Outspoken musician Souad Massi is no stranger to ‘singing’ her mind

Souad Massi
Updated 29 January 2018
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Outspoken musician Souad Massi is no stranger to ‘singing’ her mind

DUBAI: Souad Massi was an icon of the “Arab alternative” music scene long before that much-in-vogue tag had been coined. The Algerian artist might have found sudden international success after moving to France at the turn of the millennium, but the more enduring inspiration her example offers has been felt deepest closer to home. Widely touted as the “most successful” female singer-songwriter to emerge from the Arabic-speaking world, Massi’s image as a fearless, political, headstrong-but-sensitive, guitar-touting woman has conjured up a heroic figure for a generation of marginalized musicians and fans alike.

Yet in person Massi appears remarkably humbled by her own reputation, warmly taking stock of 15 years in the limelight – and worrying she has been “too open” on her upcoming sixth album. Speaking in a mix of broken English, and in Arabic through a translator, the 45-year-old is endlessly patient during inevitable communication breakdowns. Even in translation, her turn of phrase is often profound and potently poetic.

“I’ve always been torn between the past and the future,” she says, an appropriate explanation for a life lived in constant cultural flux between two continents. “So that’s what I would like to learn – to be more present in the present.”

It is an understandable affliction — the present has not always been kind to Massi. The oft-quoted origins story states she fled Algeria after suffering death threats for singing political songs with her rock band Atakor, a migration which led her to France and fame.

Born to a large, poor family of Berber descent, Massi’s brothers encouraged her to play music from a young age, a fact not always welcomed by Algiers’ conservative population. “We loved music in my own family,” she remembers. “But in the society, it was very hard – the mentality… there’s such a stigma attached to being a woman and playing music.”

Bolstered by fraternal support, in her early twenties Massi joined the Western-influenced, politically outspoken Atakor, who were both feted and vilified throughout the Algerian Civil War, which broke out in 1991. There exist widespread reports that Massi cut her hair and dressed up to continue performing as if a man – when the disguise failed, she was frequently spat at and insulted. Then came the death threats.

But contrary to popular legend, Massi maintains today that her flight north had nothing to do with the prejudice of her fellow countrymen. “I never left because I was afraid of anything in Algeria – during the civil war I still sang, I didn’t care,” she says.

Atakor folded after seven years on the road, but an invitation to play at the 1999 Femmes d’Algerie concert in Paris brought Massi to Europe as a solo artist, where her spirited performance floored record company executives and she was promptly signed. The rest, as they say, is history. “For me, I was just passing through France,” she says, seemingly still puzzled by the chain of events today. “It all happened so quickly after that.”

Dividing her time between France and Algeria, Massi still calls Paris home, yet it was the initial culture shock of emigration which gave birth to her distinctive sound. Raised on American rock and country, she never had much time for traditional Arabic music growing up, but arriving in the unfamiliar environment prompted a pivotal reassessment of her cultural lineage. “It took me a few years of being in Europe to realize I needed to get back in touch with my origins, my roots,” says Massi.
Souad Massi - Rani Rayha



For debut album “Raoui” she brought in oud, gumbri and traditional North African percussion, subtly framing her strummed Spanish guitar and yearning vocals with exotic ornamentations and desert-worn rhythms. It was to prove a career-making resolution – sung in a mix of Arabic and French, Raoui became a surprise international hit following its 2001 release, marketed in the then-emerging “world music” bracket. To this day, Massi’s best work remains a quixotic blur of Eastern and Western sensibilities, seamlessly segueing folk-rock song-writing with regional traditions.

Raoui – translated as Storyteller – was followed two years later by the more confessional “Deb” (Heartbroken) and then 2005’s “Mesk Elil” (Honeysuckle). Paul Weller turned up as a surprise guest on 2010’s “Ô Houria” – the result of a frantic session in which an entire song was written and recorded in a single day at the British rock icon’s London studio. “I thought it was just a [social] meeting and he said, ‘okay, we’re going to do a song now’ – really just like that,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not ready, I don’t write...’. He gave me a pen and paper, and said ‘take one hour’.” A translator was on hand to put Massi’s words into English for the off-the-cuff duet.

After time out for childrearing, Massi emerged reenergized with fifth album “El Mutakallimun” (Masters of the Word), in which she pointedly put to music Arabic poetry from across the ages – from sixth century poet Zuhayr Ibn Abî Sulmâ to contemporary politicized pieces by Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar. Released in 2015, the album took more than two years to complete. “I took time, because I needed time to live,” she says. “Time to be sad, to be happy, to cry – to have a story to tell I’ve actually lived.”

The wait until Massi’s next release is likely to be substantially shorter, with work nearly complete on a follow-up. But writing her own lyrics again this time around, the songwriter was already anxious her newer work might be sharing too much with her audience and says her sonic approach echoes that of Deb.

“I share a lot of personal things (in the new songs) and I’m not very happy about it right now,” she says. “Your mentality, what you have to say in your twenties is different to your thirties, your forties, I feel I’ve matured over time in my thinking, and thus in my lyrics, what I’m trying to communicate to people.

“Now, sometimes when I listen to my old music, which I knew at the time wasn’t ready to go out yet – it bothers me. What I’m trying to teach myself now is to give everything – as much time as humanly possible, so 20 years in the future when I hear it again, I won’t be angry that I didn’t give it enough time.

“The day I have nothing left to say to people is the day I stop singing – up until this point, I have a lot that I want to say, to share – so I will continue singing.”

Souad Massi - Mesk Elil


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”