Souad Massi: The voice of Algiers

Silenced in her native Algeria, the singer Souad Massi has found a new home in Paris, she tells Tim Cumming
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The Independent Culture

Born in 1972 in the Algiers suburb of Bab-el-Oued, which would later see the first student uprisings against the country's ruling military, Souad Massi has lived in Paris for the past four years, in self-imposed exile from the violence of secular forces and Islamic insurgents and the censorship that almost silenced her in her own country.

Born in 1972 in the Algiers suburb of Bab-el-Oued, which would later see the first student uprisings against the country's ruling military, Souad Massi has lived in Paris for the past four years, in self-imposed exile from the violence of secular forces and Islamic insurgents and the censorship that almost silenced her in her own country.

Her songs mix Algerian, French and Sixties-folk-rock influences, all melded under the emotive power of Massi's remarkable voice, an instrument that aches with nostalgia and loss, redolent of the stillness of night thoughts, with an undertow of tragedy. After a recent tour of the States and a string of European festival dates, she and her road band are coming to the UK for a headlining performance tonight at Womad.

From the beginning, she was drawn to wildly different musical styles. "I listened to folk rock and hard rock," she says, "and then, later, pop music and, I guess, world music. But at first, it was basically through movies, the spaghetti westerns." Joan Baez, who played Algiers in the 1970s, was a formative influence, as was the flamenco and jazz guitar that her uncle played, and even, incongruously, the country star Kenny Rogers. "Folk rock has been a big influence," Massi says, "and I was inspired by the poetry in the songs of that time, its rich metaphors and phrases that had double meanings. I pushed myself to work in the same way."

She learnt guitar with the help of her older brother Hassan, and her first professional gigs were with a short-lived flamenco group, before she joined the Algerian rock band Atakor. She stayed with them for seven years, touring a country where musicians were routinely shot by Islamists and army alike, and playing festivals picketed by extremists, patrolled by armed police and, more often than not, torched by the crowd itself. The Big Chill they were not.

Her first songs were released on cassette in 1997, and soon brought her airplay and a growing public profile on stage and TV. But with her habit of talking with audiences about issues raised in her songs, public acclaim came with growing suspicion from the authorities. Being a successful musician in Algeria was a hazardous business.

Though her lyrics often discuss the human cost of political machinations, she sees herself as far from an activist. "I hate politics," she protests. "Politicians are immoral. They are only here for power, not for the people." Yet the confessional tone of her songs also expresses the common voice of a people suppressed, terrorised, bereft. "When death becomes banal," she says, "that's not normal. My singing is an acknowledgement of what is, and a way to comfort myself."

In the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, with daily curfews and ever-increasing violence, simply being a young woman wearing jeans and cropped hair, carrying a guitar down the street, could draw the ire of the country's extremists. "To remain silent", she says, "would mean that the terrorists have won, and that all the intellectuals they murdered died for nothing." But as her reputation grew, so did the pitfalls of speaking out. She lost her job as a town planner and found bookings falling away as nervous producers backed off. When she started getting anonymous phone calls, even death threats, she realised that the silence she fought against might end up being her only salvation. She was faced with dropping music, or leaving her homeland.

The decision, in the end, was virtually made for her. In 1999, she was invited to perform at the Femmes d'Algérie festival, in France, and made her European debut at Cabaret Sauvage, in Paris. "It was more for professional reasons than for personal ones," she says of the move. "I had an offer to make a record there. I couldn't refuse."

Her first album, Raoui ( The Storyteller), was recorded virtually live in Studio Monmartre. It was released in 2001, selling more than 100,000 copies. Its songs mix spare, modal backing from oud and derbaka with Arabic violin and supple, full-band arrangements in the French folk-pop tradition, threaded by Massi's accomplished, Western-style guitar picking and the exquisite melancholy of her voice.

Last year's follow-up, Deb ( Heartbroken), expanded the musical palette with strings, programming, even West African-style guitar lines, but her voice retains all its beguiling beauty. Her new songs, sung in Arabic, French and English, deepened the personal and political concerns of the first album. "Even though I feel close to what is happening in Algeria," she says, "I want to express other things, to write love songs. I'm interested in what happens in America and Britain, now especially, and I do write about it, but it's not my main focus."

Her relocation to Paris and its rich musical diaspora has undoubtedly been a formative experience. "It's a world where people from different cultures have a huge gap between them," she says, "and music can close that gap."

Souad Massi plays Womad tonight. 'Raoui' and 'Deb' are on Wrasse Records

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