The Soulful Sound of Chaâbi Music

I’ve been loving every note of a wonderful new jazz/Algerian chaâbi fusion album called Koum Tara: Chaâbi, Jazz and Strings. I featured a track from it on last week’s show, but wanted to share more about it and the style of music. Broadly speaking, chaâbi (pronounced “shahby”) is a form of popular music in North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt) that emerged in the first half of the 20th century. The word chaâbi refers to its folk origins, meaning “of the people” or “popular,” and it’s a celebratory music often played at weddings and festivals.

I’m most familiar with Algerian chaâbii, which is associated with the cities of Algiers and Oran. My Algerian friend Redha tells me that the sound of Algerian chaâbi also incorporates elements of Andalusian classical music, which goes back much further to the 9th century. The father of Algerian chaâbi, El Hadj M’Hamed El Anka (1907-1978), was considered a master of both chaâbi and Andalusian classical music.

A chaâbi group includes a singer with an orchestra comprised of piano, violins, mandolins, drums, and other instruments. Chaâbi gained popularity before Algeria’s war of independence from France, with musicians like singers Line Monty, Lili Labassi, and Lili Boniche, pianist Maurice el Mediouni, composer El Hadj M’Hamed El Anka, and singer Dahmane El Harrachi, who penned the anthem of emigration and homecoming, “Ya Rayah.” My favorite recorded version of this song is a rousing live performance by Khaled, Faudel, and Rachid Taha in front of thousands of ecstatic fans in Paris, from the album 1, 2, 3 Soleils. This song never fails to heat up the dance floor.

One of the best concerts I ever attended happened a few years ago at Grand Performances, with the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers, a 22-piece group of Muslim, Jewish, Berber, and Christian musicians who were active in the coastal city before the war of independence broke out and separated them. A young Irish-Algerian architecture student named Safinez Bousbia spent seven years and her own money to bring back together all the musicians of El Gusto, then in their 80’s, to Marseille for a reunion concert and made a film about it as well.  I wrote an earlier feature about this remarkable journey.

Returning to Koum Tara, the group’s name means “stand up and admire,” and is based on a popular traditional Algerian folk song and poem about beauty, nature, and life. Koum Tara is the brainchild of the classically-trained French pianist/composer/arranger Karim Maurice and Algerian singer Sid Ahmed Belksier, a soulful vocalist who wrote most of the repertoire of original chaâbi poetry and love songs and plays the mandole (Algerian mandolin). Brice Berrerd plays double bass, Kamal Mazouni is on percussion, and members of La Camerata supply the strings—Gaël Rassaert and Mathieu Schmaltz on violin, Jean-Baptiste Magnon on viola, and Amandine Lefevre on cello.

The music of Koum Tara: Chaâbi, Jazz and Strings combines many elements—Algerian chaâbi, folk, flamenco, jazz, classical, strings, with subtle touches of electronica. Koum Tara’s music once again shows us that music binds people together regardless of religion or language barriers. I find the music not only interesting but entrancing, and want to recommend this new album to everyone.

This video gives a good idea of Koum Tara’s music:

…and the group’s spirit and virtuosity:

Banner image: Koum Tara in concert, courtesy of the artists.