“The fruit of silence – an old Arab saying goes – is tranquillity”. But if silence is broken, art might reveal itself, one could reply after listening at El Mutakallimun, Souad Massi’s latest album.
A word that can be translated as “the speakers” or, more freely, as “the masters of the word”, El Mutakallimun is a collection of ten Arab poem turned into songs, in the Algerian singer’s own unclassifiable style.
Arab traditional melodies, western folk, rock, pop, African soul and even a bit of Portuguese fado and Spanish flamenco all give their contribution to the unique sound of the ten tracks. This variety is not surprising in an artist with Massi’s personal background (a proud Algerian, she nevertheless remembers her Kabylian origin, has been living in France since 15 years and gave Persian names to her two daughters) and who once described her latest musical project as the result of “a moment of madness”. However, this musical mix is also a logical consequence of a broader project. El Mutakallimun, in fact, it’s not Massi’s first attempt to rework classics. For years the Algerian singer-songwriter has been fascinated by the Arab poets living in Spain in the 9th and 10th century, whose songs she reinterpreted together with guitarist Eric Fernandez in a series of concerts dedicated to the “choirs of Cordoba” (Choeurs de Cordoue was the original French title).
While working on these choirs, Massi was particularly fascinated by the historical period they belong to: an age of great developments in the cultural field but also of coexistence between the Muslims, Jews and Christians of Spain. This cohabitation is mirrored in the style of El Mutakallimun, where the singer is also accompanied by a band that includes oud, banjo and piano, in addition to Jean-François Kellner’s guitar. Cordoban poets, however, are not the only ones whose texts are used in the album , which is an homage to artists of all times, ranging from Zouhaïr Ibn Abi Salma (who lived in the sixth century, in pre-islamic Arabia) to contemporary revolutionary poets such as Ahmad Matar, from Iraq and Abou el Kacem Chebbi (died in 1934). The words of the latter, in particular, were used as slogans by Tunisians during the 2011 revolt against Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.
In part, it was Massi’s fans – which had been asked to do so by the singer herself – who suggested which poems had to be put in music and included in the tracklist, but the fact that so many facets of the Arab world – from North Africa to the Gulf – ate represented is also due to the artist’s deep conviction that this culture is currently suffering of a misrepresentation. Precisely for this reason, she believes, its literary production needs to be unveiled as a whole. So, El Mutakallimun is aimed to two different types of listeners at a time: he Arab youth, both in their home countries and in the diaspora, to make them more aware of the richness of their tradition, and to the general public, who isn’t at all familiar with it.
Two audiences, but just one message, which is best summarized by what the singer recently told a journalist interviewing her for Middle East Eye. “The Arab-Muslim world has produced great works in science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine and poetry, but it all seems forgotten now.” What most people sees when thinking about this part of the world, instead, is a more painful, but highly partial phenomenon, she admitted. “The Arab world is vast and I am sad that it is often associated with terrorism. I lived through the civil war in Algeria; I have suffered from terrorism as many people. It is unfair that we are associated with this picture”.
In her attempt to set this perception right, the Algerian-born artist has also tried to show how many themes the poetic tradition she is relying on can offer. For instance Sa’imtou, the poem by the already mentioned Zouhaïr Ibn Abi Salma, which becomes the fifth track of the album, is the complaint of a wise old man at the end of his life, while Fa ya Layla is the tale of two lovers, which can be compared in some ways to the most well-known examples of this literary genre in Western literature: Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde.
Politics is another aspect that Massi didn’t forget to include in her work: freedom is a common theme and the singer expressly declared that El Mutakallimun carries a very deep political message. “I believe in people who are fighting for freedom, and I try to give them some hope with my music. It’s my responsibility and my role”, she told the British daily The Guardian, in an interview in which she also accused the so-called Islamic State, or Isis, of “trying to destroy Muslims”. It is also in opposition to this obscurantist movement that Massi decided to underline how the Arab culture “is a culture of light”. After listening at the 40 minutes long El Mutakallimun, one can rightly say that the task has been perfectly accomplished.