On this 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence I want to recommend this wonderful documentary, on a mixed Muslim-Jewish chaâbi music orchestra from the Algiers Casbah that director Safinez Bousbia discovered and reunited fifty years after it disbanded. Chaâbi, if one doesn’t know it, is a 20th century Algerian folk music style derived from Arab-Andalusian classical (here and this NPR report here). The film is a sort of Algerian Buena Vista Social Club. The musicians had played together in the Casbah in the 1940s and early ’50s but the advent of the Algerian war of independence made it impossible for them to continue. And in the spring and early summer of 1962—in the final chaotic months of Algérie française—, the Jewish members of the orchestra left for France, never returned to Algeria, and lost contact with their Muslim associates. It was a remarkable feat of Bousbia, who lives in Ireland (and is barely 30 years old), to uncover the past existence of the orchestra, track down the living members in Algiers and France, and reunite them for concerts (mainly in France). In addition to recounting a fascinating and moving slice of recent Algerian socio-cultural history, it gives an insight into Algeria’s now lost multi-confessional past, where Muslims and Jews co-existed in a general bonne entente. The Jewish population of Algeria was significant in number—some 135,000 by the 1950s—and entirely indigenous to the country, not the product of 19th century European settlement. Juridically assimilated into the French-European settler community from 1870, they were progressively gallicized—and despite the antisemitism of Algeria’s Europeans—and detached from the indigenous Muslim population. The mass departure of Algeria’s Jews for metropolitan France—only several thousand went to Israel—was one of the tragedies of the Algerian war and the manner in which the country acceded to independence (for more on the subject, see Benjamin’s Stora’s Les Trois exils, juifs d’Algérie, which will hopefully be translated into English one of these days).
US and UK critics who saw ‘El Gusto’ at film fests loved it, e.g. Jay Weissberg in Variety here, Hollywood Reporter here, and Indiewire here (with trailer). HuffPo had an interview with director Bousbia here. The film and orchestra website is here. The documentary opened in Paris last January to general indifference. Hardly anyone saw it (not even local Algerians), which is not surprising. The French public is just not interested in Algeria. The film, if properly distributed, will surely have greater success internationally.
UPDATE: Mediapart had an article with links on June 22nd entitled “Safinez Bousbia (El Gusto): «une version moins aigrie» de l’indépendance algérienne.”
2nd UPDATE: Elaine Sciolino has an article on El Gusto in the NY Times. (October 13)
3rd UPDATE: I dined recently at a Moroccan-Jewish restaurant in Rabat, Zerda, whose 70-ish owner, Michel Marciano—a Moroccan native and professional singer for several decades, of Moroccan Jewish, Andalusian, and other musical styles—puts on an impromptu El Gusto-type spectacle for the patrons on most nights (e.g. here and here), and to which we were treated. Very nice. (August 28, 2013)