Yelas was born in the 20th century in Tarihant, ‘a little village perched in the mountains not far from the sea’, he was from a modest background where you had to work to achieve anything, to pull through. So the little Kabyl got down to work and did very well at school. But soon, he would stray from the path that seemed mapped out for him, enrolling in the school of life where his guitar would be his most faithful mentor and his native Berber language his chosen discipline.
In 1984, he formed a first group at secondary school, performing a patchwork of Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, Paul Simon and Idir covers. This was the start of a fabulous adventure that was to last more than fifteen years before it culminated in the production of his first record.
During that time, young Said chose a name that spoke volumes about his plans: Yelas, meaning ‘ever present’. During that time, he also joined the Berber Spring movement and became increasingly committed to the struggle for recognition of his people’s rights and identity. During that period, he left for France where he now lives.
Like bluesmen and folk singers, Yelas writes alone on the guitar, ‘as the mood takes me’, he says. When the time is right and not to order. ‘I feel naked without my guitar. I’ve traveled all over Europe, North and South, and I’ve even been to the United States and Canada with it.’
Despite a year spent as a pupil at a conservatory of music in Algeria (classical guitar section) and his higher business studies, the young man preferred to live from day to day, his life guided by meetings and experiences.
Yelas has played in subways and streets, in public places and cafes for a pittance and for the sheer pleasure of it too, the delight of sharing his passion with an audience. Today as yesterday, his place is on the stage, the scene of every kind of interplay and potentiality. This explains his apprehension when he goes through the looking glass into the impersonal recording booth. ‘Studio work isn’t easy. Nothing like stage performance. But it’s there that you realize you’re becoming more professional.’
‘My music is like my musicians, met by word of mouth in the same way that my music tells the story of my life.’ A nomad at heart, the Kabyl does not refuse the world music label. Quite the opposite. He simply has his own vision, which he defines in this way: ‘Blending with all the colors of the world without losing your soul, without forgetting where you’re from’.
That is why his seven musician partners – a magnificent seven – must be ‘able to feel at home with a wide range of repertoires’: cosmopolitan like him, a polyglot who speaks four languages. He admits to being as strongly influenced by Greek or Hispanic genres as by the great tradition of American songwriters.
It was armed with these credentials that he set out to explore his natural world, the music of Kabylia, stirring it up in every sense of the term ‘to protect our Berber cultural identity, to fight for freedom and to continue the struggle. It’s a permanent commitment.’ There is no point in asking him to play for the government: he is a spokesman for those people who have no say, an Algeria reduced to silence.
This is what Yelas tells in his words and music. He sings in his own language, the speech of his native land, ‘more suited to melody than others because of the richness of its sounds’. He is proud in his words and warmly eloquent. Above all, he has a unique, singularly-multiple style, bringing together all the lessons he has learned during his travels.
Flamenco dances are unconsciously there, Celtic music slips quietly in and the Mediterranean movement stretches to the shores of a Latin-style America. It is difficult to qualify and categorize Yelas’ music. There is no doubt that it is a fine reflection of his open spirit, infatuated with freedom. But above and beyond the notes, rapid tempos and calmer ballads, there are the words, words whose true meaning is enhanced by the music.
Beginning with the title, which symbolizes his approach. ‘Ifili means net. But the real meaning is trap, in other words, the current situation in Algeria. We have to go into exile to find freedom!’, forcefully explains this native son, still attached to his roots although his winged sandals have carried him to the four corners of the world.
The same applies to Ggan-Kem, ‘the exodus of Kabyles fleeing social and political oppression’. And it is no accident that the record begins with a tribute to the victims of terrorism, ‘starting with Matoub Lounes and all those who fell in the Berber Spring’.
Tafsuyt continues in the same vein, ‘to keep alive the memory of the victims of the first Berber Spring at the start of 1980, repressed with terrible violence’.
Furulu is something of a symbol, but also a tribute, borrowing its title from a character in a novel. ‘It is in praise of the old educational system, which was established just after independence and took a beating twenty years later. It is an indirect tribute to the French-speaking world and all those who wanted to build an educated Algeria’.
Later on, Debout! (Stand up!) launches ‘an appeal to Algeria, which must wake up to our differences in identity’, sadly neglected treasures. This awakening is predicted in Tannumi, ‘the hope that goes hand in hand with any struggle. Despite the hardship, it brings joy too, because freedom lies at the end!’.
Not to forget to have fun, Not to forget Tizgrit, ‘the village by the coast where I went to school‘. The place where it all began, as a few verses inscribed on music paper remind us, a touch nostalgically. Days of adolescence, certainly still carefree days in a way. That is perhaps why Yelas ends his first album with two songs that are less loaded with meaning, more suited to dancing and celebration: La fille au violon (The girl with the violin), ‘simply a love song’, and Huzz-Imanim, ‘a call to get up and move, to have a good time’. Two themes showing that Yelas is much more than just a singer with a message, much more than just a bard of rai, a genre that all too often loses its way.
Ifili (Iris Music, 2002)
Biography by Jacques Denis
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.