw element to the melodies, throwing listeners into an introspective intensity which touches their senses deeply.

‘Wirhibi’ opens at a meditative pace but soon reveals a repetitive instrumental beat that pulls you in.

Whilst the tight combination of instruments leads the melody up and down, Igal’s singing weaves in and out with a refreshing simplicity that makes the tune stays with you. Gulaza’s album is so expressive that it transcends any language barrier. The listeners are touched by the melodies and the singing, regardless of their understanding of the lyrics.

‘Ya Atishi’ and ‘Zabibi’ are both a clever mesh of African beats and Arabic sensibilities. Both tunes have faster tempos in which the vocals provide a catchy narration.

‘Bint Al Amrani’ is a gentle and serene tune, which sounds like a sung poem. With its hypnotic ngoni, soothing and echoing vocals and shimmering guitar, it is full of fragrance.

‘Ya Habib’ is one of the tunes I like the most on the album. Igal Mizrahi’s breathy voice is like a balm and Ben’s ngoni is very beautiful; its warmth infuses the song with a relaxed gentleness.

‘Waskini (Salam Yalbint)’ already appeared on the previous album and remains one of my favourite songs by Gulaza. I am invariably deeply stirred by Igal’s passionate rendition. This time, the band made it into a much faster version, equally enjoyable, and which shows how versatile they can be. The guitar on it is deft and embellishes the melody, taking it along fast, silky lines.

‘Zur Menati (Rock of my Existence)’ simply had to be the closing song on the album. It is extremely beautiful, sounds almost like an incantation and my favourite song on the album. A ‘piyut’ (Jewish liturgical poem) written by 17th century Yemenite poet, Shalom Shabazi, it has been interpreted by countless singers but Gulaza’s version is definitely the one I prefer. Igal Mizrahi’s voice is pure nectar; it oozes seduction as he sings this ode to the Divine. The cello’s pulsating beats inject the poem with warmth and create an intimacy that compliments Igal Mizrachi’s contemplative vocals.

‘Ya Mehija’ is a beautiful album which will keep you hooked and wanting to listen to it again and again.

Actually, with Gulaza, you cannot remain a casual listener — the arrangements and vocals are simply too captivating. Everything runs smoothly; nothing on the album feels forced. You’ll be so mesmerized by the whole experience, you’ll definitely wish Gulaza was well on their way to a third album.

Nathalie Freson