The honey-laden vocal of Souad Massi is put to stupendous use on ten rhythmically addictive tracks on El Mutakallimun, which translates as masters of the world.
The masters in this instance are Arabic poets, an inspiration for Massi, who was raised in Algeria, to arrange their poetry into what is, even on first listening, pleasurable and immensely gratifying songs in a tongue most of us west of Paris, where she made her name performing solo, will not understand.
Massi’s strength is in her obvious fidelity to the original work, but the music, switching from funk to ballad to reggae to light rock, freights the tone of the words with a sensitivity to the syntax of the poems.
In her career, Massi has had to flee death threats after fronting a political rock band: fed up with the negative headlines associated with Arabic culture, Massi was moved with El Mutakallimun to spread a little enlightenment.
Since 9/11 in particular, as an artist Massi has had to contend with a culture snared between religious extremism and savage political caricature, and this is her riposte: poems, as old as time and as perfect as dew, resplendent with humanity and humility.
Fortunately, Massi has a voice that, whilst singing in Arabic, has an elasticity to be either soft or serrated, passionate or timid, with a shift in mood that can segue the differences between African soul and Fado. There was scant information about the band or instruments with the CD I received, but I understand from a review in The Guardian that El Mutakallimun includes oud, banjo and piano, with guitar work from the inspired Jean-François Kellner.
From Bima El Taaloul to Saaiche, Massi reminds us of the intrinsic value and the magical qualities of Nabati poetry, such as artistic flair, colloquialism and a concern with the ordinary. Beautiful