x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Mawazine Sessions Part 5: El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers

After more than four decades apart, El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers return with songs of family and community.

El Gusto, the 40-strong chaabi orchestra whose members recently reunited after more than 40 years apart. AP Photo
El Gusto, the 40-strong chaabi orchestra whose members recently reunited after more than 40 years apart. AP Photo

After more than four decades apart, El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers return with songs of family and community. They spoke to Saeed Saeed at the recent Mawazine Festival in Morocco

World music is full of artists lost and found. From the chart-topping Cuban collective Buena Vista Social Club to the American folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, the genre holds numerous tales of artists reuniting to rekindle that old magic.

For the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers - also known simply as El Gusto - the big comeback began in 2007 when headlining a reunion concert in the French city of Marseilles.

This emotional affair was the first time the musicians had played together for nearly 45 years. The performance was captured as part of Safinez Bousbia's documentary El Gusto, which received its regional premiere at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Since then it has been non-stop for the collective: sell-out tours of Europe and the United States, followed by an acclaimed album produced by Blur's Damon Albarn.

Backstage before the group hit the stage at the recent Mawazine Festival, the 63-year-old singer and mandolinist Liamime Haimoun shakes his head. "I still can't believe it," he says. "If you told me years ago I would be singing with my comrades again, I would have never believed it. God has His own ways."

The orchestra dates to the late 1940s in French-ruled Algeria. The multi-faith collective of Muslim and Jewish musicians were a hit in the kasbah, performing traditional folk songs, known as chaabi, in local bars and cafes. After independence in 1962, the group was torn apart by the resulting violence; the Jewish members sought refuge in France, the rest scattered across Algeria.

As well as the pain of separation, the vocalist and mandolinist Abelkader Chercham says the orchestra's demise spelt the initial end of the celebrated music genre.

"Not many people were doing what we were," the 67-year-old explains. "We were singing the language of our mothers and the unlettered. We all played together; we had a bond and you can hear that in the music."

To modern ears, El Gusto sound like a Middle-Eastern fusion act. They mix Berber, jazz and chanson vocal styles over a sturdy backdrop of Andalusian rhythms and melodies.

For the older generation, however, El Gusto represent the old Algeria, where community trumped politics and sectarianism.

The group, which initially included up to 15 members, was made up of Muslims and Jews who not only performed together but lived in the same neighbourhood.

Haimoun is a Muslim, as is Chercham, and says religion was never an issue in the group.

"It just wasn't discussed," he says. "It was simply a case of 'they have their religion and we have ours'. For all of us, these people were our neighbours and friends. We all lived together. That was what mattered."

That communal spirit formed the backbone of El Gusto's music. The tracks - some original and others traditional - are a mix of love songs originally performed at Algerian weddings, hymns sung by seamen and observations about local life.

It was these vintage sounds that first caught the attention of Safinez Bousbia. Touring the kasbah in late 2003, the Irish-Algerian filmmaker walked into a mirror shop run by Mohamed Ferkioui.

Upon enquiring about the music wafting out of his stereo, the shopkeeper began telling her about El Gusto. Inspired by Ferkioui's dream to see his friends again - and sensing a good film plot - Bousbia began tracking down the surviving members of the group. Many lived in poverty and exile, and had suffered personal tragedies caused by the Algerian Civil War.

After El Gusto's demise, Haimoun performed at weddings, events and on television. After his two sons were killed in the early 1990s in the civil war, Haimoun packed away his mandolin and vowed never to perform again. Walking home from the local mosque in Algiers one day, Haimoun found Bousbia waiting for him outside his front door. He said the prospect of reuniting with his friends convinced him to perform again after a decade. "I knew it was something I had to do," he says. "Once I started playing again, it was easy. I can honestly say I felt young again."

Chercham was found working as a teacher at the Algiers Conservatory of Music. He took up the academic post after deciding his heart was not into performing chaabi music. However, the promise of a reunion show with the group convinced him to entertain Bousbia's offer.

Haimoun describes the first rehearsal session in France as full of tears. "We just wanted to know each other's stories," he says. "We were grateful for the experience we shared with them."

Chercham says he was fully committed to the project after the first rehearsal session went without a hitch. "These songs were not learnt academically," he says. "There were no song sheets. You simply heard it, practised it and it's locked in your brain. We realised that when we got together, it was as if all those years apart never happened. We were in tune the whole way."

Haimoun hopes El Gusto's re-emergence will trigger new appreciation among the current generation. Indeed, the group is now led by the pianist and musical director Abdel Hadi Halo, the son of the modern chaabi composer Hadj El Anka. On stage, the 14 original members are now backed by up to 20 young performers on various instruments.

Haimoun views these youngsters as the band's future. "We are old men now," he says. "El Gusto need to continue; a new generation should take the baton and keep going. As long as we are alive, we are here to guide."


Next week: the Nigerian Afrobeat artist Seun Kuti