Souad Massi: Outcast in her native land

Muslim singer Souad Massi is winning plaudits across Europe, but attracts venom in her homeland of Algeria for her outspoken views and heartfelt lyrics. By Martin Longley

Born in Algeria, she has now been in Paris for six years. We meet in the aptly named Café de la Musique, part of the Cité de la Musique in the Parc de la Villette, close to where Massi now lives.

Growing up in the Algiers suburb of Bab el-Oued, Massi was in an environment that was exciting and dangerous. Her early musical ambitions were supported by her mother and condemned by her father. Massi's mother struggled to pay for the guitar lessons that Souad's pianist brother Hassan had initiated. When civil war began in 1992, a strict curfew was imposed. It began at seven in the evening, which made it a challenge to attend lessons. A woman learning to play the guitar was seen as unconventional, let alone a woman wearing jeans.

Her father hated to hear music in the household, so Massi was forced to practise while he was at the office. For much of her youth, Massi was a loner, writing poetry and wrestling with severe stage fright.

Awareness of Western country and folk music came from her love of cowboy movies, particularly The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. She followed up this interest by tuning the radio dial to some suitably strumming American roots music.

Massi's uncle Hugo was another inspiration, a guitarist who played jazz and flamenco. She joined her first band, but wasn't enamoured of their tendency to dilute the flamenco style. For the next seven years, she fronted Atakor, a heavy rock outfit that represented rebellion in Algeria's fundamentalist atmosphere.

Massi's outspoken stance was to become problematic, as she was starting to be recognised on the street, becoming a potential target for disapproval (and spitting). This was exacerbated by being a woman, so Massi cultivated a tomboy appearance. In the wake of a top-selling cassette, travelling became harder as the band drew even more attention to themselves. They were always in danger of running into false road blocks, where their equipment could be "confiscated" - or worse.

Massi was not making overt comments on the political and military situation. Her observations were more abstract, but this was still enough to make her a target. Following the success of her cassette release, she started to receive anonymous telephone calls, some of which amounted to death threats. Censorship in Algeria was not so much a direct act of State, but more of an insidious control by the media itself.

Massi first came to Paris as part of the Femmes d'Algerie concert package, performing at the Cabaret Sauvage. She was almost immediately signed up by Island Records. This was a fortuitous event, as she was considering giving up her singing career.

One of the first things that Massi noticed in Paris was the value placed on musical culture, the public's enthusiasm for attending concerts, even in adverse weather conditions. This would be unthinkable back home. Massi also appreciated the opportunities to see artists from around the globe, soaking up influences from the rest of Africa and Asia.

In the UK, the new album Mesk Elil (or "Honeysuckle") will be licensed (like her first two albums) to Wrasse Records, arguably this land's biggest world music specialist outlet. Massi's 2001 debut, Raoui ("Storyteller") and its 2003 follow-up, Deb, were both concerned with personal issues, and this new recording continues the same line.

Massi says: "I didn't set out to make a melancholic album, but this was the way it turned out," reflecting some of her recent experiences. Fans often come up to her after gigs, asking why she doesn't write more danceable songs. Massi tells them she would like to, but so far this hasn't happened. However, she points out that it's common in African culture to have highly rhythmic music which is far from being celebratory.

Each song begins with her voice and guitar, and is then built up in the studio. The songs tend to evolve quickly, just prior to recording. She'll ask her musicians to elaborate on what might have been a skeletal idea.

When the band goes on the road, it's down to a five-piece, from maybe 14 players in the studio. This forces the song to be reborn in a different form, with improvisation. Massi says the thing that remains the same is her vocal contribution.

Massi says: "I prefer to write my words under pressure." She often leaves her lines until the last moment, imagining how the song will be constructed, so she doesn't need to write it down. This is the same with the words. Many of her lyrics come together in five minutes, but sometimes she will work on them for a month.

Several new songs address Massi's homesickness, even if she's remembering the hardships of life in Algeria. Her imagery is a matter-of-fact contrast between longing for return and an appreciation of her current existence.

Massi will soon play in Algeria for the first time in many years. A clear sign that democracy is now, at least theoretically, in sight. She says: "I miss my family, and the climate, the sights and smells of my homeland."

Some songs appear to be sung in character. There is an ambiguous distance that she maintains when the content is intensely personal. Deb in 2002 had a strong flamenco streak, and Mesk Elil continues her feeling for fusion, but this time opening up to other parts of Africa. She views the rhythms of Algeria and the North African regions as being linked to those of the entire continent, the whole culture. Recently she has been particularly influenced by Mali's Salif Keita and has used players from Keita's band on her new album.

The singer and guitarist Daby Touré performs a duet with Massi on his own "Mi Wawa". He was born in Mauritania, but has roots in Mali. The languages and styles are mixed up and alternated, but as is increasingly the case nowadays, such fusions are informed by a deeper understanding of different traditions, as musicians (and audiences) are becoming ever more fluent in the languages of global music forms.

Massi might say that dancing is made difficult when listening to her albums, but Mesk Elil's opening run is not lacking in percussive power. The first track, "Kilyoum", has an infusion of Cape Verdean morna, mixed with the hardcore Algerian chaabi style, and bolstered by flamenco flourishes. It's a perfect example of vocal sadness lifted by a stirring drum dialogue.

The stately title track and "Denia Wezmen" have a classical Arabic feel, leading a clutch of songs that make atmospheric use of string section arrangements. "Ilham" continues the stomping mood, tackled with a Tuareg desert nomad hardness. Massi has a different vocal tack for each song. She rarely repeats any tricks of phrasing, and often brandishes a completely unlikely melody.

"Tell Me Why" is partly delivered in English, sung in a duet with the guitarist Pascal Danae. Admirably, this song hasn't been shunted to the top of the album for radio play. It's placed way down at track eight.

Very nearly all of Massi's songs are sung in Arabic, which is something of an achievement in France, where the media now demands a high quotient of songs to be performed in French. Singing in Arabic can be a smooth experience one moment, and rife with glottal opportunities the next. Massi thinks that the act of translation invariably dilutes the meaning of her words. They lose some of their weight, and this is why she feels uncomfortable singing in French or English. In Arabic, Massi can say the same thing in 10 different ways, changing the meaning through intonation. She hasn't been pressurised by her record company, anyway, perhaps acknowledging that within the world music market, singing in Arabic represents a distinct advantage.

Even so, Massi would still like to sing the occasional song in English. She likes the sound of the language, but would need to write suitable lyrics that would sound right with the different phonetics.

Massi will be coming to London at the end of next month for a one-off gig. She is always happy to tour because it seems like a holiday from doing piles of ironing. She has just had her first child, so is wrestling with the challenge of juggling motherhood and a musical career.

Massi's entire catalogue has expressed melancholy, whether rooted in personal or societal issues. It's a sharing of problems, between artist and audience, each feeling invigorated as they savour, jointly, the challenges of life.

'Mesk Elil' is released on 31 October by Wrasse Records; Souad Massi plays the Marquee Club, London WC2 (020-7909 0000) on 23 November

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