Album: Idir, Adrar Inu (2013)
?He is a good storyteller who can turn men’s ears into eyes.?
A Voice from a Precipice
Idir’s is a voice perched on a cliff, tremulously intense, leaning forward slightly to see how far it has to fall. A well-rounded and easily recognized persona with a strong individual character, he’s also a very clear mouthpiece for his historically persecuted tribe, the Kabyle of Algeria.
Idir is well-known in the Maghreb and had his American debut in July 2009, appearing at Avery Fisher Hall with Moroccan songstress Najat Aâtabou. He’s a dear friend of the much more commercially successful and widely known singer Cheb Khaled, and has shared the stage and studio with him on a number of occasions.
Idir was born the son of a shepherd in the Kabyle region of Algeria in 1949 and given the name Hamid Cheriet. ?Idir? is his artist name; in Berber it means ?he will live? and is a name often given to encourage survival in children born with difficulty. It could just as well serve as the epithet of the Kabyle people, a subclass of the Amazighe, in turn a subclass of the Berbers of North Africa.
The DNA of present-day Berbers is virtually identical to that of the Arabs with whom they’ve been intermarrying and sharing mosques for generations, but if you had to describe a Berber racial type you could say that though their hair and eyes tend to be as dark, their skin is paler than that of most Arabs and their bone structure more similar to that of the Celtic tribes?delicate and fine, often with eyes that droop slightly at the outer corners.
You could extend the comparison with Celts by remarking also that Berbers tend to be a bit pugnacious, ready to fight for their rich poetic heritage and more reluctant to be assimilated. This latter has led to much violence and bloodshed in Algeria, where the Berbers been oppressed off and on by invaders, colonists, and their own government for centuries.
The music of Kabyle is part of the Ur song uniting all pre-colonial musical genres of the Middle East (read my Voice articles on the subject of the Kabyle, here and here). In this album you’ll hear Tibet, India, medieval France, and a vein of modern American folk influence as well as Spanish dances and Arabic maqams, yet It’s all ripe with the intensity of the present-day Maghreb’s social concerns.
The first track, ?Said U Lamara,? is a tribute to Kabyle dissident Messaoud Oulamara, arrested in 1947 and charged with undermining French sovereignty through the dissemination of anonymous subversive writings. Oulamara played an important role in the insurrection that ended in the liberation of Algeria from French rule in 1962.
?Adrar Inu? (?My Mountain?) is an ecstatic homecoming song. The mountain in question is not particularly lovely; it is, however, populated with loved ones whose faces, rejoicing to see him, are to the singer as the countenances of angels.
?Ssiy Tafat? is sung to the tune of ?Plaisir d?amour,? but don’t expect any thematic connection between the two sets of lyrics. Idir sings of the horrors of life during political upheavals, probably referring to the catastrophic violence witnessed in the revolution and its long, drawn-out aftermath, during which the government repeatedly attacked the Berbers, who in turn simply would not stay down. In the song, Idir talks of being terrified by the stories told by his mother, but sings that he himself experienced things at least as horrific as an adult: ?We remember all our fears of youth, just listen to the tales of horror, we rushed under the covers.? He begs for guidance, a light, a way out.
?Targit?Faisons un rêve/Scarborough Fair? is another song sung to a Western tune that belies the lyrical content: a people’s desperate longing for freedom, beauty, and love in the face of terrible oppression, marginalization, and the silencing of passionate hearts.
Idir plays a lovely, spirited acoustic guitar in a slightly reckless manner that pulses with meaning and passion. The other instrumental accompaniment is so sensitive and emotional that it attests to the musicians? love for this dear, sweet man. Even though delivery is impassioned and free, the recording manages to avoid the Middle Eastern chaotic dissonance that sometimes puts off the Western ear. The minimalist recording is reminiscent of early ?60s recordings by Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen?bare, pure, and heartfelt tunes expressing sensibilities both new and old.
This article could never have been written without the invaluable research assistance of Driss Akjij of Meknes, Morocco.