Souad Massi's Raoui (The Storyteller) debut, steeped in soulful melancholy, spirituality and simmering angst, has renewed interest in Algerian folk music beyond the popular brand of rai music. The gritty-sounding Souad, 29, who holds an engineering degree, is looking toward an exciting new dawn. Souad, equipped with harsh lessons and valuable experience, wrote most of the work on Raoui during more than seven years of performing in Algeria. She played with a flamenco group before gaining wider exposure with popular rock band Atakor. A solo career presented struggles as the young female musician faced intolerance towards conscious themes and the idea of different (female) opinion in Algeria. Fundamentalist Islamic groups began targeting her for promoting the independent image of young Algerian women. That prompted outspoken Souad to make the move away from her home country. Three years have since passed since Souad made cosmopolitan Paris her new base. Between fine-tuning her quietly evocative music, sung in Arabic/French on her album, and dealing with challenging issues in her homeland, Souad has sustained a keen sense of reality while maintaining integrity and accessibility on virtually all fronts.
As an album, Raoui, released in France last September, has achieved a great deal of word-of-mouth support plus critical acclaim. A patchwork of heartfelt music styles (folk, rock, chaabi) stitch Souad's sensitive tunes together with traditional rhythms helping lift the handmade moods to eloquent and distinctive levels. The warm and courageous nature of Souad's music is nothing short of mesmerising with folk-rock moods blending well with touches of flamencos, oud (Arabic lute), gumbri (Sahara acoustic bass) and karkabous (Sahara metal castanets).
Producer Bob Coke (of Ben Harper fame) brings out the most of Souad's bare-bones feel and the grainy settings gives a well-rounded picture of this singer's artistic depth. The anti-war lyrics on Bladi (My Country), complete with marching band rhythms, fit nicely alongside intimate meditations like Matebkiche (Don't Cry) and Hayati (My Life), offering Souad's aching heart melancholy in each tender verse.
The soul-stirring resonance in the music transcends effectively with the bitter-sounding Nekreh el Keld (I Hate This Heart That Still Loves You) showing a vivid scar of a lost-love. As a highly literate storyteller, Souad straddles the line between biting political commentary on Amessa (A Day Will Come) and there is optimistic for better days in Raoui (The Storyteller).
The shivering strains of the oud gives an Arabic face to the Raoui recordings, but like countryman Rachid Taha, Souad isn't dependent on hit-making or tied to convention. By championing a roots-driven sound with contemporary versatility in the mixture, Souad wins you over in so many different ways. Her lyrics are insightful and her thoughtful artistry inspiring. When her Raoui album finally makes a worldwide release later on this year, everyone will be waiting.