The Maghreb’s roots lie in the South

Interview with Amazigh Kateb (Gnawa Diffusion), by Fayçal Chehat

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Amazigh is well and truly an honour to his father, Kateb Yacine, Algeria’s greatest writer who died in 1989. This talented musician and leader of « Gnawa Diffusion », an up-and-coming group who carries out a real musical research, Amazigh is also a man of words whose engagement is loud and clear. He lives in Grenoble, and travels around France and Europe with his companions. The Maghreb’s Africanness is a subject he cherishes.

The Maghreb is physically part of Africa, but in reality seems to turn its back on the rest of the continent. Interest in the continent is limited (to sport grosso-modo). Africa is absent in both the media and culturally speaking. What do you think can change this situation ?
I think the Gulf War opened a lot of people’s eyes regarding unity in the Arab world. The Arabo-Islamic Maghrebi identity promoted by the politicians is little more than an exterior identity in reality. Furthermore, this veneer which the hardliners would like to see imposed in our countries, is not necessarily condoned nor conceded by the Middle Easterners themselves. In most Middle Eastern countries, the Maghrebi are considered to be Arab-speaking Africans. They are effectively seen as « minor » Arabs. I should know, as part of my family lives in Syria and in the Lebanon. The Maghreb is not at all geographically linked to the Arab peninsula. Its roots lie in the South : the Maghrebi should, and will eventually, turn their attention to Senegal, Mali, or Niger. Especially as Africa’s turn has come on the world stage. Africa is back on the agenda. There are signs of its comeback everywhere, both in the Anglo-Saxon and Latin countries.
Do you think that the Maghrebi populations will become progressively absorbed into the Middle Eastern sphere culturally speaking, as a result of the Arabization policies imposed with more or less vigour by the public authorities ?
Even though the people in power desperately continue to deny the Maghreb’s Africanness, that doesn’t make it any less real. It doesn’t matter if Africanness isn’t taught at school and doesn’t feature in the school books as it is present in everyday life, from cooking to dance, music and gestures. The public powers can install an institutional, State, official culture. It will struggle alongside the popular cultures that are really rooted in society, but will never be able to erase or replace them. Identity cannot be determined by decree. It comes from the very soul of the population, and the soul of the Maghreb is African.
The name of your group « Gnawa Diffusion » clearly refers to Algeria and the Maghreb’s African aspect…
It was a way of setting the records straight and of saying no to the occultation of a vast part of Algeria. Of course the majority of the population lives in the North, but a significant part of this very majority left the South to survive, work, seek comfort and well-being. What is more, Gnawa songs and music are similar to the songs and music of the Black Americans : they are songs of suffering, religious protest songs, mystical songs… And that takes us to the very heart of Africa !
The time you spent in southern Algeria (notably in Timimoun) has no doubt played an important role in this passion you have for Africa…
I first discovered this African Algeria I had been robbed of in the North in Adrar. That was in 1982. It was a huge shock in terms of identity, music, and language. I discovered sounds that were practically foreign as they had been so deeply hidden in my and my ancestors’memory. It was in this wonderful region that I experienced my first poetic and musical emotions. During the nighttime gatherings, everybody more or less played an instrument, respecting a certain volume. Even the participants who weren’t musicians clapped their hands gently, trying to hum along with the chorus to participate in the elaboration of something very gentle, very melodic. I was charmed when I discovered these Algerian Gnawa songs…
Is there a real difference between the Algerian and Moroccan Gnawa ?
Absolutely. The Moroccan Gnawa have not been restricted by the authorities as they have in Algeria. The Moroccan Gnawa have always conserved a status and the right to officiate. Their Gnawi title is stated on their identity cards. The Monarchy has protected them. In Algeria, the bureaucratic and homogenizing policy of the Boumedien period pushed the Gnawa into joining the cohort of sterile civil servants, becoming bailiffs or school caretakers, for example. They no longer needed to travel and officiate to meet their needs and survive as they did in Morocco. Some did not accept this new way of life and continued practicing their art, but it was practically hidden away in private or family events. People continued to have them come as far as Algiers to see them perform.
Which of the three major Maghrebi countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) is most marked by Black Africa ?
Geographically speaking, Algeria is obviously the most marked. The vast size of its territory which penetrates deep into the continent has given it a stronger African character. Culturally speaking, however, African traditions have best been preserved in Morocco, and in Tunisia too where, when you know the country well, you cannot help but be struck by the strength of the umbilical link with the heart of Africa. Algeria has suffered from the greatest identity erasure. But it is also the country where the struggle to reinstate that identity is the strongest and even the most productive. I am very optimistic for Algeria.
Does the Arabs’slave trading past hinder the improvement of North-South relations ? Black Africans are still profoundly suspicious of Arabs…
I think that the only way out of this problem is to open our arms to others, to those who were dominated or humiliated by our ancestors. We need to offer an outstretched hand, an open heart, and above all a lot of humility. We need to make them realize that they too have strongly marked our culture. What can be a greater homage than to see a White person playing the guembri, which is the emblematic musical instrument of the Black man he despised and martyrized yesterday ! This kind of homage does not resolve much, of course. It is also above all necessary that the descendants of the slave traders that we are have the courage and the strength to recognize that hurtful past. This self-criticism has unfortunately not yet started.
It is still rare and difficult in 1998 to see a White and Black family being united in Algeria, for example. Furthermore, slavery still exists in Mauritania, and in Morocco Black-White relations are not always healthy and egalitarian…
There aren’t just sombre areas. There are also some very positive attitudes. In Adrar, Béchar, or Timimoun in Southern Algeria, to cite the country I know the best, White and Black families continued to live together in harmony, respect, and often even in a profound spirit of allegiance after the abolition of slavery. It is nonetheless true that in other areas there is still much to be done to bring people together. It’s a long battle.
Can artists (and singers and musicians in particular) contribute to the restoring of new relationships ? Would your group like to go on tour in Black Africa ?
It goes without saying. It’s not a question of wanting to, there are also unfortunately logistical problems, questions of means and adequate structures. My dream is to go and play in Timbuktu one day. I would really like to retrace the slave route in the opposite direction…
Your and your group’s quest for these African musical roots is not just a fashion fad. Will you continue in this vein in the years to come ?
We are only at the beginning of the journey. We are going to seek the momentum for the next stage in Mogador (Morocco) where where are planning to record our next album with the Gnawa.
Is rap, which is developing enormously in the Maghreb, and in Algeria in particular, engaged in this return to the roots process ?
I sincerely believe that culture in general, and music in particular, are our weapons for a better future. The development of a genre like rap whose African origins are patently clear, is an indication that young people have decided to no longer be ashamed of their roots. They refuse to be forced into exploring the « permissible » cultural forms « officially recognized » by the authorities. In the footsteps of Andalousian music or hawzi. I believe that popular music’s time has come. And the revival of popular music in the Maghreb goes hand-in-hand with the revival of Africanness. When you listen to Beldi à Bel Abbès, you immediately realize that both the melody and the rhythm are profoundly African.

///Article N° : 5326

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