Blues From The Casbah


It seems as if every culture has one, a signature populist musical genre that speaks from the heart of a people, that expresses some unique national passion, pride and longing. In Portugal it’s fado, Spain flamenco, Greece rebetiko, the U.S. blues and bluegrass. It’s the music of the poor, sometimes of the underworld.

In Algeria before independence it was chaabi (literally “popular”), a unique blend of Arabic, Andalusian, Berber and Jewish influences with stabbing, smoldering string parts, rich polyrhythms and an earthy erotic undertone.

Before the North African country’s revolution, which culminated in 1962, chaabi was a music shared by Arabic and Jewish musicians who would congregate in the Casbah, that monument to working-class vitality and demi-monde élan. But after Algeria achieved its hard-won independence, a lot of the Jewish musicians no longer felt welcome in what was now a Muslim country, and the government relocated whole neighborhoods from the Casbah to new developments on the outskirts of Algiers, the capital. Chaabi seemed as dead as the colonialism that had ruled Algeria before independence.

But good music never dies as long as someone remembers how to play it. The pioneers of chaabi are old men now, mostly in their 80s and 90s, but they reunited a few years ago, thanks in large part to a documentary filmmaker young enough to be their granddaughter. And now, the reconstituted orchestra, El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers, is making its American debut at Lincoln Center on Aug. 3.

The peak of chaabi’s popularity in Algeria was the 1940s and ’50s. Speaking before a recent concert in London, orchestra member Lucien Cherki recalled, “There were no differences between Jewish and Muslim people. We’d play at parties and weddings, and everyone got along really well. There was no animosity. There were Jewish guests and Muslim guests and there were no problem at the time.” Then history intervened.

History, however, was no match for Safinez Bousbia, an Algerian architect-turned-filmmaker, based in Ireland. She wandered into a mirror store in the Casbah one day several years ago and was fascinated by an old photograph of the graduating class of the Municipal Conservatory of Music. The storeowner turned out to be one of those musicians, the first ones to be formally taught chaabi. He told her of his longing to be reunited with his old bandmates and she was inspired to begin a search that ended up with her creating a memorable documentary, “El Gusto: The Casbah Blues” which played at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival to great enthusiasm. That work, in turn, led Bousbia to manage the reborn 42-member orchestra.

The film experience ended with what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime “pick-up band” turned into a top-notch touring group with a hit record under its belt. The really lucky recipients of this windfall, though, aren’t the musicians who have reclaimed their friendships, their livelihood and their musical patrimony. It’s the audiences, who are hearing a lively and vivid musical tradition being reborn.

The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers will be playing on Saturday, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Damrosch Park Bandshell in Lincoln Center as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors; it will be joined by the crack Israeli dance group ZviDance. The event is free and is preceded at 6 p.m. by a free dance lesson. For more information go to