When Camel Zekri was a kid hanging onto the back seat of his parents' Peugeot sedan, the drive home from Paris to southern Algeria was like being in a movie tracing his musical roots. Now, as one of the foremost Afro-jazz fusion artists in Europe, Zekri rejects the cultural definitions many American jazz performers use to describe their music. Instead, by crafting his own style, he has been able to form his own Franco-African identity.
Zekri's life and art emerged from the clash of two cultures. At their most extreme, his free improvisations are no closer to the spirit ceremonies his parents knew in Algeria than they are to the formal music he studied at the Paris Conservatory. Zekri says it took him a quarter-century to bring his music and his identities together.
"Before, there were two separate parts of my life," Zekri says. "In Algeria, I didn't speak of France and the music I did here — classical, jazz, reggae. But here in France, I was never doing or talking about Arabic or Algerian music I did there."
In Europe, he's generally seen as an improvisational jazz musician. But Zekri scrunches up his eyebrows when asked if his music is really jazz.
"Jazz is a word — it's not the music," he says. "Why not salsa? Why not bossa nova? Reggae? You can't say this is not jazz. It's an encounter of people who have given us music. It's not one person who has given us this music. It's a meeting of different people and cultures."
That's what interests Zekri — human encounters. Like so many children of immigrant families, he found it hard to bridge the cultural divisions within himself until his own guitar taught him how. He set aside classical technique. He changed the placement of his hands. He expanded the scale to encompass Arabic, Berber and African sounds.
A Perfect Match
Last winter, Zekri encountered a world beyond music. He collaborated with the National Dance Theatre of Caen on a new work starring nine dancers of French, Japanese and Congolese origin.
Hela Fatoumi, one of the choreographers, says that Zekri's approach to music was a perfect match for the company's Creole-style improvisational dance.
"What is interesting is that the dance and the music arise in the same time," Fatoumi says. "The music helps the dance and the dance helps the music."
Zekri says that when it comes to pushing musical boundaries, his great breakthrough came when he and his partner, Dominique Chevaucher, started a series of Euro-African musical cruises along some of sub-Saharan Africa's major rivers.
They called these events "Water Music," and at each river village, indigenous musicians would join them. In 2000, they found themselves in a tiny village in Burkina Faso, waiting for their boat to be delivered overland by truck. Each night, they played impromptu performances for their hosts until finally the boat arrived. But Chevaucher says it was too big for them to unload alone.
"The village, they decided to stop work and 250 men, maybe more, they come to help us take the boat from the truck," Chevaucher says. "All the village stopped for us."
Young and old, the people of the village hoisted the wooden boat onto their shoulders and carried it into the water.
"We say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' And they say, 'No, we thank you for this,' and they [organized] a big ceremony for us, and we [saw] a ceremony which is very difficult to see, so it was like something magic," Chevaucher says.
It was exactly the kind of exchange Zekri had been seeking.
"It enabled me to find a balance within myself — an African, and at the same time a European by training and education," Zekri says. "I needed to show both sides, so the Festival of Water enabled me to gather everyone on a boat and then to create improvisational music together collectively in each village. It's the best way I could find to express who I am."
Last October at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, Zekri and Chavaucher collaborated with musicians from Congo to mount one of the Water Festival pieces they presented on the Congo River. Zekri says it marked one more step in integrating all the pieces of his complex life.