DUBAI: France-based Algerian musician and producer Eljoee (real name Billel Mehsen) seems to have been destined to play the guitar. When he was in school, his music teacher nicknamed him Joe, after Joe King, the guitarist with US rock band The Fray. That name stuck — with friends and family using it — and he added some Arabic flavor by putting ‘El’ before it to create his own version of the Arabic term ‘Eljaw,’ meaning a mood or a feeling in the air.
Growing up in Blida, Algeria, he was obsessed with music, thanks to the sounds of his father’s collection, which included artists like Bob Marley, Ray Charles, and ABBA. But the only relative who owned an instrument was his uncle, whose guitar Eljoee was not allowed to touch. So he had to be inventive.
“I started to learn a guitar without a guitar,” Eljoee tells Arab News. “I couldn’t buy a guitar because I come from a simple family. I had a piece of wood, and I drew the strings of a guitar on it and I started to practice with my hands. I would watch tutorials on YouTube. I spent one year practicing guitar without a guitar.”
Eventually, Eljoee did get his hands on an actual guitar round at a friend’s house. And when he became a member of a government-supported youth club, equipped with musical instruments, he was able to play regularly. He dropped out of school and joined a band called Bara3im Thugs. He was determined to make a career in music. But in a country where the arts weren’t considered a ‘real’ profession, that meant going against his father’s wishes.
“He thought I was too young and I would not continue my studies. Well, he was right. . . He even broke one of my guitars,” Eljoee says with a laugh. “It was a bit intense, but I don’t regret what happened to me. It has a meaning.”
To start afresh, Eljoee moved to the coastal city of Marseille in France, where he has set up his studio. Close to North Africa, Marseille is a place where Algerian raï music historically flourished due to its Maghrebi communities. “It feels like Algeria — the sea, the sun, the people,” he says. “I’m home, but far from home.”
Eljoee compares music production to film directing; he searches for the right combination of elements to compose the perfect track. He acts as a “link between the artist and the art,” he adds. Eljoee confesses that he hasn’t listened to new music in the past two years as he worries it might influence his own. He prefers listening to old tunes, ethnic music, and Coldplay. The nature of the music industry has changed, he believes; where music once used to be about art, now it’s about going viral.
“It was music that came from artists that lived the story of the music. It was emotional. It wasn’t meant to be commercialized,” he says. “Nowadays, I get tons of emails and calls and the first thing they say is, ‘I want a viral song.’ I’m not an algorithm. I’m just a guy who plays instruments and arranges things. I don’t know how to make a viral song. Maybe songs become viral because (they are) pure.”
During COVID-19, Eljoee was at his most experimental, remixing songs by North African music legends such as Cheikha Rimitti, Cheb Khaled, and Cheb Hasni. He has also collaborated with the younger generation of Arab artists, including Lebanese singer Bashaar Al-Jawad in “Bailamos (We Dance),” a catchy, upbeat, infatuation-themed hit, sung in Algerian dialect.
His most popular track is “Hiya Hiya,” inspired by one of Moroccan aita (‘call’ or ‘cry’) icon Haja El Hamdaouia’s songs that is likely about a woman talking about herself, facing the sea in the fear that a man — either her son or lover — will leave her.
Eljoee slowed the tempo down, adding a gentle electronic beat. He stayed true to the song’s origin by adding Maghrebi percussion, and added new vocals by Moroccan singer Chaama, whom he discovered online. Mixing her vocals into the song was a moment of magic, he says. “It was, like, 3 a.m. I worked on it for seven hours. We felt it was going to be good.” It’s certainly proven popular, racking up over 87 million views on YouTube and becoming that elusive thing: a viral hit.
Eljoee is 28, but feels his story is just getting started. “I lived a lot of traumas in my life. Music will always be my only way to express my feelings,” he says. “Music is my refuge, my therapist.”