It all started with a mirror… The reunion of the Algerian Jewish and Muslim musicians has been made possible by Safinez Bousbia, a woman who got interested in the stories of the musicians torn apart after the Algerian Revolution (1954 – 1962). Without any experience she made a beautiful documentary (2011) and these days the Orchestra El Gusto is touring successfully around the world. Unfortunately not with all the original musicians, some had to be replaced by younger musicians, but some of them appeared in the film. Music journalist Bas Springer interviewed Safinez Bousbia, and asked her how it all began, the difficulties she encountered, and the emotions they all felt.
How did the whole El Gusto project started?
“Originally I am Algerian but I never lived there. I was living back in Ireland at the time. An Irish friend of mine and I wanted to go to Algiers to discover the city in 2003. One day we do a touristic thing and walk in a casbah, and we see this mirror hanging outside of a little shop. So we went in to buy the mirror. One thing let to the other and the mirror maker, which was mister Ferkioui (the accordionist in the film, ed.), start to tell his story. That he was part of the first class of Chaâbi music. At that time it was taught by its founder (El Hadj Mohammed El Anka, 1907-1978, ed.) and we start to talk a bit more about the class. He told me that he didn’t know where all these members are. By that time I was doing my masters on architecture, I wasn’t thinking in doing a film, but I proposed to help him to try to find them. I postponed my flight back and I stayed there for about three, four months. Finally it took two to three years to find them all. Once I started meeting them, one, after the other, I was just so impressed and attracted to their characters, I was like, ‘this is a great story for a film!’. I tried to find producers and directors who would be interested. But unfortunately we couldn’t find the right partner. So decided to do it myself.”
How did you manage to make this film?
“At the beginning (in 2005) I put in the budget necessary to have a proper crew with proper equipment, because that helps a lot. But I was very well surrounded. What really helped is that I knew the musicians over a period of three years before we started to start shooting the real footage. So I was very close to the musicians and they were at ease. Plus I knew all the family, so the camera wasn’t that much present. The other thing is that I finally I had a chance to work with the Oscar winner editor (Françoise Bonnot, ed.) who really taught me a lot.”
How did you find the musicians?
“Oh, that was very complicated, because Ferkioui knew their names, but not all of their full names. So first of all we had to find their last names to find their addresses. Finally I found somebody who had books of the registers of the conservatoire. In the 1990’s it was taken away by the Islamists, so the registers got lost. I found them from an old guardian and refound the old addresses of these families in the casbah. We found out where each block was moved to the outskirt. Then once I found the outskirt, I went from door to door, and the shops helped me.”
That was in Algiers, but some of them also left to Marseille.
“France in general, Paris and Marseille, is so much easier. Because they all kept in close contact to their community. They all went to the same cafe. They would be all members of the same center. Because it was their way to find their old habits. It was a way to remember old friends, old memories. Once I located the center, which was the Centre Rashid, a Jewish Sephardic center, they gave me all the addresses. The complicated thing in Algeria is that there are no addresses. They tell you, ‘by the third road, turn around, then by the electric pole…’ It very much resembles a society in the sense that there were names, they are new names, but people use the French name. So it’s very complicated.”
What did you tell them? I reckon they were very surprised when you met them.
“They were about 23 of them and there were different reactions. Some were super excited, some even expected it to happen. There was another group that was very happily surprised. Some didn’t understand. They thought I was part of the Algerian television station. So they were like, ‘nah, we don’t want to work with you’, and I was like, ‘no, no, I am not, I have nothing to do with that’. They could not understand why I would be interested in their story. For example Liamine, one of the musicians in the film. When I met him the guy had through the nineties one of his sons slaughtered in front of him. His other son as taken away and still not found till today. And the guy had stopped playing for like about 10 or 12 years. So when I arrived, we had a really bad encounter the first day. He just literally threw me out. I didn’t know the background of his story. He was very offended that I mentioned Bernaoui, one of the musicians. That’s why he threw me out, ‘you are not able even to respect the dead’, because he thought that Bernaoui was dead. So I brought Bernaoui with me and that moment was really special. That’s how he joined the club. It helped a lot also the fact that already I had some that followed me, that reassured other members.”
Was it your idea to bring the orchestra together again?
“The beginning for me was just to put them in touch. They all still have that passion to play. So it was kind of evident that they had to play all together.”
Were they playing when you met them for the first time?
“Some played, some had stopped. The majority continued to play for themselves.”
In 1962 they had to separate, the Jewish musicians left the country. Can you tell me more about this?
“Legally there was no law that said you have to leave, it was a very complicated situation. But in the past, 50 years before, the Jewish people were naturalized to be French. So when the colonizers were asked to leave, Jews were considered as French. That’s the Algerian official version. But when you speak to the people they say that the Jews were not considered as colonizers, but the independence happened that way and they were afraid. The truth is that the war happened between the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, ed.) and the FLN (National Liberation Front, ed) was extremely violent. Even after the independence the killings continued. The families were like, ‘you don’t want your kids to be around that’, so that’s why people left. I understand that. They held on through 1961-62, there was a huge bloody war and the Jews were literally in the middle of that fight. It happened very quickly, I think within three days a million people left. Most of them by boat. I can imagine that when you see a lot of people leaving, even when you are thinking of staying, all you want to do is just leave. They left drastically, leaving their stuff behind. In some of the houses the coffee was still left on the table. It’s a very painful story. From both sides it’s a very complicated and sensitive issue.”
Did you talk with the musicians about this?
“They arrived at a stage in life that they don’t care about anything anymore. They had time to question it and were able to share it. Their attitude is really tranquil. They said, ‘listen, there were bigger people who decided what was happening and it’s us who paid for it’. Whether it was the Jews or the Algerians, it was the small people who paid for it. Instead of spending our time in pointing fingers to each other. I think it’s time for us to just turn the page. I think that is the message that makes the film really successful.”
The music they play is called Chaâbi, did you know anything about Chaâbi before?
“Well there is one song called Ya Rayah played by Rachid Taha. It was kind of a world wide hit. And apart of that I knew of little of Lily Boniche. But no, I didn’t really know about Chaâbi. I was much more attracted to the story of the people at the beginning than the music. I love this music, but that came later.”
Is the Chaâbi still on the Algerian radio?
“yes, Chaâbi is still played on the radio, but is not the same style anymore. It has evolved differently, not on artistic but on economic reasons. You can’t hear the violins anymore, it’s all with synthesizers. The elderly will tell you that at their time being in a band, you had to be perfectly dressed, perfectly hair brushed. You had to have all your notes right. But now it’s more like a working class music. It was like that before but it evolved to become the pride of the people. And now it becomes again the music for weddings and celebrations. Chaâbi means popular, Chaâb means people. There are different kinds, like the Qasida, the classical songs. They can last from 25 till 40 minutes. The lyrics are from old Andalusian writings from the 15th, 16th century. Then you have the Chansonnette, shorter songs about every day life, working class neighborhood, the casbah, the fisher men. Then you have the love songs, and nationalistic songs.”
What do you think of the comparison with the Buena Vista Social Club in the media?
“I think it’s a huge compliment, but because of the historical and political layer, El Gusto has a different way of telling the story. As Buena Vista Social Club, El Gusto wasn’t an orchestra. In their case it was a music class, they all played in the band of the conservatoire. But of course they did concerts. After the independence El Anka stopped teaching and they all went off and started becoming stars of their own. The French ones as well. Robert Castel was a comedian and then became a singer afterwards. Maurice start doing piano and he became well known.”
The first time they reunited, they played together with an audience. Can you describe the atmosphere?
“For me, it was my favorite concert ever with El Gusto. They were suppose to play for an hour and a half but they played for three hours and a half! Neither the audience wanted them to leave, nor they were leaving. They were crying. The audience was crying. It was very emotional. They were telling a lot of stories on stage. They played at the very intimate Théâtre du Gymnase, so the audience was really close. You had even some audience talking to them. When the musicians were on stage, being saluted, they were taking photos of the audience! They wanted to take it home to show it to their family… so sweet. In the room there were many mixtures of people, Sephardic Jews from Algeria, Moroccan, Libyans, a lot of Algerians, some French. But everybody was just dancing together, crying together. It was a very special moment.”
If you want to attend one of their concerts you can check their website.
This interview is transcribed by Charlie Crooijmans