TalkingGigs is delighted to present Souad Massi: now a major star on the international music scene – but with a fascinating, turbulent and dangerous back story of being a female musician in Algeria in the 1990s. She will be in conversation with our own Andy Morgan (author, journalist and ex-manager of Tinariwen) but her near-perfect English will allow Andy to put his translation skills on hold! Souad is only doing a couple of gigs on this flying visit to the UK, so we are delighted to have secured this unique afternoon gig before her full acoustic gig in Leeds in the evening – catch her at both to understand the artist and hear a full set of her astonishing music.
Souad Massi was born in 1972 in Bab El Oued, the old working-class neighbourhood of Algiers that has nursed more than one revolution. She grew up in the suburb of St Eugene, amidst gardens that smelled of honeysuckle. Her father was a quiet man, who worked for the national water company and loved chaabi, the traditional pop of old Algeria. Her mother came from Kabylia, the mountainous Berber region of northern Algeria; her mother’s music was Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
Souad’s uncle - everyone called him ‘Hugo’ - played jazz on his ‘flamenco’ guitar. Her brothers all played music too, but when she started to learn how to play herself, she found it hard. “Yeah, in any case, music is a boy’s thing,” her brother would declare, “like cars…” But then he enrolled Souad in music classes at the École des Beaux Arts in Algiers, without even telling her. “I was scared to be a woman because the status of women in Algeria frightened me,”Souad says. She cropped her hair and took to wearing boyish clothes and playing football. People would throw insults and spit in her direction, especially when she was carrying her guitar case.
After early flirtations with flamenco and hard rock bands Souad eventually released a six-track cassette called Souad. She hardly earned a cent, but became quite famous, which wasn’t very welcome. Being a famous female musician in mid-1990s Algeria was very risky. Musicians, theatre directors, movie people, journalists and intellectuals were being murdered every day.
She gave up music for a while – touring in Algeria was too dangerous, so earning a living from music seemed like a crazy dream. Then in 1998, she was invited to take part in a festival in Paris called Femmes d’Algerie. She arrived in February 1999. Snow lay on the ground. She had no intention of staying.
Her debut album Raoui was released in 2001. It wasn’t rai music, it wasn’t Maghrebi rap - it was arabo-andalusian music. Souad was something new: a modern north African singer-songwriter who sang gentle pared down ballads of great simplicity and emotional intensity, in Arabic. She owed more to Leonard Cohen than Cheb Khaled and the album won several major awards. In 2003, she released her second album Deb and headlined at L’Olympia in Paris.
After years of touring the world, she returned to Algeria in 2003 and found the atmosphere in the country much improved under the new regime of Presient Abdelaziz Bouteflika. She released her third album MeskElil (meaning ‘honeysuckle’) in 2005 and it was another five years before arrival of her fourth studio album Ô Houria (‘Freedom’).
One sleepless night, four years ago, at four in the morning, Souad happened to watch a documentary on TV about Cordoba and the wonders of medieval Spain. “I was ashamed,” she says, “I asked myself ‘How come I’ve been all around the world but I’ve never been there. How come nobody ever talk about all those men of learning…Avicenna, Ibn Arabi. Why do people talk about little Arab hoodlums who’ve stolen something or other, but never talk about these great wise men?’”
This epiphany gave Souad a new mission and renewed energy, plunging herself into the study of Arabic philosophy and poetry. Her 2015 album El Mutakallimoun pays homage to the “scholars of debate” through reworkings of a set of Arabic poems which stretch back to the sixth century and provides a new perception of the Arabic history and a culture of openness, intellect and tolerance whichcontrasts sharply with many current portrayals of the Arab world.
Souad is the perfect artist for a TalkingGig: a major international star with a massively impressive recording and performing career but also with a fascinating personal back-story and the ability to offer insights into a wide range of musical and cultural developments. This is a unique opportunity to learn more about the artist behind such a catalogue of brilliant music, hear some of her songs and ask the question that has always intrigued you!
Vieux Farka Toure
Sunday 11th September 2016, 1.00pm
The Merlin Theatre, Sheffield
The struggles and successes of the internationally acclaimed Algerian musician, singer, poet, ...
Click below to hear Souad play "Nekrah El Qalb Ely Yhbak" on the Soula Show