Its common knowledge that over the past two decades, a number of local independent rock and country artists have made inroads at the national level. Its also widely known that a similar number of rap and hip-hop artists with ties to Savannah have earned an enviable amount of notoriety and fortune outside of our immediate area.
However, it may surprise many readers to learn that one local resident has quietly received international praise in the relatively wide open field of world music.
Her stage name is Zan, and though born and raised in Beirut, the Lebanese guitarist and singer only began to gain recognition for her mesmerizing take on contemporary pop after moving here.
A goldsmith by trade, Zan had dabbled in music from an early age, but had never seriously tried to pursue it as a career. Yet, a serendipitous meeting over a decade ago with another local musician set in motion a chain of events that has led her to both the imminent release of her second full-length album, and a successful long-term personal partnership.
That musician was Eric Runchy Winbush, a native Savannahian who had by that point already logged time as both a mixing engineer and touring sideman for several well-known old-school funk and soul acts, such as The Gap Band, Lakeside, Slave and ConFunkShun.
Having learned much about the record business and the ins and outs of the studio trade, he was attempting to produce and package a new band on his own when he and Zan first met.
The catalyst? A dead battery.
You know what? I actually work at Sears in the daytime, Zan explains, doing repairs on watches and jewelry. Eric came in for a watch battery, and we started talking and he mentioned that he was putting a girls group together. I joined them, and we started rehearsing, but it didnt last, and we wound up working on my stuff. It took a long time, but we finally made it happen.
Her first release, 1 of The Starz, was tracked and mixed in Winbushs state-of-the-art Southside studio, and the final result found the engineer marrying his affinity with groove-heavy slow jams to her droning Arabic melodies and vaguely exotic vocals. He also called in a few favors from his old touring buddies such as ConFunkShuns main man Michael Cooper, who came to town specifically to sing a guest vocal on the record.
Released a few years back on Winbushs own tiny independent label, the record went largely unnoticed at first, but slowly began to find a home on adventurous radio stations across the country and even abroad, where it earned considerable airplay as far away as Germany.
Zan says this was a most unexpected, but wonderful outcome.
I knew that we had a really great CD, but I never expected it to chart, you know? When it did, I was jumping up and down! But Im even happier with the new one. It has more of an edge. Its a little more upbeat, a little more rock and roll.
Despite the fact that her latest disc entitled Unleashed still remains under wraps, Zan has extremely high hopes for the disc, which is also being distributed by Winbushs label.
Im not interested in getting a record deal, she offers. Were gonna go full force on our own.
To that end, her second outing is a much more dynamic and exhilarating ride.
Where the first record was arguably more contemplative and meditative, the deep grooves, tribal percussion and lush vocal arrangements of many of the tracks un Unleashed seem tailor made for the international dance club scene.
In fact, several of the tunes boast the same sort of crunchy, hard rock guitar licks and live drum tracks that superstar crossover artists like Sean P-Diddy Combs and The Neptunes have utilized to entice rock fans into the dance and hip-hop demographic.
Zan gives Runchy much of the credit for this contemporary, commercial feel.
He has a lot to do with the overall sound. Hes definitely the one who makes the magic happen, she laughs.
Winbush, on the other hand, says that the new record would not sound nearly as impressive as it does, were it not for the mixed bag of musical talent he assembled for the six-month project.
Those players include rapper Dushawn Bullock, Brick horn player Jimmy Brown, Bar-Kays drummer Shamaka Ali, slide guitarists Slim Fatz and Roy Swindelle, and percussion prodigy Tony Royster, Jr..
Most notable of all the participants, may be Reginald Wizard Jones, who contributed keyboard and bass tracks to the disc. Hes worked with Usher, The Gap Band, Lakeside and ConFunkShun.
Says Winbush, hes been a Musical Director for both Toni Braxton and TLC.
The mixture of Zans heavily accented vocals, multi-culti instrumentation and slamming beats have earned the artist many comparisons to pop sensation Shakira, and while Zans appreciative, shes not quite sure she agrees.
Well, Shakira is really great and I guess its a bit of an honor to be compared to her. I think a lot of people compare my music to hers, simply because she has some Middle Eastern sounds mixed in with her Latin influences. I dont really hear it, but of course you cant always hear things like that yourself. I think my music is very versatile, which makes me happy. I dont want to create just one genre of music, you know?
Winbush says that while that eclectic approach does make it harder for radio programmers to pigeonhole Zan, he doesnt see that as too great a hindrance.
There is a market for these albums. I categorize them as world music, and so far, its done well under that label. Our attitude is, if you like it, you like it. If you dont, you dont. (laughs)
Her first record came in at #18 on the biggest station in Toronto. Thats a very major market! Because of that, she may be touring up there as the opening act for Nelly Furtado. We should know about that one way or another in August.
For now, Zan and Eric are eagerly anticipating the release of Unleashed which he was still putting the finishing touches on as we went to press. Based on the advance mixes Ive heard, its quite an accomplishment for an indie album.
Many of my fans are surprised at how professional our CDs sound, confides Zan. They tell me they sound like major label records. I cant tell you how many people cant believe theyre made here.
She thinks those who liked her first album will love this brand-new disc.
I think people are ready for a change. A lot of people who heard the last CD told me it was a breath of fresh air. They loved it because it was like nothing they ever hear on the radio.Thats what made me do the second CD, that encouragement. I dont have a huge fanbase, but one at a time, Im building it. Theyre as excited about it as I am.
Winbush is a tad more down to earth in his aspirations for Unleashed.
My dreams are not dependent on where it can go or where it will go, he says matter-of-factly. Im more or less into the situation of making a profit.
We did that on the first CD, so Im hopeful we can do it with this one. I just want to buy a bunch of equipment. Whatever happens after that is gravy. Charting at radio is fine, movie deals are fine. Ill take all that. Whatever. Im just having fun, and thats where its at.
Zan celebrates the release of her new CD Friday at 7 pm at the Skidaway Island Park Group Shelter, and at Saturday s Arts Unleashed Festival at the Tybee Island Pier (10 am to 6 pm). Both shows are FREE and open to ALL AGES.