Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Luc Cherki
Luc Cherki                                                                      Detlev Schilke©2007

When Luc Cherki talks about Chaabi, the singer beams as if he’s talking about a new grandchild. His eyes get big, his smile widens, and he almost constantly touches his heart. The singer-guitarist was there during the golden era of this unique Algerian music, an ascent that began in the 1940s and continued until the end of French colonial rule. Born in the Casbah, where Arabs, Jews and the French lived as neighbors, Chaabi was the music heard at both weddings and brothels. Cherki is quick to point out that the ensembles always included musicians from every part of the community, regardless of the gig, and that they played the same songs regardless of venue. Its national value was recognized much faster than jazz’s in the US; during the colonial period, Chaabi became legit, studied at the Algiers Conservatoire, but it still retained its street cred. Simply put, Chaabi was at the heart of a multi-cultural community that was swept away, first, by the post-independence flight of the French and Jews during the ‘60s, and then the brutal Islamist insurgencies of the ‘90s, which threatened to permanently drive the remaining Arab Chaabi musicians underground.

Like other pied noirs – Algerians of European descent – Cherki relocated in Marseilles after independence, and has waited most of his adult life to reunite with the musicians with whom he first played over fifty years ago; but, he concluded long ago that his dream would probably never be fulfilled. It took an improbable chain of events for it to be finally realized. Earlier in this decade, Algeria stabilized politically to the point where a musician carrying an instrument on the streets was no longer a target for insurgents. Three years ago, Safinez Bousbia, a young Irish-Algerian woman filmmaker was introduced to Chaabi by one of the musicians still living in the Casbah. Sometime later, she introduces Blur front man Damon Albarn, a world music fan, to El Gusto. Bousbia made her film and Albarn recorded a CD in Algiers; Abdel Hadi Halo & The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers (Honest Jon’s). While the album made El Gusto the Chaabi analogue of the Buena Vista Social Club, it only documented the Arab musicians who had remained in Algiers. It is only when El Gusto toured Europe in the autumn of 2007 that Cherki and other expats were brought on board; it was then that Cherki realized that it is one thing for the dream to come true; it is another to hold onto it.

There was a glimpse into Cherki’s efforts to keep the dream alive after the expanded, 40-strong El Gusto’s triumphant festival-opening performance at this year’s JazzFest Berlin. Long after the ecstatic ovations ebbed, the house lights came up and most of the younger musicians left the stage, Cherki and a few of his contemporaries simply remained on stage, talking, punctuated by small gestures and the occasional touch on another’s arm or shoulder for emphasis. Undoubtedly, the stage crew had gone on overtime, vans were lined up to take the musicians back to their hotels, and the meter was running in any number of other ways; but, these old men were oblivious to all of the activity around them. It was easy to imagine them a half-century younger, cajoling each other in the same way as the wedding banquet hall or the bar closed up around them.

In stark contrast to the poignancy of the after-concert image of Cherki and his cohorts, the stage picture revealed by the formal opening of the act curtain at the Berliner Festspiele was operatic. Downstage, a semi-circle of musicians with guitars, ouds, mandolins, mandolas and zithers are bookended by Steinways, one of which was played by front man Hadi, son of Hadj M’Hamed El Anka, Chaabi’s godfather. Most of the orchestra was fanned out behind them on risers: cellists and violinists were terraced on stage right, the latter playing with their instruments perched on their thighs, instead of tucked under their chins; lines of mandolin and banjo players rose on center stage; and the squadron of percussionists – mostly dumbek players – was deployed on stage left. For a moment, there was only this tableau of musicians at the ready, evoking the grandeur of a bygone era.

It only took a split second to understand why the musicians were so dramatically tiered. The resulting sonic impact of El Gusto was surprising; the force of these dozens of musicians playing serpentine lines at racing tempi, propelled by undulating odd meters, was thoroughly distinct from that of a jazz orchestra or a chamber orchestra. The plucked strings have a short decay and lacked a monster bottom; the players compensated with frenzied pick work. Likewise, the dumbek doesn’t have nearly the boom of, say, Elvin Jones’ bass drum. The drum section’s workaround was crisp accents. The proportions of the sections were spot-on; neither the cellos, violins, nor pianos cut through to the point of Westernizing the ensembles. So, the impact was piercing instead of bludgeoning; subsequently, all of the rich intricate details of the ensembles were discernable. As good as it is, El Gusto’s CD only approximates the ensemble’s sound; in the humidor-like Festspiele, El Gusto’s sound rocked the house in the best sense.

Chaabi is often cited as being a fusion of Arabic and Jewish music; though this binary construct is supported by El Gusto’s CD, the JazzFest performance undermined it to a degree by the French tinge Cherki and a few others put into the mix. The melodic resolutions of the two songs Cherki sang had a residue of chanson, which also served to sharpen the ear for the occasional moments when Chaabi’s somewhat distant relationship to flamenco and fado leached to the surface. Though there’s no mistaking the main ingredients of Chaabi, the additional spices emphasize the multiple diasporas that contribute to the music; more importantly, they reinforced the idea that Chaabi is as secular as the night. Even though Jewish and Muslim prayers are now customarily chanted at the outset of El Gusto’s performances, there’s no mistaking Chaabi as sacred music, even in a broader Western sense of the term.

Great performances alter our perception of time, and this was no exception; but, it wasn’t a generic case of time standing still, or of two hours seemingly taking only seconds to elapse. Rather, the consequences of time passing seemed to be voided: Two hours, four hours, who cares? Perhaps Cherki and his friends were experiencing something of the same onstage after the concert. The concert was so self-evidently profound that discovering the tepid and even mildly disdainful reactions of the other representatives of the Fourth Estate in attendance was disarming. For one, it was cool, whatever. Others scoffed at such an expensive production being the centerpiece of the esteemed jazz festival. It’s a toss-up as to which reaction was the more damning.

So-called world music is now a fixture of big league jazz festivals. There is a good reason to include it, but it is not the commonly spun line that new audiences are developed and new funding sources are tapped, essential to the long-term health of a given jazz festival. That rationale is implicit trickle-down theory. Inevitably, these endeavors require strategic partnerships; if the ensemble is of any significant size, partners should be on board before the artists’ contract ink dries. The rub with presenting any type of large ensemble is the expense of logistics; in this case, 40+ persons needed to be transported between Algiers, Marseilles and Berlin, and accommodated for two nights, just for starters. Even for a traditionally well-funded festival like JazzFest Berlin, presenting El Gusto would have been extremely taxing, if not impossible without ARTE, the French-German television consortium, coming on board, So, the nut’s covered, a lot of folks will see El Gusto on TV, and the theory holds, at least for the moment.

The only good reason is passion. A programmer hears an ensemble, and it lights an inextinguishable fire in him or her. Such passion is the only thing that can knock a festival out of its comfort zone in terms of programming and finances even for a moment, let alone the grueling months it takes to realize such an endeavor. That was the case with outgoing JazzFest Artistic Director, veteran producer Peter Schulze, who heard El Gusto on their inaugural European tour. Asked why he would endure the heat and heartburn when numerous glide paths were available, he shrugged and said, “They’re amazing.”

They are.

Playscape Records

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