It’s the late 1990’s, and Algeria has fallen prey to horrific violence from Fundamentalists and all for whom political instability is the opportunity to do harm. Beloved “music-TV” producer Aziz Smati has been gunned down, a raï musician killed for a song about sex and alcohol, and a raï producer murdered in front of his record store. Yet, as night falls in Algiers, a slender figure heads out into the street, carrying a guitar in order to front the punk-rock band Atakor. Pants and short hair notwithstanding, the guitar-toting singer is actually a young woman, and a determined one. In spite of having to dodge spit and ignore telephoned death threats, she continues to make music. She has no way to know that in less than five years, as the 21st century dawns, music lovers all over the world will be calling her name.  

She is Souad Massi.      

Ironically, the hardline religious conservatives’ attempts backfired, launching Massi onto the world stage. Aziz Smati, the producer who was targeted and gunned down, survived the shooting but was left a paraplegic, and headed to Europe to continue to work.  He and Mohamed Ali Allalou, planned a five-night event, Les Femmes d’Algérie (Women of Algeria), featuring talented singers brought from the Maghreb. Smati invited Massi, who planned to leave Algiers just for the concert, in 1999.  Destiny had other plans. An Island Records talent scout, hearing her perform, signed her immediately, she made an album, and never returned to Algeria to live.  She makes her home in Paris today with her husband and two girls.    

“There were seven of us living in two rooms, so it was only at night that I got any time to myself – that I could be myself. I had to sing very quietly…”  

Massi’s story began, however, with her family in Algiers. Massi remembers that, growing up, the household listened to Andalusian music, chaâbi (Algerian folk), and Berber music. In a conversation with Mark Hudson of London’s The Telegraph, she remembers that “There were seven of us living in two rooms, so it was only at night that I got any time to myself – that I could be myself. I had to sing very quietly.  I’ve always been interested in melody and lyrics, and with Western folk you can sing quietly but still express yourself.”  

Against her father’s wishes, her mother paid for her to study classical and Arabian Andalusian music at the School of Fine Arts in Algiers. An uncle played jazz; a brother, Hassan, nurtured her interest in the guitar.  

The mixing that has always taken place in Algeria, with Kabyles overtaken by Arabs, Turks, and then the French, makes the country fertile ground for the emergence of new styles. In an interview with Rosalind Cummings-Yeates of the Illinois Entertainer, Massi observes: “Geographically [Algeria] opens up to lots of places where different music is born. That’s who I am, too.”  

Algerian radio in the 80’s and 90’s played Arabian music, flamenco, raï, rap, rock, and even Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen’s music. Massi cites Cohen, as well as Joan Baez and even Kenny Rogers, as influences. She says she has always liked both country music and metal, giving equal weight to Emmylou Harris and AC/DC.  Other critics notice the echo of fado from Portugal, or a touch of morna from Cape Verde. Add to these the sound of the lute, Arabian vocal ornamentation, and the tripping rhythms of Maghrebi drums, and you have something as unique as it is irresistible.  

Each composition, drawn from so many sources, starts with a story or thought, and forms a mosaic, held together by Massi’s lithe voice and feisty, self-mocking authority.   

Each composition, drawn from so many sources, starts with a story or thought, and forms a mosaic, held together by Massi’s lithe voice and feisty, self-mocking authority.    

“I begin working when I have the lyrics,” she told Nafeesa Syeed in a conversation with Al Monitor.com.  

For Le Bien et le Mal (Good and Evil), for example, she brought to her composition the sorrow of seeing Algeria, so recently affected by war, overcome by flooding. Yet the poem, restrained and mysterious, calls to mind the 17th Century French poet La Fontaine more than any contemporary tragic news. In the poignant Rani Rayha, the singer addresses an unnamed someone, telling him, “Tomorrow, I will travel to a distant country. Maybe once I leave, you will think about it. You’ll remember what I used to tell you.” The listener wonders if the narrator could be addressing someone she loves, or her homeland, or both.  

Singer songwriter Souad Massi

Souad Massi

Out of Massi’s six albums, each showcases something slightly different. Raoui (Storyteller), made in France, is her first, and plays with French and British influences. One song, Bladi (My Country), evokes Francis Cabrel, another, Awham (Illusions) pumps out British rock in Arabic, recalling her days as lead-singer for a punk-band, and another, Hayati (My Life), returns to the Algerian “folk” style. 

Deb (Heartbroken), Massi’s second album, sets forth twelve mysterious poems in lush settings. For the recording, the band of twenty-one other musicians pick up 17 different instruments. Edouard Prabhhu on the tabla enhances Rabah Khalfa’s drumming on the bendir and darbouka, while five violins and as many guitars form an abundant landscape of flamenco and tango sound. The sound of the African flute signals new territory where the listener stops everything to listen, enthralled. 

Next comes Mesk Elil (Honeysuckle), and greater renown, as the 2006 album won World Music Album of the Year. Sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholic, and often tender, with a little techno thrown in, the pattern of musical choices keep Massi fans wanting more. Luckily, Live Acoustic and Ô Houria (Oh Freedom), albums four and five, respectively, offer more satirical pieces, folk-like melodies, and love songs.  

El Mutakallimûn, Massi’s sixth album, departs from the original lyrics of the others to explore classical and contemporary Arabic texts. Universal, her label at the time, declined to produce the project, so she produced “Masters of the Word” herself. Still, pop fans need not fear a Francoise Atlan-style Andalus-period album; El Mutakallimûn continues Massi’s custom of composing for a contemporary listener.  In El Khaylou Wa el Laylou (The Steed and the Night), raï rhythms drum a tribute to poetic powers (that happen to be his own) by the 10th Century Iraqi poet Al-Mutannabi. In Hadari, loosely translated as “Hold it!” a reggae arrangement drives home scholar Aboul-Qacem Echebbi’s apostrophe to tyrants. For Ayna?, a teasing Cuban piano-jazz motif insistently repeats the question “Where [is the dissident who disappeared]?” during an imagined town hall meeting.  Finally, Faya Layla floats a poem of mad love onto a calm Bossa Nova soundscape.  

The former tomboy crooning over her guitar in the kitchen table after everyone had gone to sleep has become a champion worldwide not just of North African music, but of music itself.

It is no wonder Massi’s music has been featured in three films including Sasha Baron-Cohen’s The Dictator, and attracts numerous collaborators, from Ismael Lô, the African Bob Dylan, to Francis Cabrel (who co-produced Ô Houria).  No wonder she is known from Amadora to Adelaide as a consummate mistress of songwriting.  The former tomboy crooning over her guitar in the kitchen table after everyone had gone to sleep has become a champion worldwide not just of North African music, but of music itself.  In an interview with NPR, she told Ari Shapiro that she hopes that her work “will not only bring peace and healing to Arabs, but to all people.”  The only thing left to wonder is when this nightingale, who had to flee from Algeria in order for the world to find her, will be releasing her next album. We hope it will be kilyoum…soon.