Chaabi: The 'People's Music' Of North Africa

Abdel Hadi Halo Cover

Abdel Hadi Halo and the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers. Courtesy of Honest Jon's hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Honest Jon's

As concert venues go, it's not exactly Carnegie Hall.

A few dozen folding chairs are set up in a courtyard, in front of a modest elevated stage. A half-dozen musicians are crowded around a table, which groans with platters of food and pitchers of drink. The crowd is mainly older men; feet are tapping and heads are nodding along with the rolling, gently propulsive beat.

Listeners with MTV attention spans may have a hard time with chaabi songs, which can go on for the better part of half an hour. When people speak of the music of North Africa, most often they're talking about rai, the infectious blend of Arab, African and Western rhythms that has long been a staple in European dance clubs.

Chaabi is no longer widely played, but once, it regaled North Africa with exotic melodies and stories of love and loss. In this crowd of a certain age, the music evokes wry and wistful smiles. This concert came on Algeria's Independence Day weekend, and perhaps the older members of the audience were recalling the days of their youth, when chaabi — the "people's music" — used to pour from smoke-filled corners of the casbah.

One of the musicians is Abdel Hadi Halo, whose father, Hajj Mohammed Al-Anka, is widely known as the father of chaabi music. Chaabi has been called the "blues of the casbah," and Halo says that, while that's not musically accurate, it does convey how the music was embraced by ordinary Algerians.

"My father, when he came, he came in a very sensitive period at that time," he says through a translator. "It was that the rich people got their own music, classical music. But the poorest people, the poorest people didn't have nothing. So he came in between the middle, in order to let the people, the poorest, listening to a music that they will — it's coming from them."

Chaabi is clearly indebted to the classical music of 15th-century Andalusia. But North Africans also bent those traditions to their own ends, in the process communicating everyday songs of love and money, either won or lost.

The sounds of Moorish Spain came to North Africa in force when Spain expelled Muslims and Sephardic Jews in 1492. In Algeria, the music continued to evolve, with Muslim and Jewish musicians playing side by side and absorbing various influences.

It could have gone in a number of directions, but Anka, already a well-known musician and teacher, created the musical structure that came to define Algerian chaabi: Verses of poetry about anything from religion to love to coffee and tea are interspersed with instrumental passages performed on stringed instruments such as the mandol (ancestor of the mandolin), the tambour and other percussion, the qanun or zither, and several other instruments, sometimes including the piano and violin.

These days, chaabi has been eclipsed by rai music, rap and Western pop. But it's still played in a few bars on the weekends, and on special occasions.

Abdel Hadi Halo is teaching the music to young students, when he can pry them off the soccer field. He says he hopes that chaabi music, which survived a war for independence and a civil war, can pass the test of time and changing tastes.

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