I first encountered Rajna’s heady mix of ethnic instruments, heavenly operatic vocals from Jeanne Lefebvre, and moody synth atmospheres on last year’s Seireenia compilation from Projekt. Ishati is their debut, released in 1999 in France, but available for the first time in the U.S. here, together with two tracks not on the original album.
Just reading a list of some of the instruments Rajna uses should clue you in to the fact that they’re something special. Santoor, yang T’chin, hammer dulcimer, shakers, Tibetan cymbals, gong, singing bowls, damaru, wind chimes, frame-drum, arghul, flutes, bells, and more all appear on one track or another. But Rajna’s most powerful instrument is unquestionably Jeanne’s classically trained voice, low and commanding here, floating high and breathy there, whispering mysteriously elsewhere. Dead Can Dance is one reference point, but where DCD tended to find their inspiration in early Western musics, Rajna looks eastward, to India, Tibet, and Nepal. With their darkly sacred feel, they also remind me of fellow French darkwave band Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus (RAIJ–weird name, I know, but if you’re ever lucky enough to find one of their albums, do yourself a favor and buy it).
But really, Rajna is in an incredibly original and deeply moving class all their own. I like so many of their tracks, it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight here. Still, “Yak” is perhaps one of the finest on Ishati. It begins with rolling dulcimer, then continues with Jeanne’s voice intoning devotions for the end of the world. Quiet plucked-string touches (I think from the yang T’chin) follow. Heavier drums, cymbals, and other percussion come in at the end like waves crashing into the shore, drowning out the voice of the siren sorrowing at the sea’s edge, while rushing gray clouds scud by overhead and occasional sun-rays lance through, spotlighting the shining cinder sands feathered with ashes falling from the heavens. “Sanctuary,” too, takes my breath away, building from a low synthscape with drums to Jeanne’s ethereal voice layered high over the synth drones, as if to represent the spirit’s higher aspirations rising as deeper motives coil unseen beneath. Jangling santoor takes the melody while shakers sound like shell-beaded anklets of shuffling dancers circling a figure wrapped in a thick robe, arms holding itself, staring eyeless into the Void around and within.
Projekt, P.O. Box 9140, Long Island City, NY, 11103; http://www.projekt.com