The Magic Key

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“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”

― Maria Augusta von Trapp

I stole a glance at T., sitting next to me in the smoke-filled room. The pub was the venue for the Sheffield University Folk Club, of which I had become a member during my first few days there. 1965 was at the height of the Great Folk Revival and I had developed a passion for folk music whilst still at school. The evenings spent singing my heart out with the other folk enthusiasts above the Talbot pub in Blackpool had been the highlight of my week in the sixth form, and a welcome respite from revision for my A-Levels.

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Another passion, however, had supplanted folk music in my heart in the few weeks since my arrival in Sheffield, and it was sitting right next to me in the shape of T. My quick glance had shown me his arms folded across his chest and a bored look on his face.  There was obviously no question of him joining in the rousing chorus of “Wild Mountain Thyme” anytime soon.

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“Well -— what do you think? Did you enjoy it?” I asked anxiously as we pushed our way through the crowd of noisy students leaving the pub a couple of hours later. Trying to be diplomatic so as not to hurt my feelings, he hesitated, choosing his words carefully before replying, “Tu sais, ce n’est pas vraiment mon genre.” (You know, it’s not really my thing.) My shoulders slumped and I heaved an imperceptible sigh. A choice now lay before me — T or folk clubs. There was really no contest.

T’s taste in music ran more to the French pop songs of the day, or even of the previous decade. Studying in his room meant trying to work to the sound of French radio stations France Inter or Europe No. 1 on his transistor radio. I was introduced to Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Georges Brassens. I listened to Gilbert Bécaud, Claude Nougaro and Adamo.  I discovered that love songs sounded so much better in French, even though I understood only about twenty per cent of the lyrics. Miss Walmsley’s French lessons had never prepared me for this.

I don’t know about anything else, but it did wonders for my French pronunciation. I would try to sing along to Et Pourtant (And Yet), twisting my tongue around the impossible French consonant/vowel combinations (cruelle froideur, anyone?), taking great pains to roll my r’s in the prescribed manner and pouting like Brigitte Bardot as I sang the words mon amour.

One of the singers particularly popular amongst the Algerian students was, in fact, not French, but a pied noir called Enrico Macias. His family of Algerian Jews had been wedding singers in Constantine for generations, and his songs, mostly about his regret at leaving Algeria, were in French, although they included a lot of vocal acrobatics more suited to what was thought of as “Arab” music. His nostalgia affected the Algerian students as well —  I can remember a friend of ours, built like a brick outhouse, sobbing on his girlfriend’s shoulder at a party, as Enrico sang tremulously about the sun and the blue skies of the country he had left behind.

It’s rather strange, now I come to think about it, that we never really listened to traditional Algerian music, although one of the Algerian students, less Europeanised than the others, had a collection of records in Arabic that he would slap on the turntable at parties.  I loved it when some of our friends would start dancing, shimmying and shaking their rear ends with abandon. T. never joined in — he would just stand there, laughing and clapping his hands. He is a lot of things, but a dancer was never one of them.

The zenith, or rather the nadir, of my musical experiences at university was when three of us girls were asked to sing two songs in Kabyle at a cultural event to celebrate the 1st of November, the beginning of the Independence War.  We were only singing the refrain, two of the other students singing the verses, but still… We learnt the lyrics parrot-fashion, with no idea of what they actually meant.

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In fact, they were songs about the plight of Kabyle women left behind when their men emigrated to France in search of work: Aya Zerzour (The Exile) or Ma Thevghidh Adh Amengal (Do You Want Me to Tell You The Truth) with the line “ergezim thil Paris illaho turowmi-in” (your husband is in Paris, going out with European women). Ironic, to say the least.

A couple of years later, during the first summer after our wedding, T. bought a record of Algerian revolutionary songs to which I would sometimes listen, sitting alone in the small flat in Oran when he was at work. The song that I found most moving was a very simple solo  —  completely different from the other songs, which usually featured a chorus of masculine voices thundering out all kinds of dire retribution against the enemy, set to a background of tramping boots.

This particular song was in Kabyle and was called A Yemma Azizen (Oh Dearest Mother). What was it doing on a record of revolutionary songs? Simple. It was the plaintive farewell of a young man going off to join the maquis and pleading with his mother not to cry for him. Strangely enough, there were many similarities between this lament — for that is what it was — and Irish folk music, right down to the long introductory flute solo. And like my own traditional music, it spoke directly to my heart.

It was only in the mid-seventies, when Kabyle music was dragged into the twentieth century by singers such as Idir, Djamel Allem and Nourredine, that I began to appreciate it. Their songs often dealt with the same traditional themes as the older songs — the struggle against the French; the forced marriage of a young girl to an old man; the mother waiting for her son to return from the war, still putting two bowls out for breakfast, and the unbreakable link between brothers. In other words, exactly the same themes as in English folk songs.

The new singers, however, added a freshness to the old themes by adding a modern accompaniment and getting rid of all the traditional twiddly bits. Some of these singers, like Idir, have attained international stardom. It didn’t matter that nobody, apart from Kabyles, knew what he was singing about; the lovely tunes and his warm baritone voice were enough to gain him a legion of foreign fans.

But there are other stars — masters of raï from Oran like Khaled, Mami and the regretted Hasni, murdered by extremists. Khaled’s hit, Didi, has been translated into many other languages. His song, Aïcha, sung in French and darija (Algerian Arabic) was number one in France. Mami, described by Sting as one of the best singers in the world, sang a duet with the latter on his track Desert Rose.

Souad Massi sings about love and loss in darija, even though she is of Kabyle origin. She achieved success after fleeing to France following threats to her life. The protest songs of the Kabyle Bob Dylan, Aït Menguellet, give voice to the suppressed anger felt by Kabyles at the attempted eradication of their language and identity.

All in all, the Algerian music scene is incredibly vibrant, with new songs being recorded and new singers emerging every day, eager to break the boundaries that used to be set in stone. It is, in truth, a reflection of the Algerian spirit.