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The sounds of Algerian Resistance

women in a turkish bath
26 Nov 2020

Emma Bouraba looks at the sounds of Algerian resistance, exploring the ideologies in I Still Hide To Smoke, Rayana Obermeyer’s debut feature film, set in a hammam in Algiers during the Black Decade.

‘Algerian Resistance’ is a polyphonic call for emancipation. It is a musical journey crossing Algeria and spanning from the 1970s to the present day: a period of time marked by political unrest, oppressive governments and the trauma of the Civil War. This playlist is a sonic journey tracing the artists that called for the end to oppression and whose music captured the struggle for equality, and an ode to musicians from the region that inspired hope and offered healing to many people in the Algerian population.

This playlist complements I Still Hide To Smoke, Rayana Obermeyer’s debut feature film, which showcases the female social ecologies of solidarity and resistance that thrive in a hammam in Algiers during the Black Decade.

Born in the north-west region of Algeria at the beginning of the twentieth-century, raï music is characterised by densely layered rhythms; the soft snare of the bendir, the vibrant derbouka, the bewitching ney, and later on the electric guitar. A genre traditionally performed at celebrations, raï musicians typically invoke religion and moral values. But unofficially, raï also paid homage to earthly pleasures, delighting in serenading love and alcohol. Tinted by the pain of nostalgia and exile that characterised this period for many Algerians, raï captures the urge for emancipation of the population.

Cheikha Rimitti, the heralded mother of raï, chanted resistance songs during the Independence war of 1954 - 1962. Rimitti is an artist who gracefully inhabits contradictions, wearing traditional henna on her hands to sing about sexuality. She takes on the legacy of the Cheikhate, the feminine poet of popular culture through her open and unfettered lyricism. The clear honesty of her lyrics is sharpened by slang and patois. Rimitti used her voice to break taboos about desire and debauchery, for example, in Charrak gatta she sensually explores virginity, a particularly taboo topic for a woman to speak about. She does so with unhesitating confidence and frankness, marking her out as a woman reclaiming her sexuality and fighting against gender norms.

Cheb Hasni, the icon of  sentimental raï, vocalised the passions of life. During the Black Decade, his voice resonated as a promise of hope for the future, and helped many Algerians to heal from the pain and trauma of the Civil War. Cheb Hasni was murdered by the GIA (The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria) in 1994 for his art, and to this day remains a symbol of peace and love to many. The hope that he inspired in so many Algerian people is palpable in his performance on Algerian Independence Day in 1993.

Informed by the long tradition of oral transmission in Berber dialect, Kabyle music is a genre with activism at its centre heart. Taous Amrouche was a singer, writer and activist for the Berber cause, contributing to the fight against cultural repression of the region and dialect by the government. Her voice resonated with celestial tones as she sang ancestral rural myths. She always performed ornamented with traditional Berber jewellery encrusted with coral, a statement of Berber pride and gesture against erasure of the culture.

Aubade sacrée pour les noces:

Matoub Lounès is an iconic singer and Berber activist in the Kabyle tradition. The beat of his mandole accompanied lyrics in Berber on freedom and love, democracy and exile, memory and history. He was fierce freedom fighter, and openly criticised the government as well as the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), a radaicalist political party of Algeria. Although banned from Algerian radio and television during his life he enjoyed widespread popularity and was largely listened to by the population. In 1998, Matoub was attacked again in Kabylia while driving home and subsequently died sparking a series of protests in the region. He is considered as a martyr of the freedom of speech in Algeria and Berber identity.


Exile characterises the stories of many resistance artists


Exile characterises the stories of many resistance artists. Slimane Azem is another Kabyle singer forced to exile after Algerian Independence. Born under the French colonisation, he denounced the damage and horror of colonialism. His music is marked with the pain of being teared away from his country, and his story resonates with many of the exiled Algerians in the diaspora.

The last artist of the playlist is Hasna El Becharia, a singer from the south of the Sahara. She takes on the legacy of the Gnawa music genre that celebrates spirituality and religion, but modernises it. Using the rhythms of traditional instruments – the iron castanet qraqeb, a three-string lute known as a hajhuj – Hasna encorporates the electric and acoustic guitar which are unusual in Gnawa. Her music is a tool of emancipation as she claims freedom for herself and her art, singing both religious and profane lyrics. This repudiation of conventions identifies her as another Algerian artist resisting cultural conventions and indulging in freedom of expression.


I hope that these melodies will carry you and you will be inspired by the hope, joy and bravery of the musicians featured on the playlist.


Edited by Maria Paradinas

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