French Invasion

Naïm Amor finds inspiration in Tucson.

For almost five years, the Amor Belhom Duo was one of Tucson's most interesting musical acts, playing a groovy, atmospheric blend of rock and soundtrack music that members Naïm Amor and Thomas Belhom dubbed "avant-French pop."

The pair of Paris-bred musicians, who relocated to Tucson in November 1997, recorded four albums, collaborated with local acts such as Giant Sand and Calexico, and toured with American indie-rock groups as well as French pop artists.

But after a concert tour this past spring of their native country, opening for the French singer Miossec, percussionist-accordionist Belhom decided he needed a break and remained in France.

Guitarist, singer and violinist Amor returned to Tucson, deciding to carry on as a solo act. Which made perfect sense since Amor had just released his first solo CD, a seven-song disc of instrumentals titled Soundtracks, on the Portland, Ore., independent label FILMguerrero.

Soundtracks was recorded and produced in the Old Pueblo during 2001. Except for a couple of featured guests, including Joey Burns of Calexico, Amor plays all the instruments. A new, full-length version of the recording is expected later this year.

Amor continues to compose songs with vocals, as well. His usual lyricist is his longtime partner, Marianne Dissard, a filmmaker who has made such documentaries as the Giant Sand short Drunken Bees and Low y Cool, an hour-long look at low-rider bicycles in Tucson.

Performing without Belhom presents new challenges, but they're the kind that help you grow, said Amor over a longneck Bud last Sunday evening in the Tap Room at the venerable Hotel Congress.

Playing solo, "You feel naked and you're embarrassed. But then you pass certain point where you're still naked and not embarrassed. It's like 'Wow' and you're free to do whatever you want."

That freeing experience is similar to the new challenges Amor and Belhom faced as a duo after playing for years in various Parisian groups. They played everything from punk to pop, from Cajun to musique concrète, and were even members for several years of the political theater-dance-music collective Generation Chaos.

"But we found that as just a duo, you had to fill up the space with imagination. If you're missing a leg, you have to create another means to walk and eventually to run," Amor said.

Amor isn't playing completely alone lately, though.

For a while, he was collaborating with drummer and vibes player Jimmy Carr, formerly of Crawdaddy-O. When Amor embarks on a West Coast tour--Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland, Olympia, Seattle--during September, he'll be accompanied by cellist Nathan Sabatino, who also runs the downtown recording space Loveland Studio.

But before heading out onto the road, Amor is coordinating this Sunday's "French-a-Thon," at which local acts will cover the songs of French artists. It's the second such event; the first was held in March 1999 at the Mat Bevel Institute.

On the bill will be Tucson artists such as Al Perry, Tom Walbank, Al Foul, Serge (of the duo Bebe and Serge) and Amor, of course. At press time, he still was trying to coerce Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) and the bands Coin and Red Switch to each have a go at playing Gallic music at the gig.

Sunday nights at Club Congress, by the way, are usually Amor's turf. As the regular DJ, he creates an eclectic speakeasy vibe, playing stuff by Martin Denny, Henry Mancini, The Notwist, Burt Bacharach, the Style Council, Chet Atkins, The Who, Joe Jackson, local bands--basically, whatever strikes his fancy.

But Amor's giving up his place behind the turntables during the "French-a-Thon." In his place, a fellow DJ will spin French tunes and French-inspired music, he said.

Amor said he has can't be too strict when planning with other acts the French music they want to cover. "I have to be pretty indulgent with that because it's hard for someone who doesn't speak French to cover French songs. I tell them that the purpose is not to imitate something. If you make your own version of a song, it may be more interesting."

Among the artists whose music will be represented are Serge Gainsbourg, Manu Chau, Yves Montand and Lio, Amor noted. "But who knows what we will hear when the night comes?"

The day before the interview, Amor had returned from 10 days in New York City, scouting the music scene, hanging out and playing gigs. He and Dissard plan to move there late this year or early next.

Not that Amor doesn't love his adopted home in the Old Pueblo.

"It's a great place to experiment, have time for yourself and to try new things. There's not too many distractions in Tucson, and you have the space and the time to think. And, as you know, time and space are tied together."

He enjoys the interplay and feeling of community among the other musicians in town. "It's really important that the musicians and the crowd here are interested in what is produced here."

Amor also knows well the benefits of Tucson's cost of living, which is significantly lower than in major metropolitan areas. "If you only have a little money, you can still get a big house to live in."

A few minutes later, as Amor climbed behind the wheel of a long, weathered Cadillac, he chuckled, "Another thing about Tucson--it's the only place in the world I can drive a luxury car like this."

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