Hamid Cheriet, popularly known by his stage name Idir, died at age 70 on May 2 in Paris from pulmonary fibrosis. The outcry of shock, loss, and grief on social media over his death has been overwhelming, with tributes being paid to him by many, especially other great artists who knew or performed with him.
Although he was from modest beginnings as a country boy of the Berbers of Kabylie, Algeria, his impact as an artist and as a champion of his people and other indigenous communities facing oppression and marginalization has been global.
“Looking at Idir’s life in music is looking into Algeria’s relationship with its history and identity.”
As one researcher put it: “Looking at Idir’s life in music is looking into Algeria’s relationship with its history and identity, but also questioning what it means to be exiled in a new country, France, and to be a citizen of the world.”
His story is bittersweet like his music.
Born on October 25, 1949, in Ait Lahcene, near the Kabylie capital of Tizi Ouzou (then part of colonial French Algeria), Idir’s father was a shepherd. In 1973 at age 24, while he was studying to be a geologist in hopes of joining an oil company, Idir was asked to substitute for Kabyle singer Naouara on a Radio Algiers show.
Rising to the occasion, he sang a beautiful lullaby that he had written for the singer, called “A Vava Inouva” (Father Inouva). Expressing fear and longing in the face of injustice and oppression, the song became a hit almost overnight in both France and Algeria.
In the meantime, Idir had been conscripted for mandatory service with the Algerian military and did not know of his song’s success until two years later when he had finished his service.
After the military, in 1975, he moved to France and eventually released his debut album with “A Vava Inouva” as the title track. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it became popular around the world and has been sung in languages as far afield and unexpected as Hindi and Greek.
Struggle for Identity
Idir was never comfortable with the ruling powers in Algeria. As a fierce defender of the Amazigh identity, he called for the recognition of Tamazight (the Amazigh language) as an official language in Algeria along with Arabic. And despite many invitations, he refused to perform in his native land for some 40 years in protest of the oppression and marginalization of his people.
In 2017, the year after Tamazight became an official language in Algeria, Idir agreed to perform for the Amazigh new year.
In 2017, the year after Tamazight became an official language in Algeria during the term of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (a regime of Le Pouvoir which he strongly opposed), he finally agreed to perform for a concert celebrating the Amazigh new year, Yennayer.
Idir’s album “Identités” explores this notion of multiculturalism and features duets with an array of musicians from different countries, ethnicity, and cultures. In the liner notes, Idir discusses his divided loyalties between Algeria and France: “One gave birth to me and gave me an origin, a history, and an identity. The other, adopted me and gave me a career through which I can fully express myself.” [i]
Pursuing multiculturalism allowed Idir to “demonstrate that [his] culture . . . can inscribe itself in the universal.”
More significantly, however, pursuing multiculturalism allowed Idir, as he put it, to “demonstrate that [his] culture, a minority group though it may be, can inscribe itself in the universal.”
Unfortunately, Idir, like Lounes Matoub and Nba of the Saghru band in Morocco, faced attacks and criticism from his own people. “Not only did Idir express regret about this to the media,” said Moroccan journalist, activist, and poet Omar Zanifi, who lives in Paris and knew Idir, “but he told me personally during a conversation we had in the Netherlands during an Amazigh New Year event in January 2018 that he was disappointed in having become a target of attacks after his decision to go on tour to Algeria [the year before].”
While on tour, Idir had shaken the hands of Algeria’s Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, a gesture which sparked condemnation within the Kabyle autonomy movement. Idir told Zanifi that he also regretted the anger of supporters of the movement after he had expressed his personal opinion on Kabylie independence to a Moroccan daily newspaper.
A Poetic Portrait of Idir
Zanifi was asked to paint a portrait of Idir for Inside Arabia:
“Idir, the artist or the man, is a very different soul who has affected so many people who met him during his lifetime or listened to his songs. His music is healing for suffering, sad souls. His death has shaken the whole world.
“[Idir] managed to touch the humanity, the essence, of people who do not even speak the language of his poetry.”
“If the whole world now is paying homage to him and speaking about him, it is because he managed to touch the humanity, the essence, of people who do not even speak the language of his poetry. But they do speak the language of his feelings, of his borderless art—a magic art that draws you in once he caresses your ears with nostalgia, his feelings of joy and sadness, his weaknesses, his strengths, and his hurt.
“His powerful melodies and words were inspired by the land that had been wrested from him for years, Kabylie and his native village there. Listening to Idir, you feel at home even if you live somewhere else—it’s an aroma of nostalgia that soars skyward over the peaks of the Djurdjura and the Atlas mountains. Through his music, we relive the small things in the everyday life of Berbers everywhere in Tamazagha, throughout North Africa, not only in Kabylie, Idir’s homeland in Algeria.
“Even more remarkably, other indigenous peoples have this same feeling listening to Idir. We imagine, through him, our childhood, our mother churning milk into butter, the carpet weaving workshop next door. Idir’s songs create the magic of living in Paris and at the same time experiencing the minutiae of Kabylie right next door to the Eiffel tower.
“Idir may have been the first North African, or even African, artist to bring Amazigh song from Kabylie and Africa to France initially and then globally. But he also connected the Amazigh people to their homeland through this nostalgia. Idir awakens this feeling within.
“We can lose ourselves in Europe, but our hearts are attached to the earth, and this bitter nostalgic feeling and anxiety of returning home to our village lives within us. When I get on a bus in Paris, and I hear an Idir song being played by the Kabyle bus driver, it becomes code for a discussion with the driver about nostalgia for the simple and calm life.
“Idir is known for having been a unifier. He tried and succeeded in uniting the people around him—around the Berber malaise, the fight for identity—and around current issues of concern to Kabylie and Berbers in general. He even sang in one of his songs, ‘The people need freedom, freedom needs respect, and respect needs understanding.’ Quite simply, nobody is capable on his own; everything is connected.
“Idir addressed in his music the clash of culture and ‘civilization,’ as well as migration and religious identity.”
“Idir addressed in his music the clash of culture and ‘civilization,’ as well as migration and religious identity, but in such a subtle way. His song “Ma fille” (my daughter), for example, is a letter to his daughter, addressing the dilemma of identity and culture faced by her and other young girls and the younger generations of North Africans living in Europe, especially in France.
“He paints the subtle picture of a ‘double culture’ imposed upon young North Africans by describing all the things that she is not allowed to do. By virtue of growing up and living in modern France, in a culture very different from their own, they must not only adapt to that culture, but also conform to their parents’ culture and religion—a very difficult task that pulls them in conflicting directions.
“Idir tries to console his daughter, acknowledging—not without guilt—that he understands her situation. He acknowledges his strictness as a parent when he forbids her from going out on a Saturday while her friends go dancing. He even wishes that she could be 21, even for a day, to experience the freedom permitted in French culture. He finally asks himself what she thinks about alone in her room, and wonders if she’s happy: ‘Have we seen often enough a real smile on your lips?’
“He empathizes with her and, in somewhat of an apology, says he loves his daughter ‘like a crazy person.’ But he is compelled to write these things in a letter, explaining oh so subtly, ‘Tu sais ma fille, chez nous, il y a des choses qu’on ne dit pas’ (you know, my daughter, there are some things in our culture we do not say). This is both the refrain and the final phrase. The lyrics of this song absolutely tug at any parent’s heart strings.
“[Idir] liked listening more than speaking, but when he did speak, his words were wise and lofty.”
“As a person, Idir is known for his simplicity and patience. He was always attentive to everyone. He liked listening more than speaking, but when he did speak, his words were wise and lofty.
“He was a real visionary.”
Key Kabyle Musician Activists
Indeed, Idir is one of five key musician activists, or maquisards, in the history of Kabylie and the Kabyle resistance movement. Sliman Azem (1918-1983), Idir (1949-2020), Lounes Matoub (1956-1998), Ferhat Mhenni (1951-present), and Lounis Aït Mengullet (1950-present) were or are all cultural crusaders of the Amazigh movement, each with his own style. They have opened the doors for Kabyle art worldwide.
Sliman Azem was a classical traditionalist. He tackled the subjects of political order, resistance, and pre- and post-French colonial times in Algeria.
Idir mixed social and political issues in his poetry so subtly that his songs appeared less political than other artists.
Idir, on the other hand, launched the modern Kabyle and Amazigh song. He mixed social and political issues in his poetry so subtly that his songs appeared less political than other artists such as Lounes Matoub. Idir inspired many artists across Tamazgha, North Africa.
Lounes Matoub came after Idir with a more direct, in-your-face kind of poetry and a clear political and socio-economic message. He talked about “taboo” issues such as Algeria’s illegitimate system of government and the danger of Islamism and Islamist ideology. He dared to sing and talk about political issues, directly and forcefully challenging the Algerian regime. And he essentially mixed the two artistic styles represented by Sliman Azem and Idir.
Like Idir, Lounis Aït Mengullet chose a style of Kabyle poetry inspired by heritage, traditions, and “the strength of the verb.”
Like Idir, Lounis Aït Mengullet chose a style of Kabyle poetry inspired by both heritage and traditions and “the strength of the verb.” For both, while many of their songs were straightforward with simple language and imagery, many of their lyrics were often so profound and filled with metaphor and complicated poetic images, that they required deeper study and breadth of knowledge of their context to understand their real meaning.
A Torrent of Tributes
While Berbers throughout history have often failed to unite around a leader or a symbol until after his death, Idir brought the Berber world together during his lifetime. And he is still doing so now.
“Idir is evidence that Berbers can unite around a single symbol who brushes aside their . . . differences over their struggle for the liberation of their people.”
In spite of their differences and divisions, Idir is evidence that Berbers can, according to Zanifi, unite around a single symbol who brushes aside their misunderstandings and political differences over their struggle for the liberation of their people.
Indeed, the media and the airwaves have been flooded with tributes to Idir since his death, each adding a little more to our understanding of the man.
Acclaimed Algerian author Yasmina Khadra (pen name of former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul who adopted his wife’s name to avoid censorship) penned a poetic tribute to Idir, calling it “The Flight of the Nightingale” (translated from French and excerpted here):
“Idir has left us. He went on tiptoe so as not to disturb anyone. He faded away like a summer song at the end of the colony, as the legends are silent in Algeria, its country, its anguish, its inconsolable litany. Idir has left only a transitional exile for a final exile since he was forced to leave his native land to seek elsewhere the echo of his voice, like a wandering troubadour in search of his way. He will be very much missed in our joys so disrupted nowadays by our sorrows and our disappointments, but his absence will be for us, Algerians, and for his fans everywhere, a great moment of meditation.”
Kamel Zennia, a Kabyle-American singer-songwriter who lives and performs around Washington, D.C., (who taught this writer the Tamazight lyrics to “Avava Inouva” a few years ago) told Inside Arabia: “We grew up listening to Idir’s songs, music, and poetry. He was a symbol of tolerance, a hardcore fighter for Tamazight. After he released his first record, we all picked up a guitar and played. I personally played most of his songs, with pride, while I was busking in Europe. Even though he embraced so-called modern music, he kept the traditional touch, and it was amazing, magical!”
While his music and poetry “came from the deepest of Kabyle culture,” according to Zennia, Idir also aimed his art at a broad audience, “including the Arabs in Algeria.” Zennia lamented that his death is a big loss for the Berber community around the world.
Kamal Bouyacoub, a Kabyle singer based in Paris known as “the Little Matoub,” told Inside Arabia that Idir was a singer who had contributed a tremendous amount to Berber culture.
“He transported our music and our culture all over the world, especially with his song ‘Avava Inouva,’” Bouyacoub remarked, adding that Idir had performed in duos with great artists such as Maxim le Forestier, Charles Aznavour, and Alain Stivell.
“Idir was a very articulate intellectual,” said Bouyacoub. “He was invited several times to sing by ‘Le Pouvoir Algérien,’ but he always refused. Idir was a unique person who knew very well the values and heritage of our culture and our identity.”
French-Kabyle singer-songwriter Akli D, who also lives in Paris, said that Idir was among the first generation of artists who put the spotlight on Kabylie and Tamazgha. “Losing Idir is both a human and a cultural shock.” To the Kabyle community, he said, “Idir was not just a singer, but he was also the landmark of a deep melody of the Kabylie countryside.”
As a “true ambassador,” Akli D added, Idir “knew how to share our culture, so rich, with brilliance. He is one of the rare singers in the world. I hope that his songs, which are full of educational values will be taught in schools like that of Brassens or Jacques Brel.”
Idir was indeed a national treasure in his native Algeria and beloved by many throughout the world. The UNESCO, the Mayor of Paris, current French President Emmanuel Macron, former French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French football legend Zinédine Zidane, Ferhat Mhenni, and dozens of others paid tribute to Idir upon his death.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tweeted that Idir was “an icon” of Algerian art.
Even the current Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a member of Le Pouvoir that Idir had always challenged, tweeted that Idir was “an icon” of Algerian art and that “with his passing, Algeria has lost one of its monuments.”
Although May 2 will be a black day in Amazigh remembrance, Idir’s vision of a democratic, secular, more peaceful and united Algeria, and a Kabyle heritage safe from cultural erasure, will live on and inspire generations to come.
[i] Jennifer Solheim, The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture (Oxford University Press, 2017).