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Cultural Connection, Sirocco

An Unusual Orchestra

The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers

As Algeria celebrates fifty years of independence, a group of Muslims and Jews from Algeria is rebuilding a world of music and tradition that not so long ago inspired the people of Algiers and brought them together in celebration of diversity, common identity and shared experiences. The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers plays a type of music known as Chaabi music, which synthesizes Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern instruments and styles, and was particularly popular during the World War II era.

Chaabi music is sometimes played at weddings and communal and religious celebrations in both Algeria and Morocco, though its origins are in Algiers. Today it is widely socially accepted as a form of musical expression; however, when first developed it was associated with less savory aspects of city life and was sometimes looked down upon for this reason. But it evolved quickly, becoming widely accepted and appreciated.

It was popularized by El Hajj Muhammad El Anka, a twentieth century Algerian musician who devoted decades of his life to developing the form and performing the music. He wrote over three hundred fifty songs, recorded countless records and was one of Algeria’s most significant and productive musicians whose reach and acclaim was widespread and transcended social differences.

Performances of Chaabi were as much emotional outpourings of longing and the satisfaction of coming together after so many years apart and so many twists and turns of life.

Chaabi music has Berber influences and its soundscape varies from the mellifluous to the harsh guttural. It was influenced by the flamenco music of southern Spain and shares some themes of love, loss, and longing. It is a celebration of eclecticism and intricate melodies, a very distinctive Algerian phenomenon, and one in which Algerians of different religions and backgrounds participated and contributed to its development and expression.

The orchestra has banjos, lutes, mandolins, and violins, playing unison lines, and is led by a pianist. The group’s current album includes only the Muslim musicians, as the Jewish members of the reunited band were afraid to return to Algiers for the recording sessions due to security concerns. Some still fear for their safety due to threats against religious minorities.

A film entitled El Gusto (The Good Mood) was recently released about the band’s reunion in Marseille. Jewish and Muslim members—many of whom are now in their eighties—were brought together for a celebratory performance in the city and for performances in Paris at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, where over nine hundred people were in attendance.

The band’s reunion was more than a one-off event. It has toured in France and is also planning a tour of the United States. Its performances—especially its initial ones—were as much emotional outpourings of longing and the satisfaction of coming together after so many years apart and so many twists and turns of life, relocations, and settlement outside of Algeria as musical performances.

Despite all this change and the inevitable impact of aging, The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers band members are as passionate as ever and energized by the music and the cultural expression that it renews and sustains and which so profoundly impacted their youth and early adult lives in Algeria.

For many of the band’s members, the reunion is about much more than making music. It is seeing friends one had not seen in decades, and recreating a world that has passed, been fractured, and altered dramatically but that can be summoned back into existence—even if only temporarily—through the making of music. Speaking to the New York Times Mohamed Ferkioui, the group’s 86-year-old accordionist said, “I have a new life, a rebirth . . . we eat together, we sleep together. We’re a family, really a family. Ha! This is what paradise is.”

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Noam Schimmel is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics as well as a London-based researcher and human rights practitioner with extensive development experience in the field. He has worked in India, South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda, and publishes research in a wide range of academic journals including the International Journal of Human Rights and the >em>International Journal on Minority and Group Rights.

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