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'It is natural for an artist to express what affects him': Algerian singer Souad Massi in Cairo

Mixing genres, eras, and transcending time: celebrated Algerian singer Souad Massi talks to Ahram Online prior to her concert held at The Marquee in Cairo

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 22 May 2016
Soad Massi
Souad Massi live at The Marquee in Cairo (Photo: Rawan Ezzat)
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Ma ereft tariq el shams, w el ward fi al rabee3 dbally, Kol dar tebanly habs, el-tayr li Ba3at welaly. (I didn't know the way to the sun, And the flowers wilted in spring, I find prison in every home, The bird I've sent returned back to me.) Thus, with the softly desolate lyrics of Hayati, Algerian singer Soad Massi opened her concert at Cairo’s The Marquee on Thursday, 19 May.

The artist’s way

Massi told her audience she felt the song was appropriate for hard times, before performing it in honour of the lives lost in the recent crash of an EgyptAir flight, which occurred the morning of her concert, expressing her sorrow and offering her condolences to the victim’s families.

The gesture reiterated the singer’s sensitive and profound approach to her music.

“As an artist I’m interacting with the public sphere, and am greatly affected by my surroundings and the events we are living through,” Massi told Ahram Online in interview before the concert.

Massi’s subject matter has evolved over the years, since her first album, Raoui, 15 years ago.

“As one grows, one learns new things and one's views on life change. When I was younger I was more inspired by the personal stories I was living and the people that affected me, and wrote personal songs on those subjects.”

The introspective teenager who wrote Raoui when she was 17 has seemingly shifted her focus gradually, looking outward rather than within. It is as if her sense of self has expanded to embrace a wider collective identity of Arabs.

Speaking volumes

Her latest album, Al-Mutakallimun (Masters of The Word), released in 2015, crafts songs from a set of 10 Arabic poems, dating between 6th century classics to modern works of poetry by renowned Arab wordsmiths.

These poems channel her response to the world around her, and they pulse with an energy as relevant today as centuries ago, with calls for freedom and an anger against tyrants suited for political unrest across the current Arab region.

As The Guardian noted upon reviewing her album last year, it provides a reminder of the creativity and tolerance of earlier Muslim civilisations, along with echoes of the idealism and anger that fuelled the Arab Spring.

It is almost too easy to classify her as a political artist, yet the singer prefers to identify with the bigger frame of humanism, rather than being placed in the box of being political.

“I wouldn’t say that I am political. When someone talks about things we are living through you could say he becomes political, but it is just natural and necessary for an artist to write about and express what affects him or her,” Massi tells Ahram Online.

Through Al-Mutakallimun, Massi found a chance to talk about the accomplished Arab poets she admires.

“I write my songs, and try to write poetry, but I have the utmost admiration and respect for poets such as Ahmed Mattar, and Abu Qassem El-Shaby and Zohair Ibn Abi Salma. We studied these works in school, and I was always very moved by them,” she says.

“In Europe, where I am living, there’s a lot of people, especially youth, who don’t know much about their history, especially the language. So I wanted to give them a small gift, and I made the album with that in mind.”

soad Massi
Souad Massi live at The Marquee (Photo: Rawan Ezzat)

As such, reworking classical poems was as much her personal homage to the poets and a celebration of Arabic poetry as it was a reflective anthem of the times.

‘Ala ayouha el-zalem el-mostabed, habib el-zalaam adou al-hayah’ (To the unjust tyrant, lover of darkness and enemy of life)

These verses from her song Hadari bring to life the lyrics of 12th century Tunisian poet Abu El-Qasim El-Shabbi, who is best known for writing the final two verses of the current Tunisian national anthem that was originally penned by the Egyptian poet Mustafa Sadik El-Rafii.

“Till this day the words are still relevant. There are still a lot of tyrants, whether as rulers or a country attacking another. Sadly it matches what we are living now.”

Though the lyrics lend themselves seamlessly to today’s context, applying them to a different medium was a challenge Massi braved while attempting to write music for the poems.

“Can I write music to the words of Zuhayr Ibn Abi Sulma or Qais Ibn Mulawwah? It was great responsibility, and one is very humbled by these great people. So I tried to very humbly honour them in my own way, and it was difficult but I enjoyed the challenge,” she says.

Backstage

Al-Mutakallimun came out five years after Massi’s previous album, O Houria.

“I need time to write music. Some artists can work on an album for just three months, I can’t do that, so I take my time. When I’m not recording or writing I’m touring. I’m also a mother so I take care of my family and my home.”

Revisiting Arabic classics started after Massi collaborated with Eric Fernandez and the band Choeur de Cordoue (Cordoba Choirs), reworking poetry and music from the 9th and 10th century from the ancient Spanish city.

The goal of this ambitious six-year project was to honour Cordoba on stage, through, music, poetry, song and dance, and included many collaborations, as Massi worked with gypsies from Spain and France, a flamenco dancer from Malaga, and Algerian musician Rabah Khalfah.

“Cordoba had a very rich culture around the 10th century. They worked together, living as Muslims and Christians, scientists, researchers, artists. People from all fields would commune and coexist despite their differences, to develop the sciences and culture,” she says.

“Cordoba in the Middle Ages was flourishing. So why can’t we reach that stage again? Why were they smarter than us now; why can’t we work together as they did, and invest in culture and science?”

With Cordoba Choirs Massi’s music adopted a Spanish and Andalusian flavour.

At The Marquee, Massi performed an eclectic playlist with songs from all her albums, some upbeat with jazz and rock tunes, others softer-spoken folk tunes, all distinctly her own with silky modulated vocals.

“I don’t think of trying to be new when I am working. I compose in a spontaneous way. I try not to drift away from my character but I also like to learn and explore different music,” she says.

“I learnt a lot from working with different European and African musicians. Jazz sounds or African music, and even classical music. I’m working with one in France. All these opportunities allow for an artist to grow and develop.”

Cultured connections

With a wide and solid fan base in Egypt, Massi’s collaborations led her to work with Egyptian band Cairokee, with the song Ana Andy Amal.

“I like meeting with new artists. Last time I visited I discovered Wust El-Balad band and really liked their work, as well as that of Mohamed Mounir,” she says.

On future collaborations with Egyptian musicians, Massi says she likes things to work spontaneously. “If there comes a chance for collaboration then why not, I would be very happy.”

Massi also worked with Egyptian actor Khaled Abu El-Naga, her co-star in the Palestinian film Eyes of a Thief, whom she says helped her a lot in her debut role.

“With this film I wished to contribute something for the Palestinians. It was another challenging but beautiful experience, as my first time to act. On stage I am natural and being myself, so cinema was a different challenge for me,” she says.

Massi fondly recalls her second time performing in Egypt, at the Citadel in 2007.

“There were more than 9,000 people in the audience. It was huge for me, and really wonderful, as I didn’t expect that volume of audience. They were singing along, and I discovered how they love the songs,” she says.

In fact, performing in the Arab world is always a special experience for Paris-based singer.

“There is a very real connection. People understand the lyrics, even if it’s a different dialect, and we also connect on experiences we are going through. A girl in Algeria is having the same problems as an Egyptian girl or a Tunisian or Jordanian. We share a collective culture.”

Currently Massi is working on her new album, still in the stage of writing, not yet composing.

“I don’t know yet in what musical direction it is going, but it will also be Souad Massi,” she says with a warm and endearing smile.

Souad Massi in Cairo - 'Arab audiences really engage with my lyrics'

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