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The bilingual breadth of Anggun

By Michael Freedberg

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Anggun, from age 19 a singing star in her native Indonesia, moved her strong, sharp alto to France a few years ago. And, with the 1997 release of Au nom de la lune (Sony France), took France -- and quickly all the rest of la francophonie by storm. There wasn't much in the narrow world of hit music to compare with the expansive arias she and Eric Benzi, her songwriting collaborator, wrote together. It was melodies as rain-forested as the best of Deep Forest -- whom she had been booked to open for at a Roxy show scheduled for August 3 (it's been cancelled, unfortunately). It was diva funk and Europop orchestrations. Anggun sang romance as steadfastly as Celine Dion, but vulnerably. "À la plume de tes doigts" depicted her over-the-top romanticism best: "Je comprends les mots/Que tu graves sur moi//En frissons de landes/En flots de chaleurs/Au pays de ma peau/À la plume de tes doigts" ("I understand the words/That you inscribe on me/In quiverings of moors/In streams of hot summer days/On the native land of my skin/With the quill pen of your fingers").

At its fiercest -- on "La neige au Sahara," "Valparaiso," and "La rose des vents" -- the CD was torchy, dancy dreamrock. And "Always" was soft soul. But there were also Indonesian lullabies like "Selemanya," the Jane Birkin-ish "Pluies," and Hindu movie music like "Gita." Inevitably -- successfully -- it was filled with Celine Dion style. Sturdy, screamy, power-diva declarations like "Au nom de la lune," "De soleils et d'ombres," and "La ligne des sens" beg to be played loud outdoors at night, their luscious strong glitter flashing through the dark like heat lightning.

Now, with the release of Snow on the Sahara (Sony), the English-speaking world gets to hear Anggun singing and diva-stepping. Not very many of Au nom de la lune's most characteristic triumphs turn up in English on Snow on the Sahara. But the title song is there, and "Valparaiso," and "A Rose in the Wind," and they're quite enough. First, because the music of "Snow on the Sahara" sighs and sashays, all soft rhythm and sugar-coated sensuality -- it's the kind of love music that urban radio's new jills long to become but can't. And second, because even if English lyrics lack the languor and wetness of French, Anggun sings "A Rose in the Wind" and the muscular "Valparaiso" from deep down, so full of melody and feeling that a listener doesn't focus on her words.

Here she parts company from La Dion. Celine, for whom text is everything, sings English lyrics like a rock climber scaling an overhang. She wills herself to the top of a song, secures her presence in every line, plots a route and sticks to it. She disciplines her voice -- and makes you like it. Anggun's English-language CD style conveys the same degree of steadfastness through an entirely different technique. She lets the music do the precision work while she, as singer, goes wherever her spirit moves her. In "My Sensual Mind" she leaps an octave or more above the melody; here and there she flies sideways, across the rhythm, dipping down to rhythm level, roaming and digressing. The least casual of singers, Dion has little room in her oeuvre for the Afro-beat informality of songs like Anggun's "Dream of Me" or the Deep Forest mists of her "Over Their Walls."

But Anggun may surprise you: just when you're sure that she has put unbridgeable distance between herself and Dion, she reverts to diva-rock workouts like "By the Moon" and Europop showtunes like "Life on Mars," and there she is, her true Parisian self. The young Indonesian comes fresh to Europe, impressed by the most Europop CD Dion has ever turned out, the Jean-Jacques Goldman-produced D'eux, and eager to outdo all rivals with that unstoppably powerful, free-roaming alto operatic in whatever language you want it to be. Snow on the Sahara is how romanticism sounds when it rides the waves of limitless ambition and a virtuoso conceit as big as any rapper's brag or loverboy's smooch. Which is what a diva's gotta be if she aspires to something greater than attitude.

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