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Vieux Farka Toure

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Iness Mezel & Nora Abdoun Berber Duo

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Songs to welcome spring, to welcome the god of rain, to remember the spirit of a friend who had passed

Thursday  13th April, Doors 7.00pm 

The Drama Studio, University of Sheffield

(In collaboration with University of Sheffield)

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We were treated to an exceptional performance by Berber Duo on the 13th April. The Drama Studio provided a great venue and setting for a very focussed and intense discussion about an ancient culture under threat in North Africa, complemented by the energy and joy of the music sung by Iness Mezel and accompanied on percussion by Nora Abdoun. Their stay at our home proved as interesting as it was lovely to host them. It was all the more fascinating to have an extended opportunity to hear in more detail about them and their Amazigh heritage – enough for another gig for sure. 

 

My thanks as always to the TG volunteers, Nick Potter of University Concerts , Don Murray for pictures and Nicky Crewe for the gig review. 

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All photos by Don Murray

Songs to welcome spring, to welcome the god of rain, to remember the spirit of a friend who had passed - Review by Nicky Crew

 

Berber Duo are Iness Mezel and Nora Abdoun. Their purpose and passion is to share the Amazigh identity and culture through the message of their music and the Tamazight language.

The first half interview, with Talking Gigs’ Alasdair Dempster, gave Iness and Nora time to discuss their Berber/Amazigh culture. We learnt about the role of women to educate and transmit the culture through storytelling and song. Some women choose not to marry in order to focus on this role, a huge commitment. We also learnt about the links between this traditional culture and political activism.

Berber and Amazigh are interchangeable terms and while Berber is the description we are familiar with, it is associated with the term Barbarian and historical Greco- Roman invasions.

It is a pre-Islamic culture that spreads across territorial boundaries in North Africa and as far south as Mali. Amazigh animistic beliefs celebrate nature and a range of gods and goddesses.

We learnt about the role of women in the resistance to French colonialism in the 1830s and the importance of the mountainous Kabyle region of Algeria which held out against the French until 1860.

Iness told us that older women have both power and respect as they hold the cultural life of the tribe together with their understanding of magic, healing and nature. There was an interesting discussion about women’s role and recognition in 19th century: resistance being based on competence not gender.

Currently Berber activists are in jail in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. It’s a threatened culture. Twentieth century decisions to throw off French colonialism and identify as Islamic countries have marginalised the Berbers. Under the military regime in Algeria, in particular, there is an expectation that everyone should be a practising Moslem.

In the intimate space of the University of Sheffield Drama Studio, the stage setting included a range of traditional percussion instruments and decorative cloths, including the Berber flag. Designed by a Kabyle man in the 1970s, its colours celebrate the blue of the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the green of the mountains and the yellow of the desert. A central blood red letter ⵣ in the Amazigh alphabet, corresponds to Z in the Latin alphabet is used to signify "Amazigh" identity hence it is very emblematic for all the Imazighen all the more so as it means freedom for them. It can be politically provocative to display the flag nowadays.

 

With human rights issues featuring in the interview, we were told that Amazigh music is accepted as long as it isn’t political.

During the interview Iness and Nora used music to expand their discussions. Percussion instruments included chimes, bean shells, special drums (bendir), brushes and sticks. Nora also used Moroccan brass castanets (qraqeb) which are usually used by men in gnawa trance music. It is unusual to hear a vocalist being accompanied by percussion but the effect was spell binding. Nora and Iness are lifelong friends and create a very special musical energy together.

Tapping into the reverence for nature in Amazigh culture we were treated to songs celebrating water and waves, as a reminder of climate change issues.

Such a rich and informative interview was a reminder of the power of the Talking Gigs approach to music.

For the second half of the concert Iness and Nora dedicated the music to activists who in spite of being peaceful and non violent were now in jail.

The dynamics of their songs, and the traditional movements that accompanied them created a dramatic scene that was both soft and strong in turn. Iness's facial decorations based on traditional Berber tattoos, her silver jewellery and the stage set decorations transported us to another world. As an audience we were welcomed into the tribe as part of a village gathering with the first song. Later in the set we were encouraged to play our part with clapping and call and response singing.

Songs to welcome spring, to welcome the god of rain, to remember the spirit of a friend who had passed, these all had universal appeal and were delightful to listen to. There was strength and subtlety in this truly spellbinding and memorable performance.

 

In Alasdair’s stage introduction to the Berber Duo he made a link between his own Scottish heritage and the role of the Gaelic language in cultural identity. He also mistakenly called them the Berber Trio. Be careful what you wish for! Iness and Nora had spotted a bodhran at his house and persuaded him to play alongside them on stage for the last song. Could this be the start of something new in Talking Gigs?

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