Last Sunday, a world class Algerian music group appeared at the Green Music Center and, as it says on their T-shirts, they "fait un tabac" (brought the house down). This was a rare opportunity to hear a spectacular group and a genre of music that almost vanished. The group is "El Gusto" and the music is Chaabi (pronounced Shah-bee).
Chaabi means "the people" and it refers to a type of popular music that arose in the Casbah of Algiers in the 1920's. It's a blend of Berber, Andalusian, Flamenco and religious chant music that some call the "Casbah Blues" or "North African Jazz". It is a soulful and infectious people's music with violins, mandolins, guitars, piano, accordion and drums and which moves listeners to dance and sway along with it.
The concert was preceeded by a film called "El Gusto" which recounts the story of the musical group of the same name. It's thanks to a young woman, Safinez Bousbia, that the world can again experience Chaabi music and the films tells the story of the rediscovery and reunion of the musicians.
In 2003, when she was 22, Safinez was visiting the Casbah in Algiers. She had been born in Algeria but was living and working as an architect in Ireland at the time. She wandered about the medina in the Casbah and saw a handmade wooden mirror she liked and entered the shop to buy it. There she spied faded black and white photos of musicians. The craftsman, Mohamed Ferkioui, told her about his music, his time at the Municipal Conservatory of Music and in the very first Chaabi music class in the 1950's. He told her how Muslims and Jews made music together and how the war had separated the Chaabi music community and that he hadn't seen his friends for 50 years.
Ms. Bousbia spent 2 years tracking down the musicians all over Algeria and France. She decided to reunite the musicians and document it on film. Although she was sidelined for 2 years by breast cancer, she still managed to reunite the group and in 2007 El Gusto performed in Marseille. Since then they have appeared all over the world, despite being in their 80's and 90's. The film was released in 2012 and has been shown to wild acclaim at film festivals all over the world.
It tells how Chaabi music was the soundtrack to life in the hilltop Casbah of Algiers. (A casbah is a network of old stone fortifications with a labyrinth of shops and housing inside.) You heard the music in the cafés, brothels, clubs and even at the coiffeurs where customers strummed and sang while awaiting their turn. Before the Algerian war, the Jewish and Muslim Chaabi musicians were close friends. As one performer said, Jewish and Muslim weddings were similar, except the Jews had aperatifs.
But then the NLF forbade drugs and alcohol and ordered the Chaabi musicians to stop singing and join the fight. After being offered the choice of the "valise ou cercueil" (suitcase or coffin), over one million Europeans left Algeria, including the Jewish Chaabi musicians. Back in France, they weren't welcomed and were referred to derisively as "pieds-noir" (black feet). The exact origin of this term for those of European ancestry who lived in Algeria at the time of the Independence war is unknown, but it is quite perjorative and has the sense of being dirty. After the war, the buildings in the Casbah began to deteriorate and crumble and the inhabitants were dispersed to other areas in Algiers and no longer located together in a central 'hood.
The Chaabi musicians lost their music, social respect for their cultural role as musicians and their friends.The Jewish musicians also lost their country. Until Safinez Bousbia reunited the old friends and together they reclaimed their music.
If you have a chance to see the film or attend a concert, don't miss it. The clip below features the accordionist Mohamed Ferkioui (in the dark suit) and Robert Castel (in the white suit). Mr. Ferkioui is the mirror maker who first shared his story with Ms. Bousbia and launched the rediscovery of Chaabi. He is 87 years old.
This is a section of the film in French: