Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Algerian documentary filmmaker Safinez Bousbia's 'El Gusto' traces the cultural history of chaabi music where Arabs and Jews and the French sang together popular, street numbers

El Gusto, a documentary, was screened at Osian's Cine Fan Festival at Siri Fort Auditorium 2 in New Delhi on July 30, 2012

It was a 88 minute documentary, as long as a feature length film. Safinez Bousbia took nearly eight years to make it because what she wanted to do was to bring together the Arab and Jewish chaabi singers together, and arrange for the concerts. She started off sometime in 2003 and it was sometime after 2005 the idea of the documentary film emerged. And Bousbia suffered from cancer and recovered from it because it was detected very early and the project was laid off for two years. She was in debt and she was physically broken. But she cam back into it with help from the Abu Dhabi Fund and Irish Film Board.  It is a brave journey both for Bousbia, for chaabi music and for the documentary that emerged from it, El Gusto. Based in Dublin, Bousbia, Bousbia calls herself  "Earthian" and not willing to be slotted into territory-based political and cultural identities.

 It starts off on a rather inconspicuous note. The film-maker narrator enters a shop in Algiers to buy a mirror and gets talking to the owner, a chaabi musician, who was trained at the conservatoire. This was before the liberation war and before Algerian independence. Chaabi is translated as people's music or popular music. It was different from the classical music taught at the conservatoire and as one of the interviewees points out meant only for snobs. Chaabi music was played and sung by carpenters and barbers. It was a mix of Andalusian, Berber, Arab and Jewish music. It evolved from the Casbah, the Arab quarter of Algiers where Algerians and Jews lived together.

The chaabi music was affected by the political developments. The National Liberation Front (NLF), an Islamist freedom movement, was against music and it dampened the prospects of chaabi music though Mohammed Enka, considered the father of Algerican chaabi, reflected the patriotic sentiment as well. But the real blow to this tradition came with the 1962 independence of Algeria which came at the end of a bitter and bloody war. The  Jews left and so did the French settlers in Algeria -- remember Albert Camus came from Algiers and so did Jacques Derrida -- who came to be known as Pieds Noir.
The music remained in the hearts of Arab, Jewish and French chaabi musicians and they could not forget their fellow-musicians and friends. The reunion that Bousbia effects is a touching humane tribute to the power and popularity of their music.

In a way, El Gusto tries to reclaim and restore part of the colonial heritage which is as much a part of the history of the people as the freedom movement. But it remains a politically sensitive issue. What Bousbia does in the film is to focus entirely on the individuals and their life-stories and sentiments and without ignoring the political dimension. She pulls this off very well.
Chaabi music is surely pre-colonial but it is the colonial authorities who facilitate its revival by providing space for the classes in chaabi music at the Algiers Conservatoire. And surprisingly, it declines when the colonialism ends. The chaabi musicians stop their music and do other things but the lament for chaabi remains in their hearts, a longing for the good, old days where prostitutes, pimps, brothels and pubs were part of the social scene. Both the secular and Islamic puritans might call it decadent, but the chaabi musicians who retell and relive their old days in the documentary film give it a sweet nostalgic touch.
El Gusto is more than chaabi music. It is the story of a time when things were generally sweet, the colonial times. There were many things horrible and demeaning about colonialism. But there were some bright patches as well. The story of chaabi musics in the Casbah is one of them, and Bousbia brings it home to us.

1 comment:

varun said...

Thanks for sharing the nice article...

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