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At a time when ISIS militants have been burning musical instruments because they claim they are against Sharia Law, Massi’s latest songs pay homage to centuries-old Arab culture, and to a tolerant humanism now under siege.

She’s one of the most successful and inventive female singer-songwriters in the Arabic-speaking world today. She’s the Algerian, Souad Massi, who performed recently in a concert at the London Barbican that also saw ‘Le Trio Joubran’, three Oud playing brothers from Palestine, who performed music that echoed a yearning for freedom and an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

At a time when much of the Arab world is in turmoil, facing up to the terror and destruction carried out by the so-called ”Islamic State” or ISIS, the aftermath of uprisings, and the continued suffering in Palestine, Souad Massi and the Trio aimed to show how artists can fight back and create powerful new music in the process.

Massi performed songs from her new album El Mutakallimun (Masters Of The Word), which was recorded in direct response to the brutality and intolerance of the so-called ISIS. She argues that ”they are destroying history and memories.... For me, ISIS has no relationship to the Islam I know. They are trying to destroy Muslims”.

So at a time when ISIS militants in Libya have been burning musical instruments because they claim they are against Sharia Law, Massi’s latest songs pay homage to centuries-old Arab culture, and to a tolerant humanism now under siege. They set to melodic, eclectic pop music the work of great Arab poets from the sixth-century, to pre-Islamic Zuhaïr Ibn Abi Salma, through to the 20th-century young Tunisian political poet Abulkassim Chebbi to Ahmed Matar, an Iraqi exile in London today.

Souad Massi sets out to present a very different face of Islam.
Her new songs provide a reminder of what, for her, is true Islam. She first had the idea for the album while working in the Spanish city of Cordoba with the band Les Choirs de Cordoue, and began to study its history. Back in the 9th and 10th centuries, Cordoba was run by Muslim leaders.
“I saw the richness of the culture. I started examining the richness of Arab culture, and I found that the three largest libraries in the world during the Middle Ages were in Cordoba, Aleppo and Cairo. So science and culture were very developed at that time. At the moment, Arab culture is being darkened because of Isis when it is actually a culture of light”.
That history makes some of the attitudes she encounters in France, where she currently lives, trying. “It’s an injustice because in Arab countries we – especially women - do our best to fight the fundamentalists . The fact that I might be put on the same level as them, is very sad”, she says.

She has therefore made it her mission to change attitudes; not only those of fundamentalist Islam, but also those who conflate Arabs with violent extremism. In Paris, when the Charlie Hebdo attack took place, she was “especially afraid for Muslims, because many people don’t see the difference, as though Muslims must all be terrorists — or all Arabs. They don’t even realise you can be Arab and Christian or Jewish. There’s a lot of ignorance about the Arab world.” Massi says: “I’m trying, in my small way, to show that Arab culture is huge, and to allow poets and calligraphers to speak out.”

Born in Algiers to Berber parents, she studied classical music and guitar. When she started playing solo and in bands, she says: “My father was really cool. My mother said: ‘What will people say?’ But mainly they were afraid.” Civil war broke out when she was in her early twenties, after Algeria’s 1992 elections were cancelled. For a woman in jeans with a guitar, the risks were grave. She received death threats. “Musicians suffered, and many artists were killed. It was really dangerous, but I did it because I was young,” she says. “I love music, and wanted to be free. I refused to let someone else decide for me.”

In 1999 she was invited to perform in France, and has lived there ever since, building up her international reputation with her gentle blend of North African, Flamenco and Western styles. Her fame spread from Europe to the Arab world, and today she enjoys an impressive following across North Africa and the Middle East, especially among students.

Souad Massi anticipated the revolutionary mood in a number of Arab countries in her 2010 album O Horria (Liberty). Touring across the Arab world, she recalls, “I felt the same energy, the great potential of young people in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.I thought perhaps it’s time for change. But when the uprisings happened, so many people died. Perhaps we’re not ready”.

The richness of poems by the Tunisian poet who died young in 1934, Abul Kassim Chebbi, has been reborn in Massi’s songs. She sees his poem ‘To the Tyrants of the World’ as a warning, and not only to tyrants: “It says ’Be careful, now it’s spring, now you see the light’. But you also have to look out for what’s coming”.

Massi, 42, is known for melancholy love songs and folk-rock ballads sung with her acoustic guitar, though her first bands in Algeria played flamenco and Berber hard rock. “I’m called ‘world music’ because I sing in Arabic, even though I make rock music,” she shrugs. In France she added more elements, from the Gnawa music of Maghrebi mystics to west African highlife. “I work with musicians from France, Cameroon, Senegal, Guinea. It’s good to share with people their sound experience. I don’t want to close myself in a prison. For me, music is to be free”.

Despite being an Algerian who has never played a note of Rai music and a Berber who has never been a flag-waver for the Berber cause, Massi’s next album will be an homage to Berber poets, who were part of a suppressed culture. “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to accept that this is part of Algerian culture, though now the situation is better,” she says.

* Mounira Chaieb is a freelance Tunisian journalist and writer based in London.



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