Souad Massi: El Mutakallimûn

massi1Remastered Poetry

Listening Post 62. Dylan and Marley, Fela Kuti and Ramy Essam— musicians can move the world. Likewise Souad Massi, Algeria’s greatest female singer, who grew up on American music, relocated to France following death threats earned in a political rock band and knows well the struggle of Europe’s Muslim minorities. El Mutakallimûn (Masters of the Word)—her sixth solo album—draws inspiration from al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled kingdom in Spain that was once a beacon of science, literature and religious pluralism; she invokes the legacy of Arab enlightenment to address both today’s Arab despair and Western caricatures. Her themes are freedom and tyranny, love and life’s fragility. Her tools are classic and contemporary Arabic poetry—dressed in modern and Iberian-rooted styles—and her own elegant voice. She strikes a stunning chord with Bima El’Taaloul (What Is There to Feel Happy About?), a ninth-century verse with a Peter-Paul-&-Maryesque folk arrangement: “No man can achieve all he hopes,” she sings, “It’s not as if the winds blow according to the ships’ desire” (video 1). Faya Layla (I Remember Layla) is a Romeo and Juliet precursor written 400 years before Shakespeare: As the voice of a man remembering his lost love, she intones to a bossa nova rhythm, “O Layla, many things so crucial in my eyes/I forget, as soon as I come to you at night” (video 2). Hadari (Beware: A Message to Tyrants), lends a reggae beat to a twentieth-century Tunisian poet whose work helped inspire the Arab Spring: “You abuse the patience of a defenseless people/The torrent of blood will soon sweep you away” (video 3). Massi gracefully employs song to agitate, expose, teach and prompt action—in hearts and minds, from concert hall to public square. (Wrasse Records)


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