African Music Anthology
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Hasna el bechariaSmaa smaa
Hasna El Bécharia is extraordinary. She is still the only woman in the Maghreb to play gnawi music, a ceremonial beat that has remained an exclusively male preserve since the animist beliefs of the Bilad es-Sudan, (in Arabic, the Land of the Blacks - today’s Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Chad) encountered the monotheist faith of Islam from across the desert. Her choice has exposed her to a great deal of rejection and sarcasm, but Hasna’s mind and soul are irrevocably bound up with the mystic trance music learnt from her father, a pious man who was himself a maâllem or master of gnawi (the plural of gnawa) syncretism, a black Sufism forged by the descendants of sub-Saharan slaves in White Africa, also called diwan in East Algeria and stambali in Tunisia. Every inhabitant of the Maghreb is familiar with the captivating rhythm of this Muslim Voodoo played on the guembri (an ancient bass instrument with three strings traditionally made of gut) and the qraqeb, qarqabou and crotala (large metal castanets) enlivening a long lila (night), releasing men and women from their troubles, driving out the djinns that torment them and enabling them to join with mlouks, spirits that possess them.
Hasna El Bécharia was possessed by the ecstatic music itself, beginning to write songs on a guembri and acoustic or electric guitar (rock also came to Algeria at the end of the 50s). She is said to have taken up the electric guitar to make herself heard during concerts where the audience drowned out her voice when they joined in her songs. She has since extended her repertoire to more profane, popular genres - although piety is always just around the corner, as shown on this album steeped in religion and self-sacrifice. Hasna devotes herself wholly to spirituality with a fervour she expresses in contemporary language. She has developed her style, introduced in 2002 on her acclaimed first record, Djazaïr Johara (Algeria the Jewel), made in Paris when she was about fifty, after she settled in France after arriving from Algeria in January 1999 for the Women of Algeria festival at the Cabaret Sauvage, where the public also discovered a young female artist from Algiers named Souad Massi. When Hasna left her native land for good, it lay in the shadow of an inhuman, chaotic war between armed Islamic fundamentalists and an army commanded by generals who had seized the riches of a promising nation barely liberated from French colonialism in 1962.
As her stage name would suggest, Hasna El Bécharia was born in Béchar (formerly Colomb-Béchar), a strategic metropolis on the Algerian Sahara. Béchar was a garrison city during the French occupation and is just a muezzin’s call from the Moroccan border, a crossroad between two Africas standing a thousand kilometres from the Mediterranean.
Hasna did not grow up like other girls in the city. She had a passion for music and loved the poor and social outcasts. She took in wives who had been thrown out with their children by husbands in search of a new life, encouraged by the disgraceful “family code” law. With a great sense of freedom, Hasna left her home in the evening, frequenting the unfrequentable in a provincial town paralysed by stifling tradition and crushed by the fear of what other people would think. El Bécharia cared nothing for this and remained a free, unrepressed woman, playing her music as she wished and living the life she chose. By 1972, other women were asking her to sing at their children’s engagement celebrations and weddings, admiring her courageous, uncompromising existence in silence and with secret envy. Hasna was accompanied by three woman friends on backing vocals and percussion. Her lyrics buried hypocritical rigorism in a blast of sand; her music was an assault on the austerity of tradition. A woman playing electric guitar in the Maghreb was already an extreme rarity - almost an alarming phenomenon. Not content with this, Hasna El Bécharia consistently refused to bow to male conservatism, while singing of her mysticism and invoking the walis, marabouts and holy figures of popular Islam that women especially implored to lighten the burden of their daily lives. All through this new record, Hasna prays for the grace of these sidi or lords with their evocative names: El Bachir, Ben Bouziane, Abdel Rahman, Abdallah, Abdallah Ben Aïssa (Jesus), Moussa (Moses) and Moulay Ibrahim (Abraham), not to mention Bilal the Abyssinian, a slave freed by the Prophet who became the first muezzin of Islam and the patron of all gnawa.
Hasna sings in a calm, deep, almost male voice on this album, whose still powerful gnawi rhythms merge with the two popular chaâbi styles - genres from the countries that shape the culture of the Béchar region: Algeria and Morocco. Its dozen songs are often punctuated by crystalline guitar, sighing violins and a modernist style of composition that enhances and updates an ancestral art. With the same impetus, Hasna’s trance also combines two passions: divine zeal and earthly love, for the Sufis see the idealisation of human beings as part of their worship of their creator.
As the album opens, Hasna El Bécharia sings, “Listen, listen / There’s something worth hearing”. We should heed this providential invitation.