By Amelia Smith
“I like folk music, and country music, too. In fact, I was listening to Kenny Rogers just recently. I know a lot of people smile when they hear me say that,” Souad Massi tells me. Algeria, where the engineer turned singer Massi is from, is not so often associated with European and American melodies. Still, Massi lists Stevie Wonder, Texas, Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin among her heroes. “I like gentle music,” she adds, a sentiment that is reflected in her personality.
Massi was in her early twenties when the civil war broke out in Algeria. By then, she was singing in English for the Algerian rock band Atakor. Since moving to France almost a decade later she has revisited her roots by listening to Middle Eastern and African music and so her lyrics have become a mixture of French and Arabic. “When I left Algeria I really understood that I’m African,” she says, “because I missed my country, because I had time and I heard the music differently.”
Mesk Elil (honeysuckle), Massi’s 2005 album, speaks of nostalgia. Because almost every house in Algeria has honeysuckle on it, when she smells or sees the plant it reminds her of home. Through the album she sings of her childhood, working class neighbourhoods and the streets she misses. The track Dar Dgedi (my grandfather’s house) takes the listener back to Massi’s hometown the Kabylia region in the Tell Atlas Mountains and Berber culture.
These days, Massi’s songs speak of women, politics and life. Most of them are widely listened to in Algeria but Si Ahmed, from the album O Houria (Oh freedom), is about corruption and is now banned in Algeria. “I’m an artist and for me music is my instrument. I trust I can touch people and I trust that we can perhaps try to change things through music and bring people together. What I really feel is that I join people with music,” she says.
A 1999 performance at the Femmes d’Algerie Festival in Paris brought with it a contract for the singer with Island Records. In Massi’s eyes, France – her home since the concert – is a rich, cosmopolitan country where artists from across the globe come to play music. But when it comes to her identity as a Muslim, rather than a musician, she is more wary. “I think you have to be careful with politics. Now all the Muslims are terrorists or they are jihadists because they [the West] need an excuse to go to kill people in Syria and I do not agree with that.”
In 2011 Massi was pleased because she thought the revolutions which swept the region meant an end to their respective dictators. But these days, it’s about oil, not democracy, she says. “I don’t believe that [US President Barak] Obama cares about democracy in Libya.” As for Syria, “the coalition is there to take the oil of Arabs; it’s not there to build peace. I don’t believe that. It is good for us that the Arab Spring didn’t happen. This is not a spring. This is really a bad thing that is happening in the Middle East. I am for democracy but not in this way. I am Muslim, I am pro-peace, and I respect all people.”
It is important to separate terrorism, which should not be associated with Islam, with “normal” Muslims who study, work, have children and live their lives, believes Massi. Her performance last Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall certainly seemed, for an hour at least, a long way from the negative images of the Middle East which dominate the news. Massi and her band clearly enjoy performing together – giving the audience a genuine performance is something she says is important to her.
When she was younger, the proximity of the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall would have made her feel intimidated, she says. But now she’s older and she has more experience, “it’s very important to share with people their smiles and feelings and to take this moment. They come from far and these people need something. I have only this moment to share these things with these people, so it gives me courage and I take this moment. It’s wonderful to see people happy.”
It is certainly clear how much Massi’s fans mean to her. The night of the concert she stayed around for one hour and met people from over 30 nationalities in the crowd. “There were people from Ethiopia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Germany, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Lithuania. I was really, really happy because we are from different countries and the music joined us. That is what I want to do.”
“This is the artist’s world,” she adds. “To give a dream to people, to give them hope and happiness. It’s a small thing, but we need that.” What’s also important to her is that her fans do not take reports in the news and what they hear at face value. “Don’t just take all of this information; you have to think about what’s happening now and analyse the news to understand what’s happening.”
In April Massi’s new album El Moutakalimun (The speakers) will be released. She has been working on it for two years, she tells me, suddenly looking exhausted at the thought. She has chosen a collection of contemporary and old Arabic poems which she recites from as far back as the ninth century. “They talk about love, poems and philosophy. We need some philosophy in our lives,” she says, smiling.
Amelia Smith is a senior staff writer at the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) for whom she has conducted a number of high-profile interviews. She also writes regularly on Middle Eastern art and culture.