Deep-rooted Algerian songs which make you forget hunger and thirst.

El Gusto - Kashba Blues

Masters of the chaabi

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In their younger years, the musicians of the chaabi orchestra El Gusto enjoyed great fame in the Casbah, the traditional quarter clustered around the citadel of Algiers. Side by side Jews and Muslims, Africans and Europeans played and sung their traditional songs about love, heartbreak, friendship and betrayal. That is until the Algerian revolution drove them apart. Now these musicians are all in their seventies and eighties, but they still have a great passion for the chaabi, entrancing folk music with influences from North Africa, Andalusia and the Middle-East. The musicians were gathered together from all parts of the world for a historical reunion, proving that music has no age limit. For they still play their instruments as if they were dancing with a beautiful woman, and still their deep-rooted songs ‘make you forget hunger, thirst or grief’.

Programme book

 

Credits

vocals, violin
Robert Castel
vocals, mandol
Abdelkader Chercham
Liamine Haimoun
Abdelmadjid Meskoud
vocals, gitar
Luc Cherki
banjo
Mohamed Abdennour
Yazid Touhria
bass
Chris Jennings
violin
Redha Tabti
Ali Saidi
cello
Rabah Slim
lute
Rachid Berkani
lute
El Hadi Harbit
mandol
Mohamed El Mançour Brahimi
mandol guitar
Mohammed Sergoua
piano
Smail Ferkioui
accordion
Mohamed Ferkioui
bongo, tar
Abdelkrim Azzedine
tar
Arezki Khelidjeni
def, bendir
Abdessadek Gaoua
darabuka
Abderrahmane Slim
flute
Ali Bensadoun
kanun
Hamai Mabrouk

Background information

It's like the Buena Vista Social Club, but in Algiers rather than Havana – this is one way you could describe the remarkable story of El Gusto. A group of musicians now in their old age who used to be immensely popular in the Algerian capital back in the 1950's, but were dispersed by Algeria's war of independence. Thanks to the efforts of a young film maker these men are back together for the first time in half a century – making music as if time hasn't passed. After a number of heart-stirring performances in France, Morocco, England and other countries, El Gusto will grace the stage of the Royal Theatre Carré on Sunday 2 June.

El Gusto's music is called 'chaabi', which means 'people' or 'popular'. This name was only coined in the 1950's but the music had its genesis at the beginning of the 20th century. In Algiers' kashba, the age old centre of narrow winding steps and streets, a tradition was blossoming of singers performing religious songs in the cafés where people gathered to drink  tea and smoke opium. Around the beginning of the 20th century a new brand of popular music developed from this tradition. The singers would draw inspiration from the (love) poetry in the Arab language of the Maghreb and in the Berber Kabyle language as well as malhoun, a Moroccan-Arab tradition of melodic poetry from Andalusia. There are also many musical influences, but chaabi is very clearly part of the Arab-Andalusian melodic tradition. The sound has many similarities with flamenco. Around 1920 various kinds of string and plucking instruments were added to the accompanying ensembles of these crooners, creating small orchestras like in the popular aroubi music. From the 1930's the singer Hadj Mohammed El Anka (1907-1978) was immensely popular. He was called the 'father of the chaabi'. After World War Two, El Anka led the first popular music orchestra on Algerian radio. From 1955 he taught chaabi at the conservatory.

The most important instrument in chaabi is the mandole, a sort of elongated mandolin with eigh snares in double courses, which was developed around 1930 based on the ideas of El Anka. Other instruments which feature are the guitar and the banjo, the ney (a flute), the qanûn (a sort of hammered dulcimer) and the piano. The viola also features frequently – not played on the neck though, but vertically, resting on a leg. Percussion instruments are the darbuka (a goblet drum) and the tar (a frame drum).

The 1950's were the heyday of the chaabi. The members of El Gusto were famous names in the kashba, Algiers' working class neighbourhood. Chaabi was music which united different peoples: Jews and Muslims, Africans and Europeans would sing together about love, pain, friendship and betrayal. Until the Algerian revolution broke out and drove them apart.  After independence in 1962 the majority of the Jews left for France; the kashba deteriorated and old friends lost touch with each other. When the young Algerian woman Safinez Bousbia was living in Ireland, she came across this story by accident and was gripped. She set out to do the impossible and succeeded: she managed to bring the group back together. It's a project that took her eight years, which has been documented in the moving documentary film El Gusto (2012), featuring forgotten stories, lost friends and the music that conquers all. The historic reunion of these musicians from all parts of the world was followed up by a series of lauded performances in Algeria and abroad. The chaabi of El Gusto, music that makes you 'forget hunger, thirst and pain', leaves not a soul unstirred.

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