JULY 10, 2012

North Of The Border: Dispatches From The Montreal International Jazz Festival

Part 2: Catching Up With Souad Massi

Last week Nat Geo Music sent correspondent Ron Deutsch to cover the 33rd edition of the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. This week he's filing his dispatches from the festival - a series of interviews with some of the international artists who graced the event's many stages. Today he checks in with Algerian singer/songwriter Souad Massi, currently on tour in North America.

It's been almost a decade since Algerian singer Souad Massi has crossed the Atlantic. Back then, her graceful, often plaintive voice, her blending of American folk and roots music with traditional North African rhythms, were seeing her compared with Western singer/songwriters from Joan Baez to Tracy Chapman. But in the ensuing years, Massi has left the soft folk rock milieu behind, grown and matured as both a woman and performer. Perhaps a better comparison these days of her live performances, certainly her show the other night at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, would be more in line of an Algerian Bonnie Raitt or Sheryl Crow. Yet we in the West haven't gotten to see this side of her until now. The reason, she blames on a bad experience with US immigration not long after 9/11, deciding it wasn't worth it then to return to North America.

Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport in 2004, the authorities "put us in like the prison of the airport and it was horrible for us," Massi explained. "Because of that I didn't want to come back to America. It was a very upsetting experience for me. What was very hard was that you cannot discuss with these people or make them understand. They're very stubborn. They just see you are Arabic."

Even last week at the Canadian border, en route to Montreal - between performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and New York, where she also received the United Nations North African /Arab Artist of the Year and Global Humanitarian Woman of the Year Awards - she was delayed by immigration for several hours.

"It's unjust, but it's the world," she shrugged and changed subjects to the UN awards. "Whenever anyone gives you voice to speak and express yourself," she said, "it's a good thing."

"You know when you are a musician and have a large audience, it is like being a president - I'm not saying I'm like Obama," she continued, "but you have a power, and have to be responsible in what you say and in what you do. And I am aware of this power and I have an opportunity to say what other people can't say. For example, I can say as a woman I should have equal rights and not be afraid of physical harm."

Massi grew up in poverty and was a defiant teen who found a voice with the guitar. By her early 20's, she was the lead singer of Atakor, a successful and left-leaning political heavy rock band. Her refusal to cover herself in Orthodox Muslim tradition and her preferred Western wear made her a target of religious extremists. After several death threats, she fled to France in 1999, where she first gained international attention with her performance at the Femmes d'Algerie Festival in Paris, and then at WOMEX in 2001. Her subsequent albums have brought her several awards as well as a huge following throughout Europe and the Arabic world, where she continues to tour heavily. Her 2010 album Ô Houria (Liberty), although written just before, became part of the soundtrack of the Arab Spring.

"I never thought that I'm only a singer," she stated, "but now it's more about the events. For example, the song Tout Reste à Faire (All That is Still Unrealized) with Francis Cabrel, we say in the song, 'We are all human and try to forget the color of your skin or religion.' So yes, the politics in my songs are more overt." There's also an song on the album entitled 'Stop Pissing Me Off.'

As she tours the Middle East and Arab nations, Massi is seeing firsthand the changes continuing to occur in the region. "I am starting to see women who are very religious, you know, wearing a hijab (veil), but come to see my band. There was this girl in Cairo who told me her brother let her come to see me in concert because he likes me and respects my lyrics This is new," she said, then added, "I can see myself when I was young in them when we talk, in their dreams and hopes."

"I think music is playing a part," she believes, "because when I play like in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Tunisia, I've met a lot of bands who are playing rock and rap. This is a new generation and their lyrics are very hopeful and positive."

But yet, she is cautious about the future. "We have to wait because of what's happened has very recently happened and the future is not clear. But I hope that real democracy is coming to Arabic countries. Because we need it."

She is even optimistic of the homeland she fled, and, in recent years, has returned to Algeria several times to visit her family. "Algeria now, compared to its past, is hugely different," she said. "Our government was aware, even before the Arab Spring events, say in Tunisia, for example, and tried to change lots of things for young people. We have had more democracy compared to, say, Egypt, and for a while now."

"I could see myself moving back there," she considers. "I would like to live in Algeria, but for now I have a life in France, but yes, perhaps in the future."

In her immediate future, however, are two new recording projects. The first will be her own release, of which she is putting music to Arabic poems from the third and fourth centuries. "They're about philosophy, about love, about beauty. I really discovered a very high, high level of lyric in them," she explained. "I want to share with people in the West the beauty of these poems and the Arabic language."

The second project also has her looking back to the past, in this case, 10th Century Spain. Massi, while on tour in Córdoba, learned of and was inspired by that moment when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived peacefully together there. The group, Choeurs de Cordove (Voices of Córdoba), is a 9-piece ensemble which includes Massi, flamenco guitarist Eric Fernandez, and, as she has described, "a mix of Muslims, Jews, atheists, Armenians, French, gypsies, and Arab" musicians.

"I think it's important to keep your mind open all the time," she noted. "In every sense or walk of life, there is something to learn - whether from a book, a poem, a piece of music - that's where I find the best advice and inspiration."

She now looks forward to returning to America, to both perform and hopefully inspire us to open our minds - "[to] be curious, [and] be interested in what's happening in the world and in other cultures," she said. "We all must try not to be judgmental."

As she came off stage after her performance that evening in Montreal, she was beaming. "This, you see! This is where I am happiest!" she declared. Then ran back on stage for her encore.

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