The members of Gnawa Diffusion, who are based in Grenoble in the South East of France, come from a rich mix of musical and cultural backgrounds. Fusing their individual influences into a collective sound, Gnawa Diffusion have woven elements of rap, ragga, jazz, reggae and rai into a vibrant musical patchwork.
The group’s name is a reference to the Gnawa, black Africans who were deported to North Africa in the 16th century by the rulers of Fes and Algiers. While the Gnawa were officially converted to Islam by their new leaders, they continued to worship their own African gods in private.
The way Gnawa Diffusion sees it, this historic tale of people uprooted from their homeland and forced to begin a new life in a foreign land is remarkably similar to the lives of modern-day immigrants growing up in France. Indeed, the group’s lead singer, Amezigh, son of the famous Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, considers himself to be a 20th century version of the Gnawa.
Amezigh, who arrived in France in 1988 at 16, has been closely involved in the struggle to defend immigrants’ rights and abolish racial prejudice. When Amezigh formed Gnawa Diffusion in 1992 he saw the group as an alternative means to get his political message across. Amezigh, Gnawa Diffusion’s lead singer and songwriter, writes his lyrics in three languages, Arabic, French and English.
Gnawa Diffusion started their career in 1993 with the release of a mini 5-track album named “Legitime difference”. Following the release of their CD album the group began to concentrate on their live career, with an extensive tour of France, performing concerts with a host of French stars including FFF, Zebda, Massilia Sound System and Princess Erika.
Gnawa Diffusion’s innovative musical fusion and the hard-hitting lyrics of their protest songs have certainly made them one of the most prominent new groups on the French music scene. The group’s single “Ombre-elle” and their first full album “Algeria” (released in 1997 on GDO) served to increase their popularity – and Gnawa Diffusion’s live shows began to attract an impressive number of fans! When they hit the road for the Chibani tour – Gnawa Diffusion’s personal tribute to the past – the group’s lively on-stage performances attracted huge audiences across the world and led them to play in such places as the Africa Festival in Wurzburg, the Francofolies in la Rochelle, the Berlin Music Fest, Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland, Reading/Leeds festival in the UK, Pirineos Sur Festival in Spain, Rascimus Beat It in Netherlands, Fete des Cent in Belgium, etc.
In January 1999, Gnawa Diffusion returned to the studio to work on their second album “Bab El Oued-Kingston” (which was released in May). The album featured the band’s usual fusion sound, but this time Gnawa Diffusion also began experimenting with traditional music, recording their own innovative version of “Chara’Allah” – a three hundred years old song. Following the release of the album, Gnawa Diffusion went on the road again, kicking off an extensive tour in Toulouse. Before the end of the year, music fans flocked to see the group playing concerts all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Gnawa Diffusion also performed at various music festivals throughout the summer of 1999.
Gnawa Diffusion rocketed back into the music news in June 2000 with a new album entitled Bab El Oued 2. At the end of the year the group also headed out to perform a tour in Algeria and flew back there again in 2001 for a mini-series of four dates. Renowned for their energetic live performances, the group returned to the festival circuit in the summer and traveled to such countries as Yemen, Syria, Jordania and Sudan.
After their Algerian tour, following the murderous confrontations in Kabylia, the band released a double live album titled Live DZ – the first live album ever recorded during a tour in Algeria.
in June 2003, the band came back with a new album, Souk System. Sung in French, Arabic and English, the lyrics were more political than in the previous albums. They referred to international news, denouncing as well as satirizing the events. As for the music, it consisted in the usual mixture of reggae and raga muffin, chaabi and Gnawa music. They began another worldwide tour from France to Canada and from Europe to North Africa.
Mohamed Adlen Fergani was born on the 29th of April 1993 in the city of Constantine, Algeria. He belongs to the Fergani family where Maluf music is a part of the heart and soul of all family members. This family atmosphere has pushed his learning of the use of many musical instruments: percussion at the age of 8, mandolin at 13, then violin and oud (Arabic lute).
Beside his musical career, Adlen is studying Aeronautics at Constantine University. He is part of the 4th Generation of the Fergani family that includes his great grandfather Hamou Fergani, grandfather Hadj Mohamed Taher Fergani, his father Nasserdine Fergani and his uncle Salim Fergani.
Carrying over the mission to preserve the musical patrimonial heritage of Constantine, already developed by the predecessors, he is distinguished by his beautiful voice appreciated by his fans and Maluf followers. His musical products are inspired by the heart, spirit and allows the listeners to travel through the ancient Arab Andalusian world thanks to the selected words and refined music. The success has been proven in many festivals, wedding ceremonies, Ramadan parties or religious events.
The title of his first album is “Ana el mamhoun bel ghoram”, supervised by his grandfather, maestro Mohamed Hadj Fergani and featuring the participation of other artists as well. A second album is in the works.
Adlen Fergani has performed on TV, radio and at numerous festivals throughout Algeria.
His awards and trophies include Trophy & Expression of Gratitude for the conservation of Constantine Patrimonies, 8th Edition of « Cultural National Festival of Andalusian Music and Maluf (2014) and Trophy & Expression of Gratitude for the participation in “Knowledge days University of Constantine 2012.
Marzoug combines Arab and African cultures. The musical family settled in the El Alia district of Biskra, in southern Algeria. Marzoug is led by the distinguished bagpipe master, Soudani Djelloul, who carries on the traditions of the music of his area. The music of Marzoug must be seen against the background of the Sahara Desert – the large region that includes most of North Africa up to the Mediterranean Sea that separates and at the same time joins North Africa and Southern Mediterranean Europe. The band’s music invites the listener into the immensity of the desert through their integrated program of music, song and dance.
The group has a great rapport with the public that owes a lot to their integration of traditional instruments such as the chekwa bagpipe, the karkabas (iron castanet) and the North African tabla (darbuka).
One of the great inovations of the Marzoug family is that they made the bagpipe a solo instrument of its own in the Magreb, and not only an instrument used to accompany the singer, as can be found in other areas.
The Soudani-Marzoug family has been composed of noteworthy musicians for generations, some players of chekwa (bagpipe), of tabla and karkabas, along with the Arab African chants of a singer. The songs of this band can be of profane or religious (medh or praise) inspiration. However it is undoubtedly the profane and love repertoire that remains the most outstanding. It is on various occasions or for celebrations (wedding, baptism, circumcision etc.), in various boroughs, towns or villages that the Marzoug band is invited to play on a regular basis.
Cheb Nacim combines contemporary Rai with a traditional music base. Singing in Arabic, he possesses a unique combination of tone and technique that transcends language barriers and genre preferences. His first major concerts took place around the suburbs of Nantes in 1993, in venues such as Quai de la Fosse with Khaled and Cheb Mami and the Triangle in Rennes. Cheb Nacim took part in the tribute concert for Cheb Hasni alongside the biggest stars of Rai, Sahraoui, Faudel, Cheb Nasro, Rachid Taha, Mohamed Lamine and Cheikha Rimitti.
Through his performances Cheb Nacim’s reputation grew considerably and saw him open concerts for L’Orchestre National de Barbes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Faudel at the Hammersmith Palais in London.
In the tradition of the great Rai singers Cheb Hasni, Khaled and others, Cheb Nacim recorded Algerian Rai, an album of passionate Rai songs by Hasni, Dahman El Har-rachi, Abderahmane Djoudi, as well as original compositions.
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.
Author of one of the first world music hits, Idir has been an ambassador of the Kabyl culture (Berber people inhabiting Northern Algeria) since the Seventies.
Idir, whose real name is Hamid Cheriet was born in Aït Lahcène, a Berber village in Upper-Kabylia, in 1949. This farmer’s son, raised by the Jesuits, started studying Geology and was destined for a career in the petroleum industry. In 1973, he stood in at the last moment for a famous artist on Radio Algiers and sang a lullaby. He recorded this song called “A Vava inouva” (my little father), as a single before leaving for his military service.
This Kabyl song with only vocals and guitar stands as one of the first big hits coming directly from the Maghreb, long before the success of a Khaled or a Cheb Mami. He stood for the affirmation of a definite identity, the return to the roots anchored deeply in the history of Algeria. It would be translated into seven languages. After his military service, Idir was contacted by the record company Pathé Marconi. Fans had to wait until 1976 for a first album, A Vava Inouva, which included the song “A Vava inouva”. After notable success, Idir wrote and recorded Ay Arrac Negh (to our children), an album which came out in 1979.
For this discreet man with a serious look, it was difficult to blend into the world of show biz and if he enjoyed composing, which he did for others, his stage appearances rarely satisfied him. As a result, he slipped away for about ten years nevertheless giving some recitals.
His career started up again with the release of a compilation in 1991 of seventeen songs from his first two albums. After a drawn out lawsuit against his former producer, Idir had the chance to re-record some songs like the famous “A Vava Inouva”. Backed by this recording success, he came back to the stage and performed at New Morning in Paris from February 7-9, 1992. He remained the ambassador of the Kabyl community and was now recognized as a forerunner to world music.
The following year, a new album appeared on the Blue Silver label called Les Chasseurs de lumières, where he sang about (his) predilection (themes), love, freedom and exile (which he had known since he moved to the Paris region in 1975). He introduced synthesizers alongside darbukas, flute and acoustic guitar which gives a touch of modernism. One can also hear the voice of the Breton singer Alan Stivell in the duo “Isaltiyen”. Idir performed his songs for the public at the Olympia in Paris on June 26th, 27th and 28th, 1993.
Questions of Identity
A man of conviction, Idir often participated in concerts supporting different causes. On June 22nd 1995 more than 6.000 people came to applaud the singer and his friend Khaled, initiators of the association “l’Algérie la vie” which invited them to a concert for peace freedom and tolerance. It was a triumph for the two artists who on this occasion joined the Kabyl and Arabic-speaking communities together. A few years later, Idir also took part in the concert in memory of Matoub Lounes, the Kabyl singer who was assassinated in 1998.
Idir’s record making comeback was made with Identities in 1999, a tribute album which joined numerous artists together from Manu Chao to Dan Ar Braz without forgetting Maxime Le Forestier and Scotswoman Karen Matheson for a “A vava inouva 2”, but also Gnawa Diffusion, Zebda, Gilles Servat, Geoffrey Oryema and Orchestre National de Barbes. Idir gathered here those who advocate cultural openings as well as recognition of each person’s own roots.
When Idir performed two concerts at the legendary Olympia music hall in Paris in December ’99 he was joined by an equally impressive amount of guest stars. In fact, the celebrity line-up included everyone from Frédéric Galliano to guitarist Thierry Robin and the Orchestre National de Barbes (ONB).
Idir took to the stage to defend his national identity once again at the “21ème Printemps berbère”, a celebration of Berber culture organized at Le Zénith in Paris in the spring of 2001. The Algerian star returned to the same venue on July 8th, organizing a special fund-raising concert to support the population in Kabylia when anti-government riots rocked the cradle of Berber culture in the summer of 2001. Idir was joined on stage by an impressive list of guest stars and thousands of French fans turned out to Le Zénith to show their support.
In 2007 he released La France des Couleurs (France of the Colors). This album sets itself apart with amazing collaboration pieces and lyrics. Here, Idir plays with some of the hottest names in the French hip hop and R&B scenes, including Akhenaton, Daniel Manu and Guizmo (of Tryo), Noa, Oxmo Puccino, and many more.
Umalu is a North African Berber, born in Algeria. He grew up in Europe and currently lives in Los Angeles (United States of America). After finishing hid studies in physics, Umalu produced his first CD called Heritage of Berber music which went world wide in the net in 1999.
Since then, Umalu went on to produce music for documentaries and a new instrumental CD entitled Decadence.
Umalu has appeared in concert venues in Southern California and created a new project called Syphax named after a Berber King. His shows are visual with slide shows of exotic images of North Africa and trance, techno ethnic percussive music.
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.
Naziha Azzouz was born in Algeria and moved to France at the age of 12. She started singing ancient Arab Andalusian music at a very early age and performed in Algeria, France, Morocco, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
In 1998 Naziha first met Palestinian ‘ud player Adel Salameh to study Arabic music, i.e. the music of the Middle East. Since that time, Naziha and Adel have worked together and recorded 2 CDs, Nuzhu & Kanza.
Naziha formed the Trio Al Andalussiyat featuring Naziha Azzouz on vocals, bendir and riq; Imène Sahir on violin; and Sofia Lampropoulou on kanun.