Album review: Lorraine Klaasen “Nouvelle Journée”

“Is this the end or the beginning now?” Lorraine Klaasen asks on “Where to Now” on Nouvelle Journée (Justin Time Records, 2016), and for the South African vocalist who now resides in Quebec, Canada, it’s a question of self-reflection. Thirty years into a career, Lorraine had slowed down to care for her ailing mother. This time with family cultivated a deep appreciation for life and for heritage. So Lorraine went back into the studio armed with a list of covers and a reimagining of her tune “Where to Now”. She teamed up with premier jazz and Afro groove musicians to weave together a slinky set that is at once glossy soulful and funky.

Lorraine sings in Tsonga, Sotho, isiZulu, Xhosa, English, and French. She leaps from upbeat songs about justice to slower songs of remembrance. It’s a cross-cultural, cross-epoch exploration of sound, and it’s pretty, tight, and fresh. Her laidback singing and the relative loose instrumentation reminds me of one of my favorite musicians, Oliver Mtukudzi, but Lorraine really allows her sound to go wherever fits.

The title track is about a fresh start, and this is something Lorraine clearly experienced as she went back into the studio. She powers through the electrified groove. Immediately following is the tumbling “Ke Tshepile Bafatsi”, a prancing song about a higher power. Both songs include accordion that’s intestinally sparse but fulfilling.

By the time we get to Polokwane, we’ve entered deep jazz, complete with upright bass. Also at this point, the album becomes disjointed. The flow of Nouvelle Journée isn’t great. The intention was set on songs about something unifying, not sounding unifying. Amazingly, Lorraine can sing from numerous languages without any problem, but the album can’t decide if it feels groovy or solemn, and the attempt at both and everything in between isn’t super sharp.

Then again, each song on its own is really good! The highlight is “Izani Nonke”, undoubtedly chosen because it sounds like Mtukudzi, but it’s also a charming moment for Lorraine to have a little fun while spiritually lifting the speakers. “They may say I lost my beauty,” she croons; “They may have said I had my time.” Well, clearly she’s got a bone to pick with that notion.

The question that comes up for me is: who is the record for? I love it, but I also love worldly music and albums rich with a story behind them. And as little as I like jazz, Lorraine is one of those people who can change your mind, at least for the four minutes she’s singing to you. I think, if you enjoy South African music, and if you enjoy a good voice, Nouvelle Journée is worth a risk. It’s got something sweet to it. It’s got heart. It’s got Lorraine.

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