Souad Massi sings songs of longing, for lost love and a lost country, Algeria, which she left for Paris after death threats during its brutal civil war. Her French and Algerian fans have come out in force tonight, much of the crowd a long way from home, understanding the bittersweet nostalgia which defines Massi's blues.
She is a modern woman who suffered the typically adolescent pain of rebellion from her authoritarian father and patriarchal culture, and the badly ending love affair that fuelled her French debut, Raoui (2001). To have also lived through the medieval savagery of a war in which heads were sawn off and torture was endemic is one thing that separates her from more typical maudlin balladeers.
Growing up on the cusp of North Africa and southern Europe, hearing flamenco on Spanish radio more readily than Algerian chaabi, and responding to AC/DC and Kenny Rogers as different kinds of teenage balm, also makes her subtly hybrid music stand out. She calls her country's crossroads status its "treasure", and it is one she has fully mined.
Above everything else, though, there is her voice. It is what attracted Paul Weller to recording with her in London last week. Rumours of an appearance by him tonight prove unfounded. But when Massi sings, he's hardly missed. She is contemplative on, to use its English title, "My Country", circling the point, with those Arabic catches in her voice, before letting it almost boom forth.
When her excellent band drop out as she takes "Storyteller" solo, you don't have to know its title or understand its Arabic lyrics to see how she leans in, stroking her guitar, eyes wide, wanting to tell us something in a teacherly way. The delicate, pretty sound gets softer and softer, till it stops.
On "Talit El Bir", notes are almost withheld, Massi becoming husky. On "My Grandfather's House", she nods her head knowingly, taking it as a French chanson, then letting her vocal lines ripple out over Spanish shivers of flamenco guitar, and the metric swing of Rabah Khalfa's beat. The song resonates all the more if you know the ache of its subject, the Algerian home and life she can't go back to, having lived between cultures too long.
"When I want to cry, I remember," goes the translation. "I ended up talking to myself, and the rare people who remember me..." But when Massi sings, there is a sense of shared understanding and supportable, lightly endured pain, as if we all go through it, and nothing can be done. That's life, in other words, a melancholy shrug that has found a natural Gallic home.
Massi is not insouciant about injustice, though, retaining an adolescently firm moral sense, as on "Le Bien Le Mal", introduced as "a story about the race between good and evil". She is helped in all this by a band flexible who flexibly adjust to all the sharp turns of her musical tastes. "My Country", for instance, exactly recalls The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow", written by Ray Davies at a point when he was also feeling lost between cultures, homesick even in his north London home. Not an influence on Massi to my knowledge, the way the similar feelings in her song conjure such an unlikely connection can only be called magical.
Meanwhile, "A Day Will Come" could be a highland fling, until the grey-haired Khalfa takes over the singing. He turns it into the sort of traditional chaabi Massi finds a strain; a shaking old muezzin wail, the only purely Arab sound we will hear tonight. Unless you count the soul-deep sense of injustice and exile in Massi's voice.
She is standing on a chair by the end of this last night of her European tour, singing songs about peace. But this exile will no doubt be back.Reuse content