Algerian chanteuse Souad Massi is not your average singer-songwriter from the Arab world. For one, her music seems uncommonly palatable to a western ear. This is by no means a result of her conscientiously distancing herself from the Arab music world. Her 2015 album, Al-Mutakallimun (“Masters of the World”), is an intriguing and refreshing examination of Arabic poetry stretching as far back as the sixth century. Rather, she presents inherently “Arabic” music from an often unconsidered angle, more familiar to westerners. So when I say her music is ‘palatable’ I mean rather that it a more accessible inlet into an otherwise inaccessible or daunting genre for non-Arabic speakers. Because after a while, to be blunt, it can all get a bit ‘same-y’ if you don’t know what’s being sung about.
There’s something about Massi that reminds you of the old French legends Francoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg and Georges Brassen. Certainly, with her Algerian heritage, there are French influences in her music, and perhaps it is this that helps bridge the gap between European and Middle Eastern music. Massi blends traditional Middle Eastern and North African instruments: the oud, the Arabic flute and the darbouka drums, with more western and contemporary instruments: a good old acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar and even the occasional banjo. With this messy concoction of a band, she constructs tangos, reggae-esque melodies and jazz, amongst a whole range of other genres.
Her work is not flawless. Whilst her debut album Raoui got some well deserved credit, it is not without fault. As it progresses, the album becomes a little thin and unimaginative- some songs inspiring nothing but indifference. Her 2010 album O Houria followed on from the somewhat uninspiring final songs of her debut. Despite some interesting collaborations (Paul Weller included), and the occasional piece of originality, most of the album feels like the kind of easy listening you put on in the background but hope not to hear.
That said, Massi shows real flair at points, and her most recent album is undeniably worth a listen. It is a well-crafted body of work that feels appropriate placed in time, as the Middle East shifts around politically and factional lines are drawn. This is the driving force of the album – that of quiet protest in light of the extremely mixed results of the Arab Spring. The Americana guitar wails that drone for the duration of her song, ‘Al-Houriya’ (“freedom”), are silenced by an echoing chant taken from protests back in 2011, intoning a derivation of the famous phrase, “the people want the fall of the regime.” It may not be subtle, but in light of the events in the Middle East, subtlety may be a little too indulgent right now.
“‘Faya Layla’ is a mournful, little ballad, with piano pattering alongside a bossa nova rhythm and doleful, ruminative vocals”
Throughout the whole of her most recent album, Massi draws from contemporary poems such as Abu al-Qassim al-Shabbi’s ‘To The Tyrants of the World,’ whilst simultaneously falling back on classic poets such as Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma. Through this, Massi reminds us of a certain cyclicism to the Middle East, that this is not the first time nor the last that the people will challenge their rulers. In this way, Massi offers a softer form of protest to some of the violence that broke out during that particularly tumultuous period.
At her best, Massi produces songs such as ‘Faya Layla,’ a mournful, little ballad, with piano pattering alongside a bossa nova rhythm and doleful, ruminative vocals. At her worst, she can be a little too cheerful and a little too unimaginative. But heck, the Middle East can be a little brusque. Who said cheer was a bad thing?