"Every one of us has a story in his heart... Storyteller, tell us stories to make us forget our reality. Leave us in the world of once upon a time."
So go some of the lines from "Raoui" ("Storyteller"), the opening song in this Tiny Desk Concert with Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi. Performing in a mix of North African Arabic, Berber and French, Massi has carved out a life for herself as just such a storyteller. Her unflinching, deeply intimate songs — paired with her beautiful, cool light-beam of a voice — belie the struggles she's endured to make her own stories heard.
Born in Algeria to a Berber (Kabyle) family in 1972, Massi grew up in the capital city of Algiers. On her way to rehearsals with her rock band as a teenager, men used to spit at and harass her for wearing jeans and toting a guitar. When civil war erupted in 1992, life became even more dangerous for Massi: After she released her first album, she was targeted for assassination by Islamic fundamentalists.
Rather than bury her dream, Massi held a tight grip on her convictions. In 1999, she was invited to Paris to perform in a "Women of Algeria" festival — and within three days, Universal France had signed her. Now based in Paris, she's since become one of the major musical stars of the Arab world: Massi has sold hundreds of thousands of albums across Europe and North Africa, and in 2006 won the prestigious BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music.
What's perhaps most amazing about Massi is that, while her music — and her identity as an artist — puts her in direct opposition to many forces at work in her native country, her music isn't self-aggrandizing or shouted from a bully pulpit. Artistically, she's set herself apart, as well; even confessional love songs like "Ghir Enta" ("No One but You") bear little resemblance to the sappy sentiments that dominate Arab pop ballads. There's a trembling note of fragility within: "Now you're by my side," she sings, "But tomorrow, who knows? That's how the world is — sweet and bitter at the same time."
As a composer, Massi embraces everything from soft French chanson to Brazilian tropicalismo to Congolese soukous to the innately multicultural rhythms of her native Maghreb. Those flavors tend to come out most fully when she's backed by her band, but you can still feel the North African undercurrent which propels her song "Amessa" ("A Day Will Come").
In spite of the great tenderness Massi displays in this solo set, you can't forget about her steely, inner core — the one that brought her to her full life as an artist. "There are people who lament over their destiny, people who cry on their own tombstones while they are still alive," she sings in "Le Bien et le Mal" ("The Good and the Evil"). "There are people who grow old before their time. We're fed up with this life."
- "Raoui" (Storyteller)
- "Ghir Enta" (No One but You)
- "Amessa" (A Day Will Come)
- "Le Bien et le mal" (The Good and the Evil)
Producer: Anastasia Tsioulcas; Editor: Michael Katzif; Videographers: Nick Michael and Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Photo by Becky Lettenberger/NPR