Nosing around my favourite record shop this afternoon, I picked out an album by Abdel Hadi Halo and The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers, about which I knew nothing. I bought it on spec, stuck it in the car CD player and wasn't disappointed. Once home, I started googling. Turns out there's quite a story behind this album.
In a concert hall down by the old port in Marseilles, a rabbi wearing a suit, Phillipe Darmon, walks on stage and launches into an unaccompanied song. Beside him stands another man; they trade verses before singing together. So far, so ordinary: except for the fact that the man at the rabbi's side is Cheikh Saidi Benyoucef, a Muslim imam.
It was a brave signal that Jewish and Muslim musicians can work in harmony: the first European show from an Algerian orchestra brought together by a project, three years in the making, that has involved a film, an album produced by Damon Albarn, and now a series of concerts across Europe. Called El Gusto - a Spanish word meaning "joy", in recognition of the Jewish settlers who arrived in north Africa from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century - it set out to revive the musical links that once existed in Algeria between the two communities.
This from Robin Denselow in the Guardian, previewing a concert at the Barbican on October 10. He continues:
Behind the rabbi and the imam was a 42-piece orchestra, composed of Algerian Muslim and Jewish musicians. Some of them had lived together in the country before 1962 - the year of Algerian independence - when some 130,000 Algerian Jews, the vast majority of the community, fled for France, fearing for their future in what was now a Muslim state. It was the end of an era in which Muslim, Jewish, and European musicians had lived and played together in the narrow streets of the Casbah in Algiers, developing a rousing, wildly varied hybrid pop style - chaabi - that the El Gusto project set out to rediscover.
It began in 2003 with a documentary by Irish-Algerian film-maker Safinez Bousbia, who was determined to track down surviving musicians from the heyday of chaabi, the 1940s and 50s. Chaabi is a mix of Arabic and north African berber styles, blended with modern French chanson, American boogie and Latin American styles, brought by the American troops stationed in Algeria during the second world war. It's a lively, versatile music suitable for weddings, bars and concert halls alike, and played exclusively by men.
Above all, chaabi is a reminder of the role Jewish musicians have played in north Africa. The community had existed there since Roman times, and their numbers increased with the influx of both Muslims and Jews after their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. As pianist Maurice el Médioni - one of Algeria's finest Jewish musicians, known for his award-winning collaborations with Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodrigues, and a chaabi pioneer - put it, "they brought with them the same music from Andalucia. They had the same music in their suitcases."
In Algiers, Bousbia met Abdel Hadi Halo, a pianist who became the project's musical director. His father had run a music school in the city that continued to teach chaabi until 1974, after the Jewish musicians had left. Halo spent three years building up a new orchestra of chaabi musicians, many of whom were graduates of his father's school. "Chaabi had died," he says. "It disappeared 20 years ago when it was replaced with more modern styles, but now it's coming back again. Young Algerians are interested in chaabi once again."
The album, produced by Damon Albarn, does not include any of the Jewish musicians associated with the project as they were reluctant to travel to Algiers at the time. However, says Abdel Hadi Halo, "Once the European concerts are over we will make a CD with the whole band."
The "whole band" places Halo's orchestra alongside five Jewish musicians, including El Médioni and the 74-year-old French actor Robert Castel, the son of popular chaabi composer Lili Labassi. Castel, too, joined the Jewish exodus to France in the early 1960s. Backstage in Marseilles, he talks of the "good times" in Algeria, and the sufferings of his fellow immigrants as they tried to make a new life in France. Describing his father - "a Jewish musician who was invited to play both at Arabic marriages and Jewish barmitzvahs, and worked with all the musicians of Algeria" - Castel comes close to tears.
Nigel Williamson in The Independent also covered the project:
You don't venture into the Algiers casbah without protection and we make our way under heavy escort through a warren of over-populated back streets, souks, courtyards and winding alleys that seem to lead nowhere. Despite the area being declared a Unesco world heritage site, the crumbling colonial façades have seen better times and the pungent smell suggests that the plumbing system collapsed long ago. Attempts at regeneration have been slow and haphazard, hampered by the district's fearsome reputation in recent years as a terrorist recruiting ground.
Yet it was not always so, and eventually we arrive at the corner of a run-down cobbled street where, inside a small barber's shop, a framed but fading photo on the wall contains the evidence. Taken more than half a century ago, it depicts a group of smartly dressed musicians of various ages and ethnic origins – and it is here that the El Gusto story starts.
"I was in the shop one day and was intrigued by the picture and so I asked about it," says Safinez Bousbia, a 23-year-old Algerian film director, now resident in Dublin. "They told me that it was a group of Muslim and Jewish musicians who used to play in the cafés and at weddings and other ceremonies in the casbah. Before the war of independence, Jews and Muslims resided together in the same religiously diverse community, sharing the same lives and making music in common. I decided to find out if any of them were still alive and if they were to track them down."
.... Bousbia also discovered that the group had been called El Gusto (it translates loosely as "the good mood") and had been formed at a famous music school run in the casbah by the acclaimed master and originator of modern Algerian chaabi music, Hadj El Anka.
El Anka had long since died, but Bousbia tracked down his son, the chaabi musician Abdel Hadi Halo, and together they located some 40 musicians, all of them over 60 and some as old as 90, living in France and Algeria. In November 2006 they bought them together in Algiers for a reunion concert, to record an album produced by Damon Albarn and to shoot a documentary film.
At least, that was the plan. In the event, the elderly Jewish musicians – none of whom had returned since 1962 – were too nervous to make the journey to Algeria. Thus the first reunion concert at the Algiers Opera House featured only Muslim musicians. So, too, does the album produced by Albarn.
Yet that wasn't the end of the story. Bousbia and El Hadi were both determined to realise their vision of reuniting the group and if the Jewish musicians wouldn't travel to Algeria, they laid plans to take the Muslim musicians to Europe instead. Their first concert together in more than 45 years took place triumphantly in Marseilles earlier this month and they will reunite again for a further performance at London's Barbican Centre of 10 October.
....A year on, in Marseilles, Halo has the last word. "There is no star in the El Gusto story because everybody is a star," he says. "We hadn't met for many years, but we came back together to sing chaabi because the music unites us."
An article in Le Figaro adds more detail.
Listen to Abdel Hadi Hajo & The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers here.
Info on Maurice El Medioni.