The long-awaited songstress poet Souad Massi is a favourite in Egypt, having played her first show in Cairo back in 2007 to rave reviews. She now returns to perform in Alexandria on 24 April and Cairo on 26 April.
Much of her previous success in Egypt has to do with both her version of music, which eloquently fuses lots from Arabic classical to reggae and everything in between, and her unique character, an indie-folk poet whose words are more inspiring than the usual boring blend of habiby and habibty of contemporary Arabic music.
A true wordsmith, Massi developed her unique blend of mostly sombrechords and compelling lines as a result of her own personal struggles along the journey of becoming. Born in 1972, in the Bab El-Oued district of Algiers, Massi’s introduction to music was through the support of her brother and mother. In the conservative Algeria of the 80s and 90s, a guitar-slinging, jeans-wearing female on her way to rehearsals with a rock band only invited public criticism and harassment, and, yet, Massi persevered. Her first band was the female group, Les Trianas d'Alger, which she quickly left to join Algeria’s most prominent, and then, only hard rock band, Atakor.
Influenced by Western rock and politically-inspired, Atakor, created waves in Algeria. Performing with the group for seven years, Massi shot to local fame after the release of the band’s first album and two music videos. However, the start of the 1992 Algerian civil war and the political lyrics of the album put Massi on the radar and she was forced to disguise herself as a boy, cutting her hair short and dressing in male clothing, to avoid the death threats she started receiving.
The key turning point in Massi’s career, and the reason we all know her, was an invitation to France in 1999 to perform at Paris’ Le Cabaret Sauvage, as part of the Women of Algeria festival. This led to a recording contract with the Universal Records sub-label, Island Records.
In 2001, Massi released her debut masterpiece, Raoui (Storyteller), which both introduced her to the region and the world, and established her as more than just a musician with a pretty voice. With not a hint of Rai, Raoui, is a very personal and nostalgic account of Massi’s connection with herself and her country. Sung in Arabic and French, the album defined her as a great storyteller, reminiscent of great musician poets like Tracy Chapman and Sixto Rodriguez.
Deb (Heartbroken) was Massi’s 2003 release and sales surpassed the over 100,000 copies Raoui sold. The album put her on a list of global renown, especially as one of the few musicians from the local alternative scene to reach this level of fame. In 2005, she released Mesk Elil (Honeysuckle) and in 2010, Ô Houria (Freedom).
From Berber origin, raised in an Arab culture, and living in multicultural Paris, Massi’s music is a mélange of sounds and musical ideas. Her albums oscillate between Arabic and French lyrics, while the music has featured collaborations with Senegalese, French, American, North African and Egyptian musicians (most recently, a collaboration with Cairokee).
The music itself is at times beautifully Arabic with her emphasis on the oud and darbouka, typically Algerian with the quiet of nostalgia and Berber, unusually global with her infusion of anything from Indian tablas and Congolese rumba, and Western inspired with heavy undertones of flamenco and jazz from the uncle who inspired her to pick up the guitar. The formula thus far seems to have worked with major record sales and the 2006 prestigious BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music.
Recently, Massi released her tour de force, El-Mutakallimun (Masters of Words). Two years in the making, the album is a collection of contemporary and classical Arabic poems, taking on a very philosophical turn both musically and lyrically. The album idea itself began years ago with flamenco guitarist, Eric Fernandez. The two launched a project, called Choeurs de Cordove (Voice of Cordoba), to reinterpret the poetry and songs of Cordoba in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The ten-track album itself is an attempt to reclaim the Arab world, through art and music, from the negative stereotyping and rhetoric that has plagued the region. The album is a dedication to the Arabic-Andalusian poets of Spain, emphasising the power of the scholars who mastered expression and whose words became the foundations for action.
In an interview she gave to Middle East Eye, Massi says: “I like these words written by a contemporary Iraqi poet Ahmad Matar: ‘Poetry is not an Arab regime that eclipses with its leader’s death. And it is not an alternative to action. It is an art form whose mission is to disrupt, expose, stand witness to the reality and that expands beyond the present time. Poetry comes before the action... So poetry is regenerating. Poetry illuminates the path and guides our actions’.”
Friday 24 April, 7pm
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Open Air Theatre
Sunday 26 April, 8pm