Souad Massi

Born : 23/08/1972 in Algiers (Algeria)
Country : Algeria
Language : Arabic / French
Category : Composer / Female Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : Chanson / world music

Hailed as Maghreb's answer to Tracy Chapman, Souad Massi proves there's a lot more to contemporary Algerian music than Raï. Armed with folk inspiration and a guitar, this talented young singer-songwriter has made an impact on the international world' scene with her own distinctive sound.

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    Hailed as Maghreb's answer to Tracy Chapman, Souad Massi proves there's a lot more to contemporary Algerian music than Raï. Armed with folk inspiration and a guitar, this talented young singer-songwriter has made an impact on the international world' scene with her own distinctive sound.

    Born in Bab el-Oued, in the Saint-Eugène neighbourhood of Algiers on 23 August 1972, Souad Massi grew up in a modest, working-class family with six children. She inherited some of her musical tastes from her parents; her father, who worked for the water board, was a big fan of traditional music from Algiers while her mother preferred to listen to Jacques Brel and James Brown.

    Young Souad was also used to hearing music around her from an early age as her uncles were jazzmen and her brothers, musicians. Souad originally grew up on a diet of traditional music, listening to the songs of chaâbi maestro El Hachem Guerouabi, but she soon went on to discover rock music through her cousins and American pop and R&B which she picked up on local radio. Stubborn and rebellious by nature, Souad grew up into a natural tomboy, preferring to go out and play football rather than stay in and help around the house. 

    Souad's elder brother, who is himself a composer, encouraged his sister's love of music, enrolling her at the "Association de l'Ecole des beaux-arts" in Algiers where she spent three years studying guitar. The budding young musician also went on to study classical and traditional Arabic/Andalusian music. These years of study would instil the young student with a sense of instrumentation and a real rigour in terms of composition. Meanwhile, one of Souad's friends, who possessed a large collection of country albums from the 40s, got her listening to country music legends and she later acknowledged having been inspired by the work of 80s 'country queen,' Emmylou Harris.

    Triana d'Alger

    By 1989 Souad had gone on to launch a career on the live circuit, performing gigs in local venues where she accompanied herself on guitar. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming musician was invited to play with flamenco group Triana d'Alger, with whom she did a series of live shows and also made a number of TV appearances. 1994 to 1996 proved to be a dark period for the Algerian music scene, artists suffering from curfew restrictions and a lack of venues. Greatly discouraged by this situation, Souad began to envisage abandoning her music career. Luckily, Souad had taken her mother's advice and gone on to sit her 'baccalauréat'. The degree she later obtained in urban studies meant she was able to find work in a local town planning office by day and continue her songwriting activities at night. 


    Ironically enough for someone into folk and country, whose music idols were Kenny Rogers and Stevie Wonder, Souad was soon contacted by one of Algiers's best-known hard rock groups, Atakor. And, in the midst of her teenage angst years, the young musician found herself playing lead guitar with the group. Souad's stint with Atakor opened new doors for her, introducing her to the music of AC/DC and Metallica, and getting her used to appearing live at various festivals. Atakor went on to bring out a debut album on cassette in 1997. This proved a huge hit with young Algerian music fans, smashing all kinds of sales records. While Souad's time with Atakor provided a radical kind of 'therapy', putting her back in touch with her early musical tastes. It also led to increasing tensions between her artistic career and her professional life in the town planning office. Tired of struggling to reconcile artistic and professional demands, Souad went on to give up her job as a town planner. 

    Algerian "Crocodile Rock"

    In 1998 Souad brought out her first cassette album, entitled simply "Souad". The 6-track album, released solely on the Algerian market, found the young singer-songwriter returning to her country and folk music influences. This highly personal first album featured a number of startlingly original songs such as "Bye Bye My Love", a country ballad sung in Arabic and English which could have come straight out of a Louisiana bayou. This certainly went down as a first on the Algerian music scene which had never heard anything like it before.

    In a period when jeel music (Arab pop music) was at its height, Souad defied fashion and market trends, bravely pastiching the Elton John classic "Crocodile Rock" and bringing a few flamenco touches to a calypso/salsa number entitled "Te quiero" (I Love You). These songs attracted Souad a whole new public as she received an enthusiastic welcome from 40-something lovers of protest songs who'd flocked to see Joan Baez when she had visited socialist Algeria in the 70s.

    In January 1999 Souad was invited to Paris to perform at the Femmes d'Algérie (Women of Algeria) festival. Unaware that her professional destiny was about to change, Souad gave a brilliant performance at the first edition of the Paris festival organised during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Artists from all over Algeria came together to sing and militate against fundamentalism. But it was Souad's original repertoire and her powerful on-stage charisma that really brought the house down. Word of mouth recommendations soon reached the ears of an artistic director at Universal Music (Island-Mercury), who rushed in to sign up the young unknown and Souad went on to sign a contract for a first album.

    Souad, the Storyteller

    Souad spent two years working on her debut album and "Raoui" (The Storyteller) was finally released in March 2001. The album was recorded in a fortnight, Souad working under live conditions with producer Bob Coke (famous for his work with the likes of Ben Harper). Rooted in the tormented past of Algeria and Souad's early Western influences and veering between rock and traditional sounds, Raoui put Souad on the musical map. The album also confirmed her as an artist capable of fusing everything from chaâbi to American folk rock, while mixing electric and acoustic instruments with her haunting, crystal vocals.

    From the opening notes of "Raoui", the title track on her album, Souad manages to sweep listeners up in her "disorienting Orientalism" (as her friend, the Tunisian music star Amina, describes her style). But she also weaves radically different musical styles into her sound, using reggae influences ("Khsara Aalik"), Cap Verdean rhythms on ("Hayati"), catchy raggamuffin ("Denya") and even elements of French chanson (c.f. the haunting French ballad "J'ai pas le temps" which could have been sung by Françoise Hardy).

    Following the release of her album, Souad hit the live circuit, performing over 200 concerts up and down France and supporting the likes of Idir, Saez, the Orchestre National de Barbès and Geoffrey Oryema. After packing out Paris venue La Cigale, the rising Algerian star found herself head-lining at the legendary Olympia six months later.

    "Raoui" went on to sell over 80,000 copies, confirming Souad as a major new voice. The young Algerian's singing and songwriting talent was also crowned by two major awards in 2002, when Souad won the Charles-Cros Academy's "Prix de la Chanson Etrangère" and the "Prix du Haut Conseil de la Francophonie" for her album.

    Hoping to raise her profile with a wider audience, Souad's record company encouraged her to record a series of duos with singers on the same label. So in 2001 Souad went into the studio with Marc Lavoine to record Paris, a track which featured on Lavoine's eponymous album that proved to be one of the big hits of 2002. Souad also went on to record a successful cover of the Bernard Lavilliers classic "Noir et Blanc" with African star Ismaël Lô. She also recorded a version of "Savoir aimer" with Florent Pagny which was included on the latter's compilation album 2 (featuring covers of Pagny's greatest hits recorded as duos with a host of contemporary music stars).

    2003: "Deb"

    Souad's second album "Deb" (which was originally to have been called Moudja) was released in France on 25 March 2003. This second opus featured a rich musical mix of all the styles that had influenced Souad throughout her career, bringing together everything from traditional Arabic/Andalusian music and chaâbi to rock and folk. Deb received major critical acclaim in the international media, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries where Souad's debut album, "Raoui", had also gone down well.

    At the beginning of March 2003 Souad kicked off a major French tour which includes another appearance at the Olympia on 30 April. Following this the Algerian star heads off on the international circuit, playing dates across Cameroon, Sudan, Hungary, Poland, Spain, Canada and the U.S.

    2003 has been proclaimed as the "Year of Algeria" in France – looks like it could well be Souad Massi's too!

    "Deb" went on to become the best-selling 'world' album in France in 2003. And it came as no surprise to anyone when it was nominated at the 2004 "Victoires de la Musique" Awards (in the Best World Album category). Having established herself as a major new figure on the French music scene, Souad turned her attention to the international scene, embarking on an extensive world tour in February 2004 which included dates across western Europe (Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Portugal), but also took her as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Souad's music was greatly appreciated in Anglo-Saxon countries, where critics described her work as an expert mix of Algerian music and French 'chanson.' The presence of African rhythms and certain guest collaborators on her album also led some critics to hail her as a successful product of the French capital's "vibrant melting pot."

    The sweet scent of nostalgia

    Inspiration for Souad's third album came from a concert she performed in Tunisia. Catching a whiff of the heady scent of honeysuckle during the show was enough to bring back entire scenes from her childhood in Algeria. And nostalgia plays a central role on the album "Mesk Elil" (named after the Arabic word for "honeysuckle"). The album includes several songs about her family, "Dar dgedi" describing her grandfather's house and "Ilham" recounting the story of her brother who stayed home in Algeria to look after the family. Other tracks deal with the emotions that come to the surface when two former lovers meet ("Denya Wezmen") and the pain and suffering of exile (notably the Raï track "Khalouni" and the song "Kilyoum").

    Musically speaking, "Mesk Elil" is the product of Souad's own exile, for she has met a number of musicians from diverse horizons in her years living abroad. The song "Kilyoum" is one of her most successful collaborations to date, bringing together the haunting sounds of Algerian 'chaâbi' and Cape Verdean 'morna.' "Mesk Elil" also features contributions from guest vocalists Daby Touré, Manu Katché and Pascal Danae as well as the legendary percussionist Mino Cinelu and Salif Keita's guitarist, Djely Moussa Kouyaté. The album is musically much richer and more open to other influences than Souad's previous work.

    Souad performed at the Casino de Paris on 21 November 2005 and will be kicking off a new tour at the beginning of next year.

    In 2006, Souad Massi won the Victoire de la Musique award for the best world music album. The following year, she reworked an acoustic version of her repertoire during a number of concerts, which she recorded to produce her first live record, an intimate collection named: "Acoustic: The Best of Souad Massi".
    2010: "Ô Houria"

    She brought out her fourth studio album in November 2010, produced under the guidance of Francis Cabrel and longstanding guitarist and producer Michel Françoise. "Ô Houria" marked a development in the Algerian folk singer’s artistic choices: most of the songs are sung in French to thank those of her fans who don’t speak Arabic, as she explained at the time. The collection features a duet in Arabic and French sung with Cabrel, entitled “Tout reste à faire”, a tribute to friendship between peoples co-written and interpreted by the two artists. The vocals have a pure quality, set to Massi’s faithful acoustic guitar.
    Souad Massi took the album on a tour starting on 9 November 2010 at the Cigale, then around France and abroad in 2011, including dates in Jordan, Palestine and the Lebanon.
    June 2011

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