Not often does a documentary about the Middle East revolve around something as innocuous as a group of old men reuniting and playing music together. On the surface, given current events playing out in the region, it might seem frivolous and surreal to focus on such a trivial subject matter. It is, however, anything but.
The film, which is called “El Gusto” and was first screened in early 2012, charts the reunion of a very important group of musicians. They are the musicians of Algerian ‘Chaabi’ music – meaning ‘folk’ in Arabic – a form of music marrying vocal and rhythmic sounds together with stringed instruments to form motifs of loss, love, exile and friendship in a style tied to the same roots as flamenco.
Chaabi originated in Andalusia during the time of Moorish rule. It was carried across the Mediterranean to the Maghreb when both Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492; the music has a resonance especially in Algeria. For many centuries Chaabi music overcame cultural and religious boundaries, bringing and binding together communities through music. For over four hundred years these talented Muslims and Jews sang in harmony, weathering Ottoman and French rule of Algeria. Yet, with the advent of Algerian independence in 1962, the old communities were broken up by fear. With many Jews – fearing repercussions for their perceived support of the French colonial regime – choosing to leave Algeria and settle in France, Chaabi groups, music and communities were decimated. Chaabi music, devoid of its cultural context seemed consigned to history.
Yet fifty years on from independence, Chaabi music is coming alive once again through a cultural revival. The film, charts the journey of the members of El Gusto – a famous Chaabi band – that after fifty years of separation has finally reunited for an exceptional concert in France. The film spans several countries, two continents, as well as many cultures and generations, in its quest to capture the reunification of this most potent symbol of Algerian unity and cultural synthesis.
During the film we learn of the many hardships faced by these musicians in both Algeria and abroad. In France, those who chose to leave Algeria, are haunted by memories of times passed and of a land that now exists only in their imagination. In Algeria, the musicians are faced by daily reminders of war and disunity in a country haunted by the specter of bloodshed and violence.
To want to keep playing in those circumstances is almost unimaginable – to play to the levels that El Gusto does is miraculous. Selected for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Viewpoints category – devoted to bringing often unheard stories to world attention – the film has been widely acclaimed for the power of its message of hope.
It seems that this most simple story, of music transcending cultural boundaries, of times past and of times yet to come, has a resonance in our age as it certainly did fifty years ago. This is encouraging for a country, and a region, that has known such grief and disruption; for music and confessional cooperation in its purest form has been able for once to be to be the source of pride, rather than allow for a focus on the more saddening aspects of North Africa.