In conversation with Souad Massi
Souad Massi is "the internationally most successful singer-songwriter of the Arab speaking world". Sandra Arslanian, herself a well respected musician from Beirut , Lebanon ("Sandmoon"), talked with Souad before a recent concert in Antwerp, Belgium
It was a stormy Belgian Sunday evening in February, and yet, despite the rough winds and icy rain, the gorgeous concert hall De Roma was full and eagerly waiting for the Algerian-French diva to warm its heart. There she was, as simple and brilliant as ever, graciously holding her guitar, sitting in the middle of a half concave circle – violin and oud to the left, western and eastern rhythm sections to the right.
As the tripping sounds of the orient subtly married the pop-folky hooks of the west, carrying her gentle voice to higher spheres of consciousness, Souad Massi unmistakably warmed our hearts and lifted our spirits. Her musicians masterfully followed the inclinations of her pulse, and periodically broke into virtuoso solos. Soon we were all clapping and jiggling on our seats. Belgians and Middle-Easterns alike. We were all one, blending with the music. I even dropped a few trembling tears as she sang “Pays natal” (“Homeland”), unornamented, genuine. “ll n’y avait rien à regretter là-bas…Pourtant j’y pense encore, j’ai un peu mal” (“There was nothing to regret there…However, it hurts a little when I think about it again”). And when I turned my face to look at the Moroccan girl sitting next to me, I noticed that she too was looking for a handkerchief to timidly wipe away the melancholy. I smilingly whispered to her “Matebkiche” (“Don’t cry”), the title of one of Souad Massi’s earlier songs.
Folk ballads and more upbeat chaabi, oriental tunes flowed in turn filling the space with sights and sounds of a jasmine scented world of longing and love, owing Souad a much-deserved double standing ovation.
Before the show, I had the opportunity to meet with Souad backstage. The interview was a bit delayed due to last minute sound check fine-tunings. Despite time constraints, the encounter was laid-back and we shared some colorful thoughts about womanhood, revolution and life. Here is a freehand transcript of our conversation, complemented with some ad hoc comments.
Sandra Arslanian: I know we are a bit late and I know how it feels right before a gig, so this won’t take long. On the other hand, I’m sure that after 30 years of career, you are used to pre-stage stress…
Souad Massi: Well, even after all those years, you still feel nervous! (smiles)
Beirut - Algiers. We’re in the same kind of socio-political situation, aren’t we? The peaceful protests, the mobilization, the awareness, the youth on the streets demanding a better political system, fighting corruption …
It’s true, there is a link between Algiers and Beirut. We are fighting against corruption. But you have other problems as well that we don’t have in Algeria, like multi-confessionalism.
However, I must say that I don’t feel this multi-confessional issue when I’m in Beirut. I have friends there of all religions and cultures: Muslims, Christians… I don’t feel the tension. Most of my friends are artists. Art is beyond religion, thankfully.
You launched your tour in Beirut…
The first gig of my album release, “Oumniya” (“My wish”) was in Lebanon early October 2019, yes. I thought “why not do it in Beirut?”. And then the revolution started on October 17th, a few days after the gig.
So you’re the one who organized it… (laughter)
I brought it with me from Algeria. But I didn’t do it on purpose. (giggles)
Can we call you a socially-committed singer?
Among other things, Souad organized a concert in support of the Algerian Hirak in Paris last Spring.
I try to be. It’s not easy. But I believe it is important for an artist to have a message to convey. An artist has to awaken people’s consciousness, raise awareness, make things move. It is the role of the painter, the poet, the writer, as well as the intellectual and the journalist. it’s an important role.
Stirring people’s consciences…
You are mostly concerned by Human Rights and Women’s Rights.
Well, not just by Human Rights and Women’s Rights. I also try to talk about Nature, to defend the environment. Danger is right around the corner.
You are thinking about your kids…
Souad has 2 daughters, 14 and 8 years old
Yes, we have to prepare them to defend themselves. The environmental crisis is acute.
Experiencing the revolution from afar, does it hurt?
Souad left Algeria in 1999, at the age of 27 when she was invited to perform at the Femmes d'Algerie ("Women of Algeria") festival in Paris. She has been living in France ever since.
I am following the events in Algeria on a day to day basis. I try to be present, even from afar by participating in demonstrations in Paris. We don’t have any other choice really. We have to storm the streets, say what we have to say, brandish posters and slogans, sing songs to raise awareness. People need to understand what is going on.
There was a beautiful protest today in Paris, but unfortunately, I couldn’t be there since I’m here.
You can actually mix pictures of the revolution in Beirut and Algiers, they are so much alike: the youth, the slogans, the posters, the artists, the colors… and the women!
Yes, the women! “Once women take to the streets, then you can call it a revolution”. I don’t know who said it, but I totally agree.*
It’s great to see women in the Arab world take on this role. Especially in the Arab world! I’m so happy to see the image of the Arab woman change, steering away from the sexy, doll-like figure to the woman wearing jeans, no make-up and defending ideas. It makes me feel proud.
*The actual quote is by Lila Benlamri, an Algerian activist who said “When men take to the streets, it is a revolt; when women take to the streets, it is a revolution”
Do you think that this flawed image of women is also present in Beirut?
It is especially true in Beirut, yes. Beauty is a cult in Lebanon. You worship the body, the physical beauty. Just look around you, on TV, the billboards, it’s everywhere. It is not the case in Algeria. We’re far from the “beauty cult”. Particularly right now, Algerian women are voicing their opinion, they’re present in public spaces, making demands, making their voices heard.
There are a lot of strong women in Lebanon as well…
Yes, of course. No doubt about that.
There is a stigma attached to female artists in the Arab world. And you suffered from it? I read somewhere that in your early twenties in Algeria, you cut your hair and dressed up as a man to be able to continue performing…
No, no… I didn’t have to cut my hair for that reason at all. I cut my hair because I wanted to, not because I was compelled to. I was a real tom boy at the time.
Nevertheless, it is true that the Algerian society didn’t easily acknowledge or accept differences in opinion or thought. Individual liberties were not respected. We grew up with religious and social constraints, stiff ideas. Women were made to get married and have children. Being an artist – whether an actress, dancer or musician, was not well viewed at all. Thankfully, my parents were more open-minded. However, things are moving in the right direction now, though there is still a lot of work to be done.
"Music can make me cry. A single word can touch me."
Can we call you a spokesperson-singer?
You become a spokesperson in spite of yourself. People project and recognize themselves in you. I’m not bothered to be taken as a point of reference. Such is the role of certain artists.
“Spokesperson” in French is “porte-parole”, literally “carrying-words”. Words are important for you.
Of course, words are important. For any sensible person, they are! Words carry weight, especially at a certain age. You can say stupid things when you’re 14 or 15, but not at 30, 40 or 50 particularly when you are an artist and you convey ideas. You have to weigh your words carefully.
Word over music?
Both are important for me. Music can make me cry. A single word can touch me. I attended a poetry reading in Paris recently. I was excited like a little girl, mesmerized by emotion.
You don’t like the expression “singer in exile”?
I don’t like it because I don’t consider myself as such. My grandfather was in exile, yes. He came to work in France, in difficult conditions, spent years without seeing his wife or his children. This hasn’t been my case at all. I am free, I can travel whenever I want. It is out of respect for those who really suffer from exile, that I refuse this expression.
However, had you stayed in Algeria, maybe you would have been less melancholic in your songs?
It’s my character to be melancholic. With everything that is happening in the world, it is easy to sound sad.
You sing « Pour les voisins d’à côté je ne suis pas une immigrée » (“For the next door neighbors, I am not an immigrant”) in your song « Pays natal » off your latest album “Oumniya”.
It’s not my text. It’s by Françoise Mallet-Joris*, a Prix Goncourt recipient. I chose this text because I recognized myself in it.
*Who happens to be born in Antwerp, the city where Souad Massi was performing that night.
Do you feel a difference when singing your own words vs. words written by others?
Souad usually writes in Algerian Arabic or Kabyle. But she sings in Algerian Arabic, Kabyle, French and classical Arabic. Her previous album “El Mutakallimun” (“Master of Words”) was an ode to Arabic, or rather Arabo-Andalusian poetry.
I feel a certain pressure when singing words written by others because I want to make justice to the text they wrote. However, I won’t sing it if I don’t recognize myself in it. It definitely has to “sound” like me.
Do you write in French?
I have given it a try, but I did not pursue it. It didn’t feel natural, and I wasn’t happy with it. There are such good French writers, I let them write in French.
Do you consider yourself an Arabic singer?
In Algeria, the Kabyle are Kabyle, the Algerians are Algerians… It sounds awkward to me to be called an Arabic singer, because I come from the North of Africa. Why associate myself to the Arab identity per se? I speak Arabic, true. But I am Berber. I am North African. I’d like to be seen as such.
So, an Algerian singer?
Yes, rather. (smile)
A cultural ambassador of Algeria…
It’s a beautiful expression. I like it. (big smile)
Is there a future for Arab, North African artists if they stay local?
It depends. Some can succeed. But socially committed artists won’t be able to succeed in their country due to constraints.
Yes, like me (laughter)
Arab News wrote about you: “Internationally most successful singer-songwriter of the Arab-speaking world”. It’s a dream path for all artists of the Arab world, I guess.
Souad got signed to a major label immediately after her first performance in France in 1999. She has released 6 albums since, including a string of hit songs (Raoui, Ghir Enta, Le bien et le mal, Houria…) and has toured the world. She won the “Victoire de la Musique” in 2006 and the “Grand prix des musiques du monde” in 2011, and has had the chance to sing duos with such artists as Manu Chao, Cesaria Evora, Francis Cabrel, Florent Pagny…
It all happened in a very spontaneous manner. I never really took a step back to think about how it all came to be. I’m still on this path and I don’t ask myself any questions. I guess it’s my life path. I let myself follow the flow. I need time to think about it actually…
It’s been 20 years…
I know, but I still didn’t take the time to analyze it.
You are an inspiration for young artists…
Yes, I realize that. When I go to Egypt for instance and I meet young bands who play Rock music… It makes me happy. And I think “oops, now I’ve gotten old”.
You yourself have played some heavy Rock when you were young…
I was in a Hard Rock group called Atakor…
It’s difficult to believe…
Well, I didn’t sing any Hard Rock, I only played the guitar. (laughter) . It was at an age when I needed to let out that kind of energy. There were a lot of taboos in Algeria at the time, and playing this kind of music was like braving the taboos. It gave us a kick.
You once said “I share my privacy, I lay myself bare”
It’s not easy for us singer-songwriters, because we tell the story of our lives. I had a hard time doing this, particularly in the beginning, telling things that are very personal to people I don’t know. With time, I understood and accepted it. I would have had to change jobs had I not*.
* She did venture briefly into urbanism/architecture after completing urbanism studies, but dropped it to pursue her career in music.
Do you prefer intimate gigs or stadium concerts?
I prefer small gigs, in small club venues. I also like beautiful concert halls like the one we’re playing at tonight (De Roma). I already sang in a stadium in Egypt, as part of a festival with other bands. It’s a different experience. You need to adapt yourself.
What about being accompanied by a philharmonic orchestra…
That’s a different exercise altogether. I’m familiar with classical music because of my formative years playing classical music, like Chopin… Anyways, it’s great: you are in the middle of 40 musicians, in the midst of this “sound”. It’s very emotional. The first time, I was dead scared. But it’s truly magnificent. I don’t know if you’ve had the experience…
I’d love to…
If it happens one day, you’ll have to make the most of it and really enjoy it. It’s very impressive.
“For me, the most important thing is to stay true to myself”
You are a genuine singer, you don’t lie…
No, I don’t.
You also said “I don’t care to make commercial music, I want to do what I love”
I don’t make commercial music. If I did, I would have been ultra rich. (laughter)
You are a Mother-singer. Your daughter sang with you on “Je veux apprendre” (“I want to learn”) off your album “Oumniya”
Yes, I sang with my daughter because when I was recording that song at the studio in Algiers, she was there. My brother who was also there said that it would make sense if she sang on it since the song is about the emancipation of young girls. So we rehearsed the chorus, and recorded her singing it. I loved it. We immortalized the moment.
And with this interview, albeit on a different level, we immortalized our conversation. Thank you Souad.
Sandra Arslanian is the leader of Beirut's indie pop/rock band Sandmoon. Sandmoon's latest track and video is "Angels". A next Sandmoon album will be released soon.
Kurt is based in Bern and Beirut is his second home. Always looking for that special angle, he digs deep into people, their stories and creations, with a sweet spot for music.
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