Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 April 2020

Souad Massi on empowerment, child marriage and why 'freedom comes with a heavy price'

The Algerian singer meditates on pain and inner struggles to write her lyrics

Souad Massi sings folk songs that are steeped in melancholy and yet uplifting. Courtesy Al Majaz Amphitheatre
Souad Massi sings folk songs that are steeped in melancholy and yet uplifting. Courtesy Al Majaz Amphitheatre

If there is one thing to know about Souad Massi, it’s that she wears her heart on her sleeve. It’s why every album she releases comes with its share of vulnerable experiences – like allowing a child to leave home and find their way in the world. And like a parent, it is an anxiety Massi learnt to quell over time. Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about musically, as her latest album, Oumniya, is sublime. “I am glad people are responding to it in a really positive way,” she says, before her performance tomorrow at Sharjah’s Al Majaz Amphitheatre.

“I don’t really worry any more. You never know what happens in these cases, you just put it out and hope for the best.”

Released last November, Oumniya is a seductive folk album steeped in melancholy, as the Algerian singer-songwriter meditates on love, heartbreak, broken promises and the various shades of exile. It is the album’s opening song and title track that sets the tone for the 45 brooding minutes ahead. “I gave you my hand,” Massi whispers over soft guitar strums, “and you stabbed me; even though I had just come out of a war.”

While she doesn’t say if the song was inspired by a relationship, it is a concept she mused over during her travels. “It is really about betrayal,” she says. “It is about how we can salvage ourselves after such hurt and move forward. There is a part of the song that almost sounds like a prayer. I think we have all been there in some way – where we are put in a position where we had to start again.”

It’s something Massi, 47, knows well, and her eloquent and uncompromising music has helped her to rebuild physically and creatively over her three-decade career. Massi grew up under the creeping shadow of Algeria’s civil war. In Algiers in her late teens, and in love with the stadium rock sounds of U2 and the punk attitude of The Clash, she joined the pioneering band Atakor and immediately drew the ire of religious extremists, who wasted no opportunity in stealing or destroying the group’s equipment. More than the fact she was a woman singing in public, however, it was Massi’s fiercely political lyrics, championing intellectual and creative freedom, that triggered their wrath.

The 1990s were viewed as Algeria’s “Black Decade”, a time when the raging civil war included the murders of a host of prominent musicians, and Massi fled to Paris in 1999 where her talent was almost immediately recognised, allowing her to sign a record deal. “I learnt early in my career that freedom comes with a heavy price,” she says. “While I always did what I wanted and released things that were never commercial, it is something that I had to fight for again and again.”

Massi recalls experiencing this struggle five years ago in the boardroom of her former record label, Universal, in Paris. She was a relatively successful artist at the time, with a cult following. She told the executives that she wanted to sing her next album, El Mutakallimun, solely in classical Arabic, with lyrics taken from writers including sixth-century pre-Islamic poet Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma and 20th-century bard Aboul-Qacem Echebbi. They were not pleased and vetoed the idea. Massi, in response, walked out on the label, deciding to make the album anyway and release it independently.

Not only was that record a success, but it opened up new touring opportunities in Europe and North America. “They said the album was not commercial enough,” she says. “But I felt the real reason was that there was this anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in France at the time and the label didn’t want to release anything associated with presenting a positive picture about us. I couldn’t accept that. I had to leave.”

Massi mustered that same sense of fearlessness for Ouminiya, on which she blends various influences from French chanson to Algerian folk. The atmosphere may be bleak, but dig deeper and you will find that Massi hasn’t sounded this adventurous in some time. “I wasn’t really thinking too much about what particular sound I wanted,” she says. “I think I was just trying to do all the things I have been doing in a new and fresh way. It does sound like I am going back home, but I have also changed at the same time.”

One aspect of her craft that hasn’t changed, fortunately, is the powerful lyricism imbuing her work – some of which she writes, while others are crafted by present and classical poets. “They dictate the path forward for the song,” she says. “The lyrics and message guide me on the best way to build the songs.”

And this is why Oumniya works. It’s an album of big ideas told in small and searing snapshots. Sung in the Algerian Berber dialect, the campfire sing-along vibe of Je veux apprendre (French for want to learn) disguises the expansive and heartrending lyrics that form a plea against child marriage. “There are people out there in our region who still do that now. They don’t want their children to be educated in order to marry them off,” she says. “So in that song I am talking about all the things that these children are missing out on. I reference [14th-century Muslim historian] Ibn Khaldun as one the treasures of knowledge that we have that we are denying our children. It’s a practice we need to stop. How can societies develop if we don’t want half of us to be educated?”

It is that message of empowerment that Massi has continually delivered since leaving her homeland 30 years ago. With Algeria currently being rocked by protests against its political system, does she see herself returning home and performing any time soon? It’s a question she ponders carefully.

“Well, there are some profound changes happening right now in Algeria,” she says. “But if I go back it would be just to live. I am not interested in performing there because I feel I changed since I left. I just want to live with my family and friends. It is these little things I cherish the most.”

Souad Massi performs at Al Majaz Amphitheatre in Sharjah tomorrow. Tickets from Dh80 are available at sharjah.platinumlist.net

Updated: March 11, 2020 06:42 PM

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