Souad Massi is a Paris-based Algerian singer-songwriter. With a beautiful voice and a large palette of influences to draw from, Souad Massi is one of the most interesting new singers to come from Algeria. Influenced equally by shaabi music, French chanson, flamenco, 1960s American folk and a variety of African traditional music, this Algerian guitarist and singer makes music that is at once exotic and familiar.
Souad Massi was born August 23, 1972 in Bab en Oued, Algeria, a poor, multi-ethnic neighborhood in the hills above Algiers. Her family had come from Kabylia, the mountainous home of the Berber people, a culturally estranged population in modern Algeria. It is tempting to link Souad’s career to those of socially conscious Kabyl singer/songwriters like Matoub Lounes and Ait Mengeullet. But despite great affection for her Berber roots, Souad has always felt at peace with her blended identity, part Berber, part Arab, part Turkish and Persian-in short, Algerian. Her struggle for identity has centered on her vocation as a musician, not her ethnicity.
Souad’s father was a chartered accountant, who enjoyed chaabi music-urban street pop. Her mother preferred Arabic classical music, but also bent her ear to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. For Souad, films inspired an early passion for music. A self-described “tom boy,” she loved Westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the top of the list. These films led to her to discover country and folk music, Kenny Rogers and Emmy Lou Harris, Loudon Wainwright III, and later Tracy Chapman. Her uncle played flamenco guitar, and Souad also developed a passion for that style, finding its rough, evocative vocal style an intriguing departure from the more genteel Arabic vocal music she grew up with.
When Souad succumbed to depression as a teenager, her musical brother Hassan nurtured her with music, enrolling her in guitar lessons and coaching her at home. She began writing poetry in the tradition of Arabic love poets, and soon put the two together, performing her songs informally for friends.
School took Souad out of Algiers for awhile, first to Taghit, at the edge of the Sahara, where she studied architecture, then to Tizi Ouzou, in Kabylia. Bored without the stimulation of the big city, she returned to Algiers to study at the Institute of Public Works. In the late 90s, she took a job as town planner, and played music at night. She began with a flamenco-oriented group called Trianas d’Alger, but soon left to indulge a newfound passion for hardcore rock music.
She joined a rock band called Atakor and recorded her debut cassette, Souad, with them in 1997. The cassette’s success led to radio and TV appearances. But with fame came danger. Rock groups faced fundamentalist protests and sometimes violence at festivals. At a time when musicians were being targeted for assassination, she was afraid to press her career forward. At the same time, the more she discovered her own voice as a musician, the more the broadcast media became wary of her, and began to censor her simply by neglecting her. Caught between a fearful military government and scornful fundamentalists, Souad felt trapped.
Subsequently, the fateful invitation arrived for Souad Massi to perform a concert in Paris. TV producer Aziz Smati, himself a victim of a fundamentalist shooting, had escaped to France as a paraplegic, and teamed up with radio broadcaster Mohammed Allalou to organize a festival of Algerian women at the Cabaret Sauvage. Once in France, energized in the aftermath of that life-changing debut, Souad recorded her debut CD, Raoui (Island/Wrasse), a set of stylistically adventurous and highly personal songs inspired by a tempestuous, ill-fated love affair. The songs were frankly confessional, and cast an unflinching eye on the darkness she had experienced in her life.
She mostly sang in Arabic, showcasing a voice with stark emotional power and arresting subtlety, but she also sang in French, as on “J’ai Pas du Temps,” a languid rock ballad in which she laments, “It was said to me that life was beautiful/But I find these times cruel/The black smoke took the place of the sky.” Raoui sold over 100,000 copies, and although she was still an unknown in the Middle East and North Africa, Souad Massi quickly became an Arab music pop star in Europe.
Her 2001 WOMEX appearance was a revelation, propelling Raoui (Storyteller) onto plenty of best of lists, and garnering her a nomination in the Radio 3 World Music Awards.
Souad’s unique road to success has left her free to make her own stylistic choices, rather than conform to the established genres for Algerian singers: rai, chaabi, Arab-Andalusian or classical music. On her album Deb (Island/Wrasse), Souad continues her impressive musical evolution embracing flamenco, gypsy rumba, and even Congolese music, while maintaining her identity as a highly personal songwriter. Now based in Paris, Souad Massi has had the time to let her musical sensibility mature, meet other artists and tour extensively.
Raoui [Storyteller] (Island – Universal, 2001)
Deb (AZ – Universal & Wrasse Records Wrass 096, 2003)
Mesk Elil (Wrasse Records, 2005)
Live acoustique (2007)
Ô Houria (2010)
El Mutakallimun (Wrasse Records, 2015)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.