Maghreb Voices – Algerie Algeria

Album: Djamel Aissa, Algérie Algeria (Musiques traditionelles de Kabylie) (2012)

In my series ?Power, Poetry, and Popular Dissent in Algeria,? I talked about the 1980 popular uprising sparked by the Algerian government’s refusal to allow a conference on Berber poetry in the city of Tizi Ouzou. This event is now seen as the seed that planted the Berber Spring, a revolt so volatile and robust that it took the government years of brutality to put it down. Like the Algerian Civil War, the Berber Spring was watched intently in the Middle Eastern world, and to some extent it inspired the revolutions and popular uprisings we’ve witnessed there in the last year and a half.

The Berbers are one of the more fascinating surviving indigenous cultures on this planet. They have inhabited North Africa since before the arrival of the Muslim Arab tribes, yet they’ve held to their own customs and traditions with a fierce pride. Even today, they carefully maintain their language and heritage while living in relative harmony with the Arabs, intermarrying with them to the degree that their DNA is now virtually identical. The Berbers are a prime example of a people who survived assimilation by a dominant culture without having abandoned the richness of their own, seeking no justification for keeping the old ways besides the simple This is who we are.

The Kabyle of Algeria are a significant Berber group for a number of reasons: they are the largest purely Berber ethnic group in North Africa, they comprise around 40 per cent of Algeria’s population, and they have a history of Herculean resistance to attempts by the Algerian government to repress their culture. Also to their credit, they’ve consistently demonstrated a fierce attachment to things that were of much greater value in the ancient world than they are today?poetry, for example.

The Berbers hold fast to their culture without claiming for it any natural superiority. And yet It’s one of those folk cultures that in its simple beauty has the power to inspire high culture (remember Beethoven’s listening for the songs of shepherds) in such a way as to revitalize high culture and keep it from floating off into elitist irrelevance.

The song themes in Algérie Algeria navigate both quotidian and celebratory village experiences; the album contains love songs, lullabies, dances, wedding songs, homages to parents, and feast songs, always expressing a deep attachment to family, love, beauty, and the folk arts.

I haven’t yet been able to find detailed liner notes for this album, but the instrumentation sounds like mizwad (a bagpipe-like instrument), darbouka (drums), sintir (a guitar-like stringed instrument), flutes, human voices including ululations, and hand clapping. In contrast to the arrangements of much Arab music today, there are rarely more than three instruments on each track, lending an air of rustic minimalism to the songs. The singers have deep, passionate voices (It’s hard to tell whether male or female) that are intensely expressive. There’s no harmonization, but the melody lines are elaborate and sometimes intriguingly dissonant.

One track??Festival de flûte??sounds like medieval plainsong, an indication of the Maghreb influence on early European music. Within the various songs you can also hear traces of Andalusian music and chaabi; these show how Kabyle music influenced those genres as well.

The recording quality and repertoire make this an album of great historical value. Because of the ancient roots of these songs they can be tapped by composers and musicians for musical raw material, but they remain complete, time-tested musical gems in their own right.

Algérie Algeria represents an integral part of the multibranching and globally significant root system of Maghreb music.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.