Sessions at West 54th provided some of the best live music performances found on television. However, it aired Saturday nights on PBS, at least it did in my TV market at the time in New Orleans. Yet, during my college years in the late 90s and turn of the millennium, I spent all my Saturday nights in my dorm room often with IFC to keep me company. However, I made it a point to watch Sessions every Saturday night, watching it go through various hosts including David Byrne, John Hiatt and Angelique Kidjo.
I was introduced to acts with which I was previously unfamiliar including Keb Mo, Kidjo, Virginia Rodrigues, Macy Gray and Ben Harper, who became a favorite for the next few years. I even finally saw the only live performance from someone who is clearly my favorite living music artist: Imani Coppola. However, one performance that stood out to me over time was from a woman named Anggun.
Anggun had emerged on the music scene in the late 90s. She toured with Lilith Fair and caught the attention of a few. However, Sessions was the one and only time I ever saw her perform live. Needless to say, she was amazing. While on a trip to California to visit a friend, I managed to find a copy of her only album at the time, Snow on the Sahara. The album was released in 1998 and it remains as one of my all-time favorite albums.
What I did not know at the time is that the Indonesian woman is a naturalized French citizen. Her album had been released in French as Au Nom de la Lune. Snow on the Sahara is an English translation. Anggun is a much bigger star in the francophone world, but her English-language albums are just as much a testament to her beautiful singing voice as the French versions.
Over the years, I had been able to seek out Anggun’s other albums, but Snow on the Sahara continues to stand out from the rest even from the original French version. One of the reasons is because it is a stunning vocal achievement. Anggun pleases the ear with soft, near-whisper vocals one minute then turns into a sonic boom the next. “A Rose in the Wind” captures longing and hope with more than a dash of defiance. There is an acknowledgment of her own beauty even as she mourns a love that fails to blossom.
The title track “Snow on the Sahara” is in the same vein as is one of my overall favorite tracks, “Secret of the Sea,” which interestingly is entitled “Always” on the French version and leaves the “I’ll always love you” refrain sung in English. Anggun somehow makes her voice haunting and forceful simultaneously while never relinquishing the beauty of the piece. Like other tracks such as “By the Moon,” “Secret of the Sea” incorporates nature in a way that adds serenity to the vocals and the music to create something that still does not get played on the radio for lack of commercial appeal.
There are snappier, happier numbers like “Over Their Walls” and “Dream of Me,” uptempo numbers that inviting dancing and singing along. However, other tracks stand out to me for very different reasons. Anggun shows off more of her sexier side with “My Sensual Mind” (which I included in my own Sapiosexuality playlist) with playful and slinky lyrics performed in her lower tones. Then there is an awesome cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” Considering it only appears on Snow on the Sahara, there is an obvious attempt at testing the waters on Anggun’s crossover appeal to her English-speaking audience.
Snow on the Sahara is definitely one of my favorite take aways from Sessions at West 54th. It’s one of those albums you can listen to on a lazy day while relaxing or taking a drive to nowhere. Anggun’s voice is one of those that demands to be heard above all the rest. Her other albums have their own charm, but this first trip into her musical wonderland is the one that will stand up through time.