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Amazigh Kateb Yassin Discusses Maghreb Blues and Ghanawa Music–a Diffusion of Berber, Arabic Genres
By Aziz ben Saidani
Musician Amazigh Kateb Yasin embraced music as if he wanted to escape the shadow and fame of his father, prominent Algerian writer Kateb Yassin. Yassin has used his artistic medium to plunge into the rich and diverse soil of the culture of the Maghreb, both African and Arab. He has emphasized his Berber roots even though he does not have a command of the tribal dialect. His music was born of a mixture of these varied influences which formed his identity, and this mixture has helped him to achieve popularity among the youth in the Arab Maghreb and Europe . Who is this controversial artist? How does he define his identity? What are the sources that nourish his experiment?
Amazigh is a Berber term meaning “a free man.” Amazigh Kateb Yassin, as his name suggests, is a free man! The interview with him soon mutated into a trial of everything. His country, he says, lacks everything, even air. His father's “Star” (the title of his father's famous novel) still shines brightly enough to exhaust the son living in its shadow. He will not be pressured to translate, even for the lovers of his music, one word of the song “Shara Allah.” The song is 300 years old and belongs to a distinguished musical genre in Algeria, known as Al Shabi.
Amazigh is considered the blues singer of North Africa. As a young singer, he founded the group Ghanawa Diffusion that became well known in the French and Algerian music scenes, distinguishing itself by combining the traditional and the modern.
"I am also very proud of the most beautiful gift I received from my father, my name: “Amazigh.” This name disturbs the “Arabized” and the Berbers alike. The Arabs want me to be part of them without my Berber name, and the Berbers blame me for not commanding their language. I find this condition infinitely amusing."
He was born in the Algerian capital, from which he and his father fled for France a few days before the events of October, 1988 (the beginning of the conflict between the government and the Islamic opposition). Amazigh settled in the city of Grenoble, far away from glamorous Paris. He hadn't returned to Algeria except once, to bid farewell to his dead father, whose novel, “Star,” is considered a milestone in modern Algerian consciousness. Then Amazigh Kateb Yassin finally returned to his city after a long time in May 2001, right at the peak of the demonstrations which saw tens of thousands of Berbers in the streets, marching in defense of their rights and cultural uniqueness. The result of the visit was an exceptional concert, which has become the material of his third CD, “Live-DZ.” I met him in Paris, where he talked about his experience.
Saidani: You chose to sing in French and Amazigh, but your second album, “Bab El Oued-Kingston,” marks a return to singing in Arabic.
Yassin : When you say the Arabic language, you mean in fact the Arabic of the street, the language of everyday, that strange combination of the languages of the peoples and races who lived on the southern bank of the Mediterranean. When people talk in Algeria, they use at least two languages—or more—in the same sentence, and that is the dominant language. My singing in the colloquial Arabic language allows a broader circulation for the songs. I am concerned also with defending that modern language against two hellish campaigns: first, Francophonization, and second, the coercive and superimposed Arabization encouraged by the different official policies. It can be said that I belong to a young generation of Maghrebian immigrants, but I refuse to be classified as their spokesman.
Saidani: But using colloquial Arabic would prevent non-Algerians from understanding the lyrics of your songs.
Yassin: The problematics of language have been an issue since the birth of the Ghanawa Diffusion. This brings me back to an incident that took place in the French city of Lyon during a celebration of Eid al-Fitr (Lesser Bairam). After the concert, a young man came to me and said that he did not remember a better conversation or happier moment with his mother than during the concert, when she kept calling upon him to translate sections of my music into French or English. This is what we hope for: forcing our Arab and French audiences to interact. My writing in colloquial Arabic, the language of my childhood, started during my secondary school days when I defied the teachers. When I started singing here in France, a French musical producer asked me to write in French because of market demands, a request that I turned down despite the difficulties that faced our first album, “ Algeria,” in 1996.
The Exit From Salons of the Intellectuals
Saidani: You lived your childhood moving from theater to theater with your father, the founder of the famous Sidi Balabas Troupe. Despite that background, you chose singing.
Yassin: In the spring of 1992 I was convinced by some friends to participate in a musical salon focused on non-European musical genres. And as a result, I formed a musical group in cooperation with some young people who had already accompanied me at some concerts and wedding festivals. The musical pieces we composed were well received. We performed to an audience of more than 3,000. Following that, more invitations to other festivals followed; we toured several French and Spanish cities. We created a loving and supportive group of fans who rushed to purchase our first album, “Algeria,” upon its release in 1996. I believe they recognized the distinguished character of our music and felt solidarity with our group, which produced the album at its own expense without assistance from any production company.
It can be said that I chose music as a means of expression because it allows me to transmit my words to a broader audience, not confined to the salons of the intellectuals. My father had gone ahead of me in this direction after he abandoned non-fiction writing and headed toward theater, leaving behind the elitist salons in Paris for a world where he could share bitter bread with the members of his theatrical group, Sidi Bal Abas. Because he discovered that the novel is only read by literate and fortunate people, he embraced the theater for its accessibility to the masses and the uneducated, which welcome the theatrical discourse; I still recall the festive atmosphere in the factories and industrial plants in which my father's theatrical works were performed.
Saidani: Based on what you say, it appears you are completing a family cultural project.
Yassin : Firstly, I want to clarify something very important. My father is my father, nothing more, nothing less. I didn't choose him, but I am proud of him. It disturbs me when sometimes people see me only as the son of Kateb Yassin, the author of “Star”! I have become tired of living in the shadow of my father. I hope I am not misunderstood. I do not deny the grace of my father. Nor do I need to be subjected to the psychological analysis of the son “killing his father” or the like. My performance exhibits influences from my father and also from my childhood, which I spent in theaters. Out of this I became interested in the neglected aspects of our culture, such as the Ganawa music which accompanied the pain of the black Africans in the countries of the Maghreb during the slave trade. I am also very proud of the most beautiful gift I received from my father, my name: “Amazigh.” This name disturbs the “Arabized” and the Berbers alike. The Arabs want me to be part of them without my Berber name, and the Berbers blame me for not commanding their language. I find this condition infinitely amusing.
"In southern Algeria , no massacres happened during the past dark years. The people live as if they are in another country, having nothing to do with the imposed dirty war on the people living in the northern part of the country. The explanation closest to the truth is that the south lives its identity with all its extensions, while the residents of the north are engulfed in dirty wars created by the identity merchants."
The African Face
Saidani: It is said that your mother had a role in your discovery of Ghanawa music.
Yassin: This is true. My mother decided one year to spend the fall vacation in the Algerian desert, a region that I hadn't visited before. When we reached the city of Timimon , I could not understand how a rational person like my mother would choose this place to spend her vacation! On the second day, the festivities started: it was the season of tomatoes, as I recall. To this day, I remember dancing like I was crazy until the late hours of the night. I suffered what can be called love, if you like, because I discovered the African face in my personality. Algerian schools, even today, do not mention that Algeria deeply belongs to the brown continent. Even the elitist intelligentsia have become divided into two. First, those who fiercely defend the Western and imperialist Francophone, and second, the ignorant defenders of a pure Arab and Islamic Algeria. In southern Algeria , no massacres happened during the past dark years. The people live as if they are in another country; they having nothing to do with the dirty war imposed on the people living in the northern part of the country. The explanation closest to the truth is that the south lives its identity with all its extensions, while the residents of the north are engulfed in dirty wars created by the identity merchants. The song “Humum” (Concerns) is an open indictment to those trading Algeria and its destiny. I believe our preoccupation with counting the victims and mourning the friends prevented us from focusing sufficiently on the real danger which threatens Algeria.
Saidani: Your musical experiment developed in France, and you refused to return to Algeria, which you left at 16 years of age. Suddenly you returned with a group in spring 2001, found yourself in the burning furnace, and you came back from it with a live recording which gave birth to your third CD, “Live- DZ.”
Yassin: I didn't think I would return soon to Algeria; I used to reject the idea entirely, due to my opposition to the government and the country's political life in general. Things did not change much after 1988, and my country looked to me like a large prison, its citizens hostages in the hands of a small military and civilian minority running public affairs with a patriarchal mentality. But after several successful tours by the Ganawa Division, not only in Europe but in Sudan, Iraq, and Syria, we found ourselves at the heart of the turmoil. The uprising of the Berbers in the tribal lands had reached its zenith. In defense of their rights and their culture, the uprising caused the death of hundreds. We did not know what to do other than to dedicate our songs to the uprising. The Algerian radio station stopped broadcasting one of our concerts after the third song, but we kept singing until the end. This was one of the rare pivotal moments in my short artistic life. Our return to Algeria took us to the recording studio, where we were able to produce a third CD, “Live-DZ” (Algeria – a Live Concert).
But I still live in France, which provides me with the necessary atmosphere of freedom to think and create.
The Arabic version of this article appeared in the Beirut based Zawayya magazine (June 2003). The translation and publication rights are from Zawayya.