The Beat’s Alive: Helen Falls In Love In Zanzibar

Helen - "Zanzibar." The questionable yet artful cover of the Spanish release of the 12-inch.
Helen – “Zanzibar.” The questionable yet artful cover of the Spanish release of the 12-inch. Photo from Discogs.

There’s something about “Zanzibar” that makes it a great soundtrack for those days when you have no concept of time.

The beat’s not just alive on Helen’s 1985 Italo Disco classic, it’s hypnotic. The mid-tempo polyrhythms percolate and strut, and syncopate and bubble up, for six minutes in some sort of heaven. The synthesizers, the pipes, and the grungy clavinet heat up the dreamscape, shining their narcotic light.

By the time Daniela Paratici’s airy vocals kick in, there’s nothing much left to do but to get lost in it all. You’ve fallen in love with “Zanzibar.” It’s faux-exotica at its best. When I hear it, I want to bend space and time to go to The Boot 30 years ago — or anywhere of note that had the decency to play this song at the time.

Thing is, for all its hypnotic quality, it’s also a raw and sexy number. Helen sings about losing herself in a place far away from the safety of the Italian peninsula. It’s a place where it’s easy to fall in love.

An image taken from the Italian release of "Zanzibar."
The Italian release of “Zanzibar.” Taken from Discogs.

Zanzibar is a timeless, ancient island off the coast of Tanzania (and comprises half of the portmanteau that forms that nation’s name). In 1985, it was not even 20 years away from being a long-time protectorate of the United Kingdom, and a once-colony of Portugal, lauded for its white, sandy beaches and its historic Stone Town. It is still a major tourist attraction, although it has run into problems with increasing tension from religious fundamentalists.

But Helen’s song isn’t about any of that: It doesn’t care about history. All that matters is that Helen has found love in Zanzibar. She’s lost her mind in Zanzibar. She’s having a hell of a time, riding a rollercoaster of emotions in the hot sun. A deep and abiding connection with history isn’t there, at least explicitly.

It’s just as well. After all, when you fall in love are you thinking about all the points on humanity’s timeline? Some might, I guess, but I can’t imagine it’s at the vanguard of your typical romance.

Side 2 of the “Zanzibar” 12-inch is the Afro Mix, which strips out Helen’s vocals and adds even more rhythm. The original mix certainly owes a lot to the rhythms developed in Africa, but the remix adds in a flurry of djembes and seemingly other percussion to further connect the song with the continent it honors.

The song was released in 1985 in Italy and some other Western European countries by Discomagic Records, and in a 2010 digital reissue by ZYX Records, which bought Discomagic in the 90s when the label was on its last limb, according to Discogs. Phonica Records also reissued it last year on vinyl, but it’s out of stock.

The original version was written by keyboardist Ennio Ronchelli and guitarist/bassist Roberto Barocelli. DJ Daniele Losi and Roberto Lodola, along with Nigerian percussionist George Aghedo, added to the “Afro Mix,” according to Phonica.

(Editor’s Note: The Beat’s Alive is my occasional column focusing on everything associated with the Italo Disco genre, from the artists and their music, to the culture and history that created them, and anything else that comes up. Because I’m so damn predictable, I got the column’s name from a Glass Candy song. Viva Italians!)

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