January 10th, 1999. There’s no doubt about it – that was when the spell was cast. At the Cabaret Sauvage, Souad Massi, a young Algerian artist, completely unknown, made her singing début in Paris. The audience, dazzled by the brilliant, passionate yet compassionate apparition before them, was stunned. The sorceress left us speechless with her voice, music and utterly sincere stage presence. Her natural mastery of word and language had conjured up something rare, universal yet indefinable that went straight to the heart. People scrambled to describe what they had witnessed, many resorting to futile attempts at pigeonholing the Algerian nightingale. Some likened her to the divas of folk-rock, Tracey Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and others. For a world music artist with this kind of uniqueness, however, such comparisons never quite do the trick. Today, as she tours Europe, the Middle East, and this summer, North America, promoting her fifth album, Souad Massi has become the model for a new generation of artists worldwide.
Souad Massi was born August 23, 1972 in Bab en Oued, Algeria, a poor, multi-ethnic neighborhood in the hills above Algiers. Her family had come from Kabylia, the mountainous home of the Berber people, a culturally estranged population in modern Algeria. It is tempting to link Souad’s career to those of socially conscious Kabyle singer/songwriters like Matoub Lounes and Aït Mengeullet.
But despite great affection for her Berber roots, Souad has always felt at peace with her blended identity, part Berber, part Arab, part Turkish and Persian—in short, Algerian. Her struggle for identity has centered on her vocation as a musician, not her ethnicity.
Souad’s father was a chartered accountant, who enjoyed chaabi music—traditonal street pop. Her mother preferred Arabic classical music, but also bent her ear to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. For Souad, films inspired an early passion for music.
A self-described “tom boy,” she loved Westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the top of the list. These films led to her to discover country and folk music, Kenny Rogers and Emmy Lou Harris, Loudon Wainwright III, and later Tracy Chapman. Her uncle played flamenco guitar, and Souad also developed a passion for that style, finding its rough, evocative vocal style an intriguing departure from the more genteel Arabic vocal music she grew up with.
When Souad succumbed to depression as a teenager, her musical brother Hassan nurtured her with music, enrolling her in guitar lessons and coaching her at home. She began writing poetry in the tradition of Arabic love poets, and soon put the two together, performing her songs informally for friends. School took Souad out of Algiers for awhile, first to Taghit, at the edge of the Sahara, where she studied architecture, then to Tizi Ouzou, in Kabyle. Bored without the stimulation of the big city, she returned to Algiers to study at the Institute of Public Works. In the late 90s, she took a job as town planner, and played music at night. She began with a flamenco-oriented group called Trianas d’Alger, but soon left to indulge a newfound passion for hardcore rock music.
She joined a rock band called Atakor and recorded her debut cassette, Souad, with them in 1997. The cassette’s success led to radio and TV appearances. But with fame came danger. Rock groups faced fundamentalist protests and sometimes violence at festivals. At a time when musicians were being targeted for assassination, she was afraid to press her career forward. At the same time, the more she discovered her own voice as a musician, the more the broadcast media became wary of her, and began to censor her simply by neglecting her. Caught between a fearful military government and scornful fundamentalists, Souad felt trapped.
Subsequently, the fateful invitation arrived for Souad Massi to perform a concert in Paris. TV producer Aziz Smati, himself a victim of a fundamentalist shooting, had escaped to France as a paraplegic, and teamed up with radio broadcaster Mohammed Allalou to organize a festival of Algerian women at the Cabaret Sauvage. Once in France, energized in the aftermath of that life-changing début, Souad recorded her debut CD, Raoui (Island/Wrasse), a set of stylistically adventurous and highly personal songs inspired by a tempestuous, ill-fated love affair. The songs were frankly confessional, and cast an unflinching eye on the darkness she had experienced in her life.
She mostly sang in Arabic, showcasing a voice with stark emotional power and arresting subtlety, but she also sang in French, as on “J’ai Pas du Temps,” a languid rock ballad in which she laments, “It was said to me that life was beautiful/ But I find these times cruel/The black smoke took the place of the sky.” Raoui sold over 100,000 copies, and although she was still an unknown in the Middle East and North Africa, Souad Massi quickly became an Arab music pop star in Europe.
Souad’s unique road to success has left her free to make her own stylistic choices, rather than conform to the established genres for Algerian singers: rai, chaabi, Arabo-Andalusian or classical music. Her second album, Deb (AZ/Universal France) sold over 200,000 units in France (US- Wrasse/Caroline).
Souad has continued her impressive musical evolution embracing flamenco, gypsy rumba, and even Congolese music, while maintaining her identity as a highly personal songwriter. The world is a vast and complex place for those who want to live freely. Now based in Paris, Souad Massi has had the time to let her musical sensibility mature, meet other artists and tour extensively. Musically, she has blossomed, allowing her to pursue her dreams with even more intensity and verve. Her third album El Mesk Elil released in the fall of 2005 reflects on her growing homesickness. The title track, with light flamenco guitar, embellished by oud flourishes and a sympathetic string arrangement, is the North African equivalent of Brazil’s eclectic Tropicalismo style. The lyrics evoke a memory-rush of Souad’s childhood, triggered by the smell of honeysuckle. Other songs on El Mesk Elil bring in influences from Senegalese and Tuareg music, also North African tradition and Latin rhythms.
In 2005 Souad won a BBC RADIO 3 award for Best Singer/Songwriter in the Middle East and North Africa. That year the UN appointer her a Spokesperson for the International Year of Microcredit. She has garnered numerous other honors since then, including being voted one of Forbes Magazine’s “40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa” in 2011.
In 2008 Souad released her fourth album, Acoustique, and in 2010 she created her most fully realized recording to date, Ô Houria (Liberty). This mature and worldly set of songs is inspired by poetry, philosophy and the writings of the 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. “When you are young,” says Massi, “you are impressed with superstars and millionaires. But now, I am impressed by people who are intelligent and visionary. Ibn Khaldun spoke about the changes in the world, the mentality that people had and wanted, how individuals were demanding their rights, and the struggles of people. When I read him, I imagined that there could be a great change in the Arab world.” On Ô Houria, Souad sings about the restricted lives of girls in traditional families (“Samira Meskina”), the stigma of divorce (“All Remains to be Done”), the terrible bind the of an abusive husband finds herself in (“Nacera”), the pain of exile (“Kin Koun Alik Ebaida”), and, of course, about freedom (“Ô Houria”). As ever, the music is a rich and subtle blend of folk, pop, R&B flavors, along with African rhythms, worked into the elegantly melodious framework of Arab song.
With her band of 10 years, Souad has toured extensively in the past year, through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, including a prestigious appearance at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco, and a historic performance for thousands at the Palestinian International Festival in Ramallah. In the summer of 2012, Souad will make her first North American tour in almost eight years, including shows at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and New York’s Celebrate Brooklyn. Souad’s New York show coincides with the American Fourth of July independence celebration—special to Souad since this summer also marks the 50th Anniversary Independence of her homeland, Algeria. “We will celebrate together,” says Souad, truly a citizen of the world, and an artist committed to shattering cultural barriers, and uniting people of all nationalities and backgrounds.
Chœurs de Cordoba (Voices of Cordoba). “In the 10th century, ” says Souad, “the city of Cordoba was the capital ofIn that same spirit, Souad has recently collaborated with flamenco guitarist Eric Fernandez to form a new ensemble called culture for the world. People of different cultural backgrounds–Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists—worked together.
They were doctors, writers, translators, jurists, artists. Together they made an evolution of culture.” Chœurs de Cordoba presents a similar diversity of backgrounds among its nine members. The group’s performances combine flamenco guitar and dance, Arabic classical tradition, and Andalusian music and poetry to create a unique sound scape with a powerful message of cultural and religious harmony.
In 2012, Souad is making forrays into the world of cinema. Her song “Raoui” is part of the soundtrack for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film The Dictator. And, Souad is slated to star in a new feature film by award winning Palestinian director Najwa Najjar. The film is a meditation on love and war on the West Bank, and will mark Souad’s first appearance on the silver screen.
“Raoui” – 2001 Island – Universal
United States-Licensee: Wrasse/Caroline
“Deb” – 2003 AZ- Universal
United Sates- Licensee; Wrasse/Caroline
“Mesk Elil”-2005 AZ-Universal
United States- Licensee: Wrasse/Caroline
Acoustique- 2008- AZ -Universal
United States- Licensee: Wrasse/Caroline
Ô Houria (Liberty) 2010- AZ – Universal
United States- Licensee: Wrasse/Caroline
- BBC Radio 3- Artist of the Year- 2005 Middle East
- Victoires de la Musique World Music Artist of the Year 2006
What the Press has to say about Massi.
- “the audience get to their feet, as she finishes with a dance song then another broken-hearted ballad. Algeria has a new international celebrity.” - Guardian
- “Her conscious blend of folk styles from five continents is going to surprise anyone. It’s most certainly a crash course in the many musical tentacles that extend into Algeria. It’s not eclectic, it’s organic” – All About Jazz
- “Massi, has one of the most powerful voices of today’s generation” – Asharq Al-Awsat
- “With a beautiful voice and a large palette of influences to draw from, Souad Massi is one of the most interesting singers to come from North Africa” - New York Times
- “Influenced equally by shaabi music, French chanson, flamenco, 60’s American folk and a variety of African traditional music, this Algerian guitarist and chanteuse (now living in Paris) makes music that is at once exotic and familiar.”
- “Souad’s music stands as testament to a hope and spirit that cannot be dimmed, let alone vanquished.” – New York Times
- “Massi, one of the most influential African Artists/Celebrities of the year.” (Forbes) 2011
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