|Members of Lo'Jo in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photograph: Andy Morgan/The Guardian|
(guardian.co.uk/music) Globetrotting French daredevils Lo'Jo tell Andy Morgan why being shot in Chechnya only made them play harder
It's a rainy night in Georgia, but Randy Crawford is the last person on anyone's mind. This is Georgia in the Caucasus, not the US – and the French band Lo'Jo are taking the stage in a pine-filled park on the edge of Tbilisi. Someone asks our genial host, Niaz Diasamidze, master of the panduri or three-stringed Caucasian lute, if the rain usually stops Tbilisians venturing out. "It depends," he says. "If there's a revolution going on, they'll come out."
Thirty years of travelling with open ears has given Lo'Jo's sound a unique richness. They play funky dubbed-up chanson, raw yet intricate, with a bewildering variety of influences. It all adds up to a brilliant whole that scorns classification. Fronting the drums, double bass, keyboards and violin is the polyglot growl of Péan, who could be the gallic cousin of Tom Waits. Just behind him swells the sweetly disorientating vocal assault of the Nid el Mourid sisters, who come across like the Berber cousins of the B52s. In three decades of marginal music-making, Lo'Jo have picked up fans as diverse as Robert Plant, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib from Tinariwen and Robert Wyatt, who sings the opening lines of Cinema El Mundo, the band's 13th and latest album, which is out in September. The crowds at Womad will get a taste of it this weekend, when the band hits the Wiltshire festival.
A powerful curiosity drove Péan and the band to join Babel Caucase. A humanitarian caravan of musicians, film-makers, artists, circus performers and ordinary big-hearted folk, it traversed Europe in 2007 with the aim of raising awareness about the suffering of the Chechen people. The caravan, led by the French documentary-maker Mylène Saunoy, was heading for Grozny, but in the end it got stuck in Georgia, where Lo'Jo came aboard. It was their first visit to this country whose charm, according to Péan, "is beyond discussion or analysis". He found the "sober rurality" of its countryside evocative of rural France from a century ago. For singer Nadia Nid el Mourid, it was like "Africa, only white not black".
The band played a gig in a Chechen refugee village up in the Pankisi Gorge, a deep and strategic gash in the high mountains of eastern Georgia. It turned out to be another of those happenings that Lo'Jo specialise in: an adventure of bewildering strangeness, beauty and danger, all made possible by music. "It was very tense," Péan remembers. "There was a lot of excitement, thanks partly to alcohol, and partly to the fact that the caravan was there. I had the same feeling that I have had at times when we've played in the high-rise housing estates of the French banlieues – that slight sense of vertigo, of uh-oh, what's going to happen? We were surrounded by people whose blood was very hot, and you had to be very honest if you didn't want to be thrown out."
During the first song, Yamina Nid el Mourid was hit just above the eye by a pellet fired from a gun. "All these Chechen kids had these handguns because they were celebrating the Festival of Resistance," she says. "I was worried the pellet could have blinded me, but at the same time it gave me the strength to win them over, to say, 'Yes! We're here.' By the end of the gig, it was very powerful, because the audience were on our side. The music broke the barriers down. It was beautiful."
• Cinema El Mundo is out on World Village/Harmonia Mundi on 24 September. Lo'Jo play Womad this weekend. Follow the Guardian's daily festival coverage at guardian.co.uk/music