Are you familiar with the music of Chaabi? I’m sure you’re not. And I’m also sure that in the near future it will be as popular as the songs of Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club. Chaabi is a special cocktail of Arab and Jewish Andalusian, Berber and Flamenco rhythms, the “soul of Algiers”, as it is said in Safinez Bousbia’s memorable documentary El Gusto. Chaabi was born in the deep, bleeding heart of Algiers, amid the coffee shops, markets, restaurants, bars and bordellos of the Casbah. This poor district, where houses are built upon each other, is known through Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algieri, 1966). Pontecorvo’s classic film showed the battling city. There was no music in it, only the monotonous sound of gunfire and the high-registered, sharp screams of Arab women.
The story of El Gusto started several years before the Algerian revolution: in the late ’40s to early ’50s, when young Arab and Jewish musicians formed a band to play Chaabi music. All of them graduated from the Conservatory of Algiers, under professor El Hadj M’Hamed El Anka — a legendary musician, and the “father of Chaabi”. They played in clubs, at weddings, on open terraces, in public squares, streets, everywhere. For them, Chaabi was more than a profession, even more than a passion: it was their life.
And it was their youth.
In 2003 the young Algerian-born filmmaker Safinez Bousbia entered a small mirror-shop during her visit to Algiers. In the darkness of the workshop she noticed a black-and-white photograph. The old shopkeeper told her the story of the picture: it was taken in the late ’40s of the students of the Algiers Conservatory. And he also spoke about Chaabi music, singing and playing some of its tunes. Bousbia started to track down the men in the old photo. This journey took more than seven years. The Jewish musicians had to leave the country after the revolution: they settled down in Marseilles and Paris. The Muslims stopped playing Chaabi: nobody needed the type of dance-music of the old bars, clubs and bordellos after the revolution.
After seven years of research Bousbia successfully found the survivors and reunited the band for a concert in Marseille. The Muslim and Jewish musicians hadn’t seen each other for sixty years. They sat down and played the music they had had to give up decades ago with the same passion, joy and skill. Life has passed. They are old men now, playing once again the music of their youth. Jew or Muslim, rich or poor, healthy or sick, successful or unsuccessful — it doesn’t matter. Chaabi is stronger than religion, politics; even stronger than the passing of time. What history separated, music reunites. The 42 musicians — with the words of Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal (Prova d’orchestra, 1978) — “cling to music”.
The world premiere of El Gusto was one of the highlights of the 5th Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The audience was applauding, singing the songs together with the musicians during the screening and, at the end, broke out in a standing ovation. El Gusto, which was granted the FIPRESCI International Film Critics’ Prize and also the “Best Arab Director” Prize of the Documentary Jury, was a co-production of Algeria, France, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates, with the support of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s own development and post-production fund, SANAD.
© FIPRESCI 2011