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Vieux Farka Toure

Souad Massi

Her voice is like a tearful caress. It’s full of sadness and grief and yet comforting and healing.

Sunday 11th September 2016, 1.00pm

The Merlin Theatre, Sheffield


The first TalkingGig at the Merlin Theatre was an eventful affair! We'd managed to fit a Sunday afternoon gig into Souad's flying visit to the UK ... London on Saturday night, Leeds on Sunday night, then back to France ... so we were on a tight schedule. A phonecall at 11.30am to say they were stuck on a stationary train the other side of Doncaster was the last thing I wanted to hear!  However, the wonderful TalkingGigs crowd took it all in their stride and indeed seemed to enjoy their time chatting and enjoying refreshments in the warm sunshine in the wonderful grounds of the Merlin. She was really moved by the spontaneous applause that greeted her arrival and she engaged with the crowd with a genuine warmth. Maybe the drama of the journey and pressure of time provided an intensity of focus and emotion that made this a truly wondrous and magical experience. I have never heard her sing with more raw emotion and honestly - truly powerful. And she engaged totally in conversation with Andy Morgan whose questions and presentation were perfectly judged. It would have been wonderful to have had an extra 15 minutes - but I have never seen a TalkingGigs crowd more satisfied. 
My thanks to Nicky Crewe for the insightful review below, which can also be found on the impressive Pennyblackmusic website.  And thanks once again to Danielle Mustarde for the photographs.

This was a rare opportunity to see Souad Massi, the Algerian singer who came to prominence when she appeared at the 'Femmes d ‘Algerie Festival' in France in 1999. Accompanied on vocals and percussion by the wonderful Rabah Khalfa, she performed songs from her back catalogue and her current project in the intimate surroundings of the lovely Merlin Theatre, now renovated and restored. The format of Talking Gigs involves a mix of interview and performance from the artists involved. It’s a perfect way to find out more about them, their culture and their music. 

Souad was interviewed by Andy Morgan, former manager of Tinariwen. He moves effortlessly from French to English, translating questions and answers. He makes it looks so easy, but a good deal of preparation and background knowledge underlies the process. He had words of poems to hand, and projected images of Algiers, portraits of poets, examples of calligraphy, and even a photo of Souad in her heavy metal band days as a member of Atakor, onto a screen at the back of the stage. 

The choice of songs took Souad from her earliest songwriting at the age of sixteen or seventeen, when she was questioning the world and her place in it. Another song was inspired by her discovery of her grandfather’s house and her mother’s Berber heritage in the Kabylia region of Algeria. We learnt that during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s her family went back to live in the rural mountainous region her mother came from. Her grandfather had been an absent presence, like many Berber men he had gone to work in France. Souad had an insight into her mother’s life and also into the racism towards Berbers in Arab Algeria. Souad’s own father was a hydro engineer and her mother was a great fan of music, with dreams to become a ballet dancer and had a joyous outlook on life. Souad was brought up with the music of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel and more unexpectedly, James Brown. Her mother and grandmother were also incredibly supportive and encouraging of her ambitions and rebellious attitude, expressed through her early political music. She would travel on the bus from Kabyle to Algiers for band rehearsals, through roadblocks set up by both the military and the jihadists. She didn’t see the danger or feel afraid thanks to the encouragement of her mother. These were brutal times. The lyrics of one of her first songs can translate as ‘I dream, sometimes I believe the dream, sometimes I don’t.’ 

Her career was helped by Algeria’s equivalent of John Peel, the radio producer and journalist Aziz Smati, who was shot and is confined to a wheelchair for his political views and his support of Bled music. He took her to the festival in France that launched her international career.

Her grandmother was from a storytelling tradition, a source of wisdom and proverbs. Souad sang a song based on one of these proverbs which she shared with us. When she asked her grandmother why life was so hard nowadays, she was told that once upon a time Good and Evil were equal and even friends but Evil was craftier than Good and offered to help by carrying Good on his shoulders, leading the way. That’s why the world seems harder than it should be. 

Souad Massi has used poems and lyrics from Arabic poets across the centuries, and her latest project takes inspiration from the sixth century through until the present day. The songs are illustrated with beautiful contemporary calligraphic images. Her message and her aim is to bring awareness and understanding of the Islamic culture and wisdom of the past into the present day. She is looking back to medieval Spain and the practice of discussion and cooperation in a society that included Christians, Jews and Moors, living side by side. This is the message behind her new album, El Mutakallimun (Master of the Word). She is championing not only her North African heritage and identity, but the role that Islamic and Arabic wisdom and scientific discoveries have played in the development of our understanding and our world today. Centuries of Sufi wisdom, poetry, Berber folklore, and contemporary songwriting come together in the rare talent of this young Algerian woman. 

It's such a simple yet powerful message. 

She had a difficult journey from London, on a delayed train. She arrived late at the Merlin, to rapturous applause from the crowd waiting for her in the sunny garden outside the theatre. Calm and unruffled, she was soon on stage, sharing her songs, her story and her thoughts. 

Her voice is like a tearful caress. It’s full of sadness and grief and yet comforting and healing. There’s a sob in it that reaches straight to your heart. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can understand the words when she sings in Arabic because the feeling is universal. My friend described first listening to one of her songs as like hearing your mother sing to you as a baby. 

In spite of her late arrival, in spite of the afternoon and the performance being cut short by her onward journey to Leeds, we all understood what Andy Morgan was saying when he talked about being transported by the experience of seeing and listening to her. We were taken to a place where recognition and appreciation of the things we have in common with Arabic culture is acknowledged, a place where the beauty of poetry and the pleasure of song is celebrated and a place where love prevails. 

No-one mentioned the date. We are so used to expressing it in the American way as 9/11. 

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