Nobody Listens to…Taïro

NOTE: Welcome to my first post written right here on the wordpress.  It feels nice.  Please keep reading.

NOTE: Yes, I did import and archive all of my previous posts, so you can find everything here.  The Tumblr still exists, but you can get all of the “Nobody Listens to” you want right here.

NOTE: There are hyperlinks all over the place here, but I realize they can be a bit tough to see.  They’re a dark brown color that I can’t seem to change, so keep an eye out for things like this that you can click on.

So according to my site tracker (still not sure if this is a great tool I now have access to or just another corner of the internet that’s going to drag my self-esteem down) literally zero people viewed my blog yesterday.  Hopefully we can avoid that in the future.  With that in mind, I need to write about soul music again.  This week I turn my focus to a young French singer who has truly mastered the sound and aesthetics of a particular type of soul music (sound familiar?) and whose first full-length album has been among my dearest discoveries.  This week no one is listening to Taïro.

If Ben l’Oncle Soul is the young French avatar of 1960s American Soul, Taïro is the same shifted forward thirty years.  In both his music and his smooth urban style, the French-Moroccan singer reminds me of the R&B and neo-Soul artists of the 1990s.  While Taïro himself seems to have drawn his inspiration from more from Dancehall and Ragga than modern R&B, the association I immediately make as I listen to his music is more R. Kelly than Buju Banton.

I actually found Taïro, as seems to be hilariously recurrent, through a lucky mistake.  While trawling youtube for clips of another French group, Makali, I kept coming up with results of a song by someone named “Taïro”.   Exhausting my search for acoustic chanson tunes, I gave the hip-hop-tinged Taïro song “On S’fait du Mal” a try.  I was instantly hooked.

From what I can piece together in bios that have been poorly translated from French, Taïro is the son of a Moroccan immigrant-rights activist father and a French sociology professor mother.  Born Ishmael Jolé-Menebhi, the artist now known as Taïro grew up in Paris in the 1980s, and actually initially tried his hand at an acting career in the early 90s before discovering dancehall and soundsystem subcultures and pursuing a music career.  Though he adopted the moniker of Taïro (a transliteration of the English term “Tyro”, for his novice status among his newly-adopted dancehall brethren) and began appearing with bands on records as early as 1996, Taïro didn’t release a fully-realized musical effort until 2007.  After moderate success with records and live shows, the singer-songwriter recorded his first full-length, professionally-produced album, Choeurs et Ame, in 2009.  This is still his most well-received and well-distributed work to date.

While I tend to peg Taïro as a soul artist, the dancehall and reggae influence that shaped his experience as an artist so dramatically is very clear in his music.  Heavy emphasis is often put on the bass lines of his songs, and staccato guitar skanks and one-drop drums aren’t at all uncommon.  The music moves away from this however when live drums are replaced by a drum machine, those guitar chops fall on the beat instead of between beats, and a chorus of backup singers begin sweetly vocalizing behind the songwriter’s crooning and pleading.  Elements of Dancehall, Soul, Reggae, Jazz, and Hip-hop are all combined in Taïro’s music; any fully-orchestrated music where the lead singer’s voice is central is fair game to be absorbed in the artist’s oeuvre.  For the songs of Choeurs et Ame, the real intrigue of the music actually lies in the small touches and artfully-selected pieces of the background.  A smooth sax solo, a tasteful mournfully wailing guitar lick, and surprising sound effects and patches are really what make Taïro’s music special and captivating to listen to.

None of this should discount the singer’s voice and lyrics and how important he is to the music.  Whether he is softly rapping, raising his voice in a reggae yell, or throwing an unexpected and surprisingly fitting touch of autotune, Taïro has a voice that seems perfectly fitted for the style of music he plays and writes.  At all times the songwriter sounds smooth, as though his lyrics are just rolling over the lightly danceable grooves that are played and programmed underneath him.  The almost understated delivery that Taïro lends to his songs gives them a subtle, sneaky quality to their depth and skill; it’s not until the moment is fully upon the listener that one can appreciate just how hard to hit this note is or how fast the singer delivered that rap verse.  The backing vocals and guest cameos Taïro brings in also do a great job of adding to the almost singer-songwriter-like presence he has in his songs, as rappers connect Taïro to the twinkling piano loops and stacked harmonies of a backing chorus echo bass lines and horn arrangements in dreaded-out reggae numbers.

Almost every Taïro song kicks off in one direction before revealing itself to be a completely different sort of tune.  The light organ syncopation that begins “Je ne t’Aime Plus“, the opening track on Choeurs et Ame, quickly gives way to a mid-tempo drum machine beat and a string arrangement.  Similarly, the drawn-out wah-wah guitar of “Jamais Eu” suddenly is filling in gaps between a persistent one-drop reggae groove.  Even the standout “l’Animal Geint” swells from a simple acoustic tune (though with deceptively fast lyrics) into a layered groove with complex vocal arrangements.  Whether it’s ostensibly rap, R&B, reggae, or the quasi-hispanocaribbean of “Mama“, the songs of Choeurs et Ame all offer a great deal more depth than a precursory listen might suggest.

  With his perfectly manicured five o’clock shadow and meticulously-placed dreadlocks, Taïro easily looks the part of any of the slow-jams-and-sappy-love-songs R&B singers that American audiences came to know and love during the early 1990s.  To look further, however, reveals a much more musically diverse catalog that increasingly plays up the singer’s interest in modern Caribbean dancehall music and culture.  In fact, Taïro’s latest release, Amen, sees the artist playing up that Jamaican influence with a track dubbed “Bonne Weed” and a quintessentially French take on the wildly popular “Me Hold Yuh” riddim*.  While there’s no mistaking Taïro or his music as authentically or directly Caribbean, to assume as much would really miss the point.  Despite the almost overbearing adoption of musical ideas and subject matter from dancehall that his music has recently bent towards, Taïro is still the son of an immigrant who sees reggae and its related forms as a music that speaks to and for marginalized people all over the world.  Following Taïro on twitter and facebook gives the listener the added dimension of seeing an artist who is very conscious of the idea of urban style, but reflects with a legitimate ideology.  Nobody is listening to Taïro right now, but the subtle touches- both musical and stylistic- that the artist has woven into his personal blend of modern R&B and reggae makes him quite an interesting subject and a smooth, enjoyable listen.

*This probably deserves a footnote: a riddim is, in Jamaican music, a recorded musical track that is used and re-used several times by different artists to record different songs in a process referred to as versioning.

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