It’s not just Massi’s musical style that displays such a rich mosaic of place and identity. She is often known to mix several languages into her compositions, including Classical Arabic, Algerian Arabic, French, English, and Kabyle from her Berber roots — if there’s ever a woman to make you feel unaccomplished, it’s Souad Massi. Her multi-lingual, multi-cultural, melodic sound and universally appealing lyrics (which cover everything from love to liberty), have allowed her to traverse geological boundaries, carving out a career across the globe.
Massi was born to a poor family in Algiers, 1972, one of seven children. She began studying music and playing guitar at a young age with the encouragement of her piano-playing brother, who persuaded their parents to allow his sister to take guitar lessons. In 1989, Massi joined an all-female flamenco band named Les Trianas d’Alger, before quitting to join the political rock band Atakor in the early 90s.
However, what was a freedom in a pre-Civil War age was to become a luxury when political turmoil broke out in the late 80s, and full blown war in 1991, with the government clashing with radical Islamic fundamentalists — a Muslim woman sporting a distinctly un-fundamentalist haircut and a jeans-and-sneakers style of dress, Massi would attract unwanted attention and even abuse as she travelled to guitar lessons and rehearsals, particularly after a nationwide curfew was implemented in 1992.
However, it was in this time of involuntary internment that the American influences, so evident throughout her later career, would take their hold. Drawn to a variety of different musical styles, Massi spent her time listening to folk rock, hard rock and pop music from the US, as well as turning a keen ear towards the sound of American movies, particularly spaghetti westerns, and the American roots music tradition.
This American influence was also present in the music of Atakor, who were influenced by Anglo-American rock from the likes of Led Zeppelin and U2, and sang in English. After war broke out in 1991, when Massi was just 19, she was compelled to disguise herself as a boy, cutting off her hair and wearing masculine clothes in an attempt to see off the abuse that was levied her way as a female musician by Islamic fundamentalists — she was regularly spat at, vilified for both her gender and her liberal politics.
Atakor’s deeply political lyrics, however, drew increasing attention from the Islamist militia as the band’s fame grew, performing on TV, releasing cassettes and playing festivals that were regularly protested by extremists. It was far from unusual for artists (along with other ‘subversive’ figures) to be murdered by Islamists during the country’s ‘Black Decade’, but Massi would not be deterred, since saying that, ‘To remain silent would mean that the terrorists have won and that all the intellectuals they murdered died for nothing’.
In spite of her resilient attitude, life became difficult — she was fired from her job, Atakor regularly had their equipment confiscated at bogus police stops, the band’s bookings decreased as promoters and organisers grew more skittish, and Massi herself began receiving anonymous death threats. When the offer came in 1999 for her to perform at the Femmes d’Algerie concert in Paris, she landed a recording contract with Island Records; she left Atakor and Algeria and moved to Paris, where she has lived ever since.
In the years since moving to Paris, Massi released five solo albums. Each a highly personal, emotionally-charged exercise with political undertones, her supple, melancholic voice a vehicle for themes of love, loss, nostalgia, the corruption of innocence and disappointed idealism. Her consistently eclectic mix of influences — European, American, Algerian, Arabic and African — has made her an enigma in the West, but a popular one; her audiences are reliably multicultural, with an appeal that reaches to every corner of the globe. Marsm, the events company responsible for bringing Massi back to London, seek to unite people from all walks of life in celebration of the rich art and culture of the Arab world, a match made in heaven for the singer’s latest album.
El Mutakallimûn, her sixth album, is deeply political, an effort to fight back against the scourge of ISIS, and the regressive narrative that has been taking hold against Muslims and the Arab world globally. Wishing to challenge the images associated with Arabic culture by those who know little of its incredible history, Massi turned to the work of the greatest Arab poets. First struck with the idea while working with a band in the Spanish city of Córdoba, which was once run by liberal Muslim leaders over 1,000 years ago, El Mutakallimûn seeks to speak to the beauty, creativity and tolerance of Arabic culture, while denouncing authoritarianism and echoing the progressive spirit that drove the Arab Spring in her lyrics. The poetry of Tunisian Aboul Kacem Chebbi, the pre-Islamic Zuhayr ibn Abī Sulmā, the contemporary Iraqi Ahmed Matar, and the early poetry of Andalucía are among her influences; ‘I believe in people who are fighting for freedom,’ she recently told The Guardian, ‘and I try to give them some hope with my music. It’s my responsibility and my role.’
Souad Massi will be performing at Islington Assembly Hall on Saturday September 10th. More information and tickets available here.
Islington Assembly Hall, Upper St, London N1 2UD, UK, +44 20 7527 8900