Souad Massi hit trouble on her way to paradise. She was travelling to Tahiti with her loyal band of musicians but the trip involved a transit through LAX. The reception at US immigration was schizoid. French passports? No problemo…welcome to the free world and have a nice day. Algerian and Moroccan passports? Step this way. Wait here. Do you like Americans? Have you come here to kill our President? What do you think of the war in Iraq? “Their questions were just absurd!,” Souad remembers with good humor. “At first I just felt like laughing. But I’m telling you, you should never muck about with those people. They don’t laugh. I used to say to my mother, “Why was I born a woman…women have so may problems!” Then, “Why was I born an Arab…as an Arab I suffer!” and lastly, “Why was I born an Algerian?…when as an Algerian I’m persecuted!”
Arab. Algerian. Berber. Woman. Muslim. Poet. Musician. That’s quite a well-dosed cocktail for any fragile sensibility. But the darkly delicate beauty of those Mediterranean features and the tender fire of her music mask a vein of solid steel that underpins Souad Massi’s character. It’s that deep unshakeable metal that has allowed Souad to navigate the terrors of youth, adolescence and early adulthood: a stern disapproving father with no visible appetite for music; going out after curfew in 1990s Algiers with a tomboy haircut and a big guitar case; being abused and spat at by total strangers for simply being a female musician; overcoming almost pathological shyness to perform in front of audiences; touring with Algeria’s first and foremost hard rock outfit Atakor during the darkest days of civil war; receiving death threats; flying to France in February 1999 to perform at the Femmes d’Algerie Festival in Paris.
“It’s not easy being a female musician because you have to fight on two fronts all the time,” Souad explains. “First there’s the battle to be an artist, which has to be won honestly. And I also had to succeed as a woman in a country like Algeria, which isn’t easy.” But with the release of that proverbially difficult third album ‘Mesk Elil’, it seems that Souad Massi has won at least some of her battles. Her first album ‘Raoui’ went gold in France. Her second ‘Deb’ was hailed on both sides of the Channel and the Atlantic. She has fulfilled the dreams of travel and adventure that she used to have as a young girl sitting for hours in her small bare room in suburbs of Algiers staring at a large wallmap of the world and concocting film scripts in her mind involving all the strange exoticly places across the globe. Above all, she has managed to earn a living as a professional musician, a goal that seemed like the stuff of pure fantasy back in the early 1990s when she started to perform publicly.
There are those who say that Souad Massi is the most famous and successful female Arabic singer alive today. Perhaps Fairouz and Warda would contest that title, but Massi’s success is undeniable. From her own point of view however, the concept remains relative. “What is success?” she parries. “I don’t have a million in the bank. I don’t own an island in the Carribean, or a football team. I suppose success for me is being able to perform, travel and meet loads of people. But once you come off the stage, you’re still alone.”
You’re still alone. A strange claim from the mouth of one who seems so solidly surrounded by family, friends, musicians and devoted fans. But the loneliness that Souad Massi often alludes to in interviews doesn’t sound like some jarring note that marrs the sweet symphony of her success, but rather as the cornerstone of her art. Her songs exude that perspective of the lonesome solitary voice, trying to make sense of conflict, hatred, bitterness, loss and endless nostalgia, posing more and more questions rather than providing any easy answers.
It’s a perspective that gives a deeper meaning to the nostalgia that imbues ‘Mesk Elil’, the title track of her latest album, which means ‘Honeysuckle’ in Arabic. “In ‘Mesk Elil’ I’m talking a lot about childhood, about the streets I miss, the working class neighbourhoods and all of that. Honeysuckle is the plant you find a lot around the Mediterranean coast. Almost all the houses in Algiers have it. Each time I come across that plant in the south of France, Spain or Tunisia it reminds me of home, especially my neighbourhood, because I lived in the suburbs where there are plenty of gardens.” Souad’s all pervasive nostalgia for her homeland is nothing surprising. In France there’s a whole industry that is based entirely on nostalgia for the ‘bled’, the old country beyond the Mediterranean sea. Books, films, songs, TV documentaries feed that longing for Algeria and its ravaged beauty, both amongst the European pied noir population who were forced into exile after independence, and more recent waves of North African immigrants.
In Souad’s case however this nostalgia is complicated by the fact that she makes no bones about the merciless realities of modern day Algeria that finally made her mind up to stay in France and settle; the endless conflict, the scourge of religious extremism, the corruption, the statutory repression of women, the lack of intellectual and artistic freedom and the difficulties of surviving as a musician. Nevertheless she also acknowledges that the situation in Algeria has improved under President Bouteflika. “I went back in 2003, and I really had to prepare myself mentally to see my home and meet my family again,” she explains. “I was apprehensive…not scared…but sad for Algeria. In the end, I was very happy to go back. I saw that there had been an evolution and things had got better. There’s still loads to do, especially in terms of people’s attitudes, but the situation is improving.” Souad also helped to build a new house for her mother after the old family home was irreparably damaged by the devastating earthquake that hit the Algerian coast on May 21st, 2003. She considers this to be the proudest achievement of her life so far.
“I was always very solitary,” she recalls. “For me, the night was an important time. If you wanted to cry noone could see you. I lived in a large family and you during the day everybody could see what you were doing. But at night I spent hours looking at the stars, especially in summer. I found it amazingly beautiful.”
Of course, that solitary nature was never going to be cured by a simple change of continent. It’s inherent in Souad’s character. It has impelled her to plough her own furrow, to seek exile and tread her own way, even in musical terms. Souad has invented a unique style, pieced together from flamenco, American folk music, country and western, the popular chaabi music of Algiers, classical Arabic and western music, rock, bossa nova and Berber roots. She asked no one’s blessing or permission to bring it into existence. She just brewed it up from ingredients captured from the radio, from the record collections of older Algerian friends, from movie soundtracks and lessons at the music academy. Souad displays a saintly patience when yet another journalist asks her to explain for the zillionth time why she doesn’t play rai music. It’s like asking Joni Mitchell to explain why she never played Tamla Motown. Same country. Different styles. Simple. But you only need the most basic understanding of the musical landscape of Algeria to appreciate what a remarkable invention the Souad Massi style is. Like Rachid Taha, she belongs to no pigeonhole or category. She stands alone.
That loneliness is both a blessing and a curse. Even in the superficial atmosphere of a press interview Souad Massi can be painfully honest about her inner turmoils. “I’m not really a happy person,” she asserts, guilelessly. “I have moments of happiness like everyone. But I’m basically melancholy. Even when I lived with my family, I felt like a stranger in a way. I didn’t have an easy childhood or adolescence. I had a lot of family problems. Then there was the civil war in Algeria. All of that leaves marks you see. Sometimes they disappear, sometimes they come back. But it’s been the same since I was young. But perhaps I also nurture it and, unconsciously. Perhaps I like it like that.” With this gloomy confession Souad bursts out laughing. In her sphere, inner melancholy is no excuse for dispensing with outer joie de vivre.
With the well nigh simultaneous birth of her first daughter Inji, which means ‘Emerald’ in Persian, and her third album ‘Mesk Elil’, Souad Massi seems to have dropped her anchor in a mellow haven for the time being at least. The album has its moments of brooding, which is also when the music is at its most powerful, such as on the song ‘Dar Dgedi’, (‘My Grandfather’s House’) a very personal exploration of her roots in the mountainous heartlands of Kabylia, and the Berber culture of her forebears. But the general mood is gentle, maternal, bathed in bossa rhythms and lush string arrangements that give the nod to the classical music, both western and Arabic, that Souad studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Algiers when she was a teenager. The musical approach is loose, tender and generous. “I tended towards simplicity, towards a natural sound,” explains Souad. “I was pregnant when we recorded it so I had a very fine sense of hearing and I didn’t want to use any unnatural effects. Pregnancy enhaces the senses. It’s true. I know that all the women out these will believe me and the men will doubt me, but it really is true. So I just went for l’essentiel.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 2009
First published in Songlines – 2009