DUBAI: Souad Massi was an icon of the “Arab alternative” music scene long before that much-in-vogue tag had been coined. The Algerian artist might have found sudden international success after moving to France at the turn of the millennium, but the more enduring inspiration her example offers has been felt deepest closer to home. Widely touted as the “most successful” female singer-songwriter to emerge from the Arabic-speaking world, Massi’s image as a fearless, political, headstrong-but-sensitive, guitar-touting woman has conjured up a heroic figure for a generation of marginalized musicians and fans alike.
Yet in person Massi appears remarkably humbled by her own reputation, warmly taking stock of 15 years in the limelight – and worrying she has been “too open” on her upcoming sixth album. Speaking in a mix of broken English, and in Arabic through a translator, the 45-year-old is endlessly patient during inevitable communication breakdowns. Even in translation, her turn of phrase is often profound and potently poetic.
“I’ve always been torn between the past and the future,” she says, an appropriate explanation for a life lived in constant cultural flux between two continents. “So that’s what I would like to learn – to be more present in the present.”
It is an understandable affliction — the present has not always been kind to Massi. The oft-quoted origins story states she fled Algeria after suffering death threats for singing political songs with her rock band Atakor, a migration which led her to France and fame.
Born to a large, poor family of Berber descent, Massi’s brothers encouraged her to play music from a young age, a fact not always welcomed by Algiers’ conservative population. “We loved music in my own family,” she remembers. “But in the society, it was very hard – the mentality… there’s such a stigma attached to being a woman and playing music.”
Bolstered by fraternal support, in her early twenties Massi joined the Western-influenced, politically outspoken Atakor, who were both feted and vilified throughout the Algerian Civil War, which broke out in 1991. There exist widespread reports that Massi cut her hair and dressed up to continue performing as if a man – when the disguise failed, she was frequently spat at and insulted. Then came the death threats.
But contrary to popular legend, Massi maintains today that her flight north had nothing to do with the prejudice of her fellow countrymen. “I never left because I was afraid of anything in Algeria – during the civil war I still sang, I didn’t care,” she says.
Atakor folded after seven years on the road, but an invitation to play at the 1999 Femmes d’Algerie concert in Paris brought Massi to Europe as a solo artist, where her spirited performance floored record company executives and she was promptly signed. The rest, as they say, is history. “For me, I was just passing through France,” she says, seemingly still puzzled by the chain of events today. “It all happened so quickly after that.”
Dividing her time between France and Algeria, Massi still calls Paris home, yet it was the initial culture shock of emigration which gave birth to her distinctive sound. Raised on American rock and country, she never had much time for traditional Arabic music growing up, but arriving in the unfamiliar environment prompted a pivotal reassessment of her cultural lineage. “It took me a few years of being in Europe to realize I needed to get back in touch with my origins, my roots,” says Massi.
Souad Massi – Rani Rayha
For debut album “Raoui” she brought in oud, gumbri and traditional North African percussion, subtly framing her strummed Spanish guitar and yearning vocals with exotic ornamentations and desert-worn rhythms. It was to prove a career-making resolution – sung in a mix of Arabic and French, Raoui became a surprise international hit following its 2001 release, marketed in the then-emerging “world music” bracket. To this day, Massi’s best work remains a quixotic blur of Eastern and Western sensibilities, seamlessly segueing folk-rock song-writing with regional traditions.
Raoui – translated as Storyteller – was followed two years later by the more confessional “Deb” (Heartbroken) and then 2005’s “Mesk Elil” (Honeysuckle). Paul Weller turned up as a surprise guest on 2010’s “Ô Houria” – the result of a frantic session in which an entire song was written and recorded in a single day at the British rock icon’s London studio. “I thought it was just a [social] meeting and he said, ‘okay, we’re going to do a song now’ – really just like that,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not ready, I don’t write…’. He gave me a pen and paper, and said ‘take one hour’.” A translator was on hand to put Massi’s words into English for the off-the-cuff duet.
After time out for childrearing, Massi emerged reenergized with fifth album “El Mutakallimun” (Masters of the Word), in which she pointedly put to music Arabic poetry from across the ages – from sixth century poet Zuhayr Ibn Abî Sulmâ to contemporary politicized pieces by Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar. Released in 2015, the album took more than two years to complete. “I took time, because I needed time to live,” she says. “Time to be sad, to be happy, to cry – to have a story to tell I’ve actually lived.”
The wait until Massi’s next release is likely to be substantially shorter, with work nearly complete on a follow-up. But writing her own lyrics again this time around, the songwriter was already anxious her newer work might be sharing too much with her audience and says her sonic approach echoes that of Deb.
“I share a lot of personal things (in the new songs) and I’m not very happy about it right now,” she says. “Your mentality, what you have to say in your twenties is different to your thirties, your forties, I feel I’ve matured over time in my thinking, and thus in my lyrics, what I’m trying to communicate to people.
“Now, sometimes when I listen to my old music, which I knew at the time wasn’t ready to go out yet – it bothers me. What I’m trying to teach myself now is to give everything – as much time as humanly possible, so 20 years in the future when I hear it again, I won’t be angry that I didn’t give it enough time.
“The day I have nothing left to say to people is the day I stop singing – up until this point, I have a lot that I want to say, to share – so I will continue singing.”
Souad Massi – Mesk Elil
Outspoken musician Souad Massi is no stranger to ‘singing’ her mind