On a sultry night in Tunis, a youthful crowd leaps to its feet waving lighters and smartphones as Souad Massi sings Arabic lines that take them back to the Jasmine Revolution four years ago.
The words are not those of the Algerian-born singer-songwriter but of Abou el Kacem Chebbi, a Tunisian modernist poet whose face is on the country’s 10 dinar banknote. A Byronic Romantic with a weak heart, he died young in 1934, but his poem “To the Tyrants of the World” was reborn in the chants of the Arab uprisings, which began in Tunis with the overthrow of the dictator Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. The poem now has another lease of life in Massi’s song “Hadari”.
Decades before Ben Ali, or his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, took power, Chebbi wrote to “the Tyrant”: “Beware. That the springtime doesn’t trick you . . . The torrent of blood [you shed] will soon sweep you away.”
Chebbi’s was a guiding spirit of the Arab Spring, Massi says the morning after her concert, on the terrace of the Hôtel Majestic. “I was proud to sing in Tunis two of his poems about revolution.” Yet the liberation they recall is tinged with grief at all that has followed. The low point was in March this year, when gunmen killed more than 20 people — mainly tourists — at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, in a terror attack claimed by Islamic State.Security was high at the open-air concert on May 14. It inaugurated the French Institute’s new home in the Petit Carnot, a renovated 1880s lycée across the street from the Tunis conservatoire. Massi, who has lived in France since 1999, headlined with her band in a whitewashed courtyard that glowed red from a backlit wall of mashrabiya latticework.
Like the makeover of this colonial-era edifice, Massi’s latest songs are a homage to centuries-old Arab culture, and to a tolerant humanism now under siege. They set to her melodic, eclectic pop music the work of great Arabic poets, from the sixth-century, pre-Islamic Zuhaïr Ibn Abi Salma, to Ahmed Matar, an Iraqi exile in London today. These 10 songs form her new album, El Mutakallimûn (Masters of the Word), which she will perform at London’s Barbican on May 31.
Massi, 42, is known for melancholy love songs and folk-rock ballads, sung with her acoustic guitar in the manner of Joan Baez — though her first bands in Algeria played flamenco and Berber hard rock. “I’m called ‘world music’ because I sing in Arabic, even though I make rock music,” she shrugs. In France she added more elements, from the Gnawa music of Maghrebi mystics to west African highlife. “I work with musicians from France, Cameroon, Senegal, Guinea. It’s good to share with people their sound experience. I don’t want to close myself in a prison. For me, music is to be free.”
For her first studio album since the Arab uprisings, she selected political and philosophical poetry, Massi says, and “only one love poem”. Yet she had anticipated the revolutionary mood in her 2010 album, Ô Houria (Liberty). Touring across the Arab world, “I felt the same energy, the great potential of young people in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon,” she recalls. “I thought, perhaps it’s time for change. But when the spring happened, so many people died. Perhaps we’re not ready.”
The richness of poetry such as Chebbi’s lends itself to such subtleties. Massi sees his warning as not only to tyrants: “It says: ‘Be careful. Now it’s spring; now you see the light. But you also have to look out for what’s coming’.”
The album grew from her work with her “second band”, Les Choeurs de Cordoue (The Choirs of Cordoba), formed with Spanish guitarist Eric Fernández. Like Arab Andalus, the medieval Spanish culture that inspired the band’s formation, its musicians from north Africa and Spain are a mix of Muslims, Christians and Jews. That enlightened plurality, and the poet-scholars of Cordoba’s golden age in the ninth and 10th centuries, also inspired this album. A trained architect, Massi knew of the “beauty of Cordoba”, which she plans to visit this summer with her husband (who is also her manager) and two young daughters.
“We had writers, doctors, philosophers, scientists”, including Ibn Khaldun, the Tunis-born 14th-century historian, whose statue in Tunis’s Independence Square, opposite the French embassy, is now ringed with razor-wire.
Massi usually sings in Algerian Arabic, or Darja — mixed with some French and English — and took lessons in classical Arabic for the album. For her bold settings, such as the upbeat reggae of “Hadari”, “everything came from the poetry”, she says.
“Faya Layla” (“I Remember”), inspired by the Arabic legend Majnun Layla about a man who dies for love, uses bossa nova, “because it’s a love poem, very sweet”. “Lastou Adri” (“I Do Not Know”), by the Lebanese poet of exile Ilya Abu Madi, “asks questions about existence”, she says. “I feel the movement in the text, so it begins with Afrobeat.” The opening “Bima El’Taaloul” (“What Is There to Feel Happy About?”), by the 10th-century Baghdadi poet Al-Mutanabbi, relies on the poem’s innate musicality. It was the hardest to set, Massi says, “because I couldn’t cut it — you have to respect the poet. For me, he’s the best. So there is not a lot of music; I wanted people to hear the words.”
The CD comes inside a slim book, with translations of the poems, and exquisite calligraphy by Mohamed and Aymen Bourafai, an Algerian father and son. One poem takes the form of a rearing horse; another of a ship at sea. “I wanted to show the beauty of Arabic poetry and calligraphy,” she says.
She has made this her mission, not only against political Islam, but against those who conflate Arabs with violent extremism. In Paris, when the Charlie Hebdo attack took place, she was “especially afraid for Muslims, because many people don’t see the difference, as though Muslims must all be terrorists — or all Arabs. They don’t even realise you can be Arab and Christian or Jewish. There’s a lot of ignorance of the Arab world.”
Massi says: “I’m trying, in my small way, to show Arab culture is huge, and to give the word to poets and calligraphers.”
Born in Algiers to Berber parents, she studied classical music and guitar. When she started playing solo and in bands, she says: “My father was really cool. My mother said: ‘What will people say?’ But mainly they were afraid.” Civil war broke out when she was in her early twenties, after Algeria’s 1992 elections were cancelled because it seemed the Islamic Salvation Front might win. For a woman in jeans with a guitar, the risks were grave. She was sent death threats.
“Musicians suffered, and many artists were killed. It was really dangerous, but I did it because I was young,” she says. “I love music, and wanted to be free. I refused to let someone else decide for me.”
That history makes some of the attitudes she encounters in France trying. “It’s an injustice, because in Arab countries we do our best — especially women — to fight the fundamentalists. The fact that I might be put on the same level as them is very sad,” she says.
Her next album will be a homage to Berber poets, who were part of a suppressed culture. “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to accept that this is part of Algerian culture, though now the situation is better,” she says.