El Gusto: Algerian chaabi masters regroup

Damon Albarn (of Britpop bands Blur and Gorillaz fame) is producing a kind of Buena Vista Social Club album, instead of Cuban masters you have Algerian chaabi masters: Once more, with El Gusto.
Luc Cherki is a big man. Carrying his guitar, he approaches the microphone with the swagger of Johnny Cash and sings a folk ballad about the dispossessed worthy of the Man in Black that elicits whoops of recognition from his audience. But this is Marseilles, not San Quentin, and Cherki is French. His song, Je suis un pied-noir, tells of having to leave Algeria for France 45 years ago, thus becoming an emigré in his own country.

Accompanying him are the El Gusto Orchestra, veterans of Algerian music’s postwar golden age, when the sound of chaabi united the streets. When the war of independence (1954-62) tore apart the French colony it ripped the heart out of the musical community. For many of those onstage in Marseilles El Gusto is the first time they have seen each other in 45 years.

Now the old friends’ schedules includes a film, a tour by the orchestra, which reaches the Barbican in London on October 10 as part of its annual Ramadan Nights season, and an album, produced by Damon Albarn and released on his label, Honest Jons. “I didn’t know chaabi before I became involved,” Albarn admits. “But after I got the call asking me to contribute to this project I made sure I was well-versed before I got here. Then all I needed to do was to put microphones in the right places and try to capture the rawness of the music. I just told them they were the maestros and let them get on with it.”
Concerts in London and Paris for those lucky enough to make it, and the album of the recording will come out on October 15. Also see this story in Le Monde.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.