The Kennedy Center

Souad Massi


At the Cabaret Sauvage, Souad Massi, a young Algerian artist, made her singing début in Paris on January 10th, 1999. The audience, dazzled by the brilliant apparition before them, was stunned. People scrambled to describe what they had witnessed, many resorting to futile attempts at pigeonholing the Algerian nightingale. Some likened her to the divas of folk-rock, Tracey Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and others. For a world music artist with this kind of uniqueness, however, such comparisons never quite do the trick. Today, as she tours Europe, the Middle East, and North America, Souad Massi has become the model for a new generation of artists worldwide.

Souad Massi was born August 23, 1972 in Bab en Oued, Algeria, a poor, multi-ethnic neighborhood in the hills above Algiers. Her family had come from Kabylia, the mountainous home of the Berber people, a culturally estranged population in modern Algeria. Despite great affection for her Berber roots, Ms. Massi has always felt at peace with her blended identity, part Berber, part Arab, part Turkish and Persian—in short, Algerian.

For Ms. Massi, films inspired an early passion for music. A self-described “tom boy,” she loved Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These films led to her to discover country and folk music, and artists such as Kenny Rogers, Emmy Lou Harris, Loudon Wainwright III, and Tracy Chapman. Her uncle played flamenco guitar, and Ms. Massi also developed a passion for that style, finding its rough, evocative vocal style intriguing.

When Ms. Massi suffered from depression as a teenager, her brother Hassan nurtured her with music. She began writing poetry in the tradition of Arabic love poets, which she soon converted into songs. School took Ms. Massi out of Algiers, first to Taghit, at the edge of the Sahara, then to Tizi Ouzou, in Kabyle. Bored without the stimulation of the big city, she returned to Algiers to study at the Institute of Public Works. In the late 90s, she took a job as town planner, and played music at night. She began with a flamenco-oriented group called Trianas d’Alger, but soon left to hone a newfound passion of hardcore rock music.

She joined a rock band called Atakor and recorded her debut cassette, Souad, with them in 1997. The cassette’s success led to radio and TV appearances. But at a time when musicians were being targeted for assassination, she was afraid to press her career forward. At the same time, the more she discovered her own voice as a musician, the more the broadcast media became wary of her, and began to censor her simply by neglecting her.

Subsequently, the fateful invitation arrived for Souad Massi to perform a concert in Paris. TV producer Aziz Smati, himself a victim of a fundamentalist shooting, had escaped to France, and teamed up with radio broadcaster Mohammed Allalou to organize a festival of Algerian women at the Cabaret Sauvage. Once in France, energized in the aftermath of that life-changing début, Ms. Massi recorded her debut CD, Raoui (Island/Wrasse), a set of stylistically adventurous and highly personal songs inspired by a tempestuous, ill-fated love affair. The songs cast an unflinching eye on the darkness she had experienced in her life.

She mostly sang in Arabic, showcasing a voice with stark emotional power and arresting subtlety, but she also sang in French, as on “J’ai Pas du Temps,” a languid rock ballad. Raoui sold over 100,000 copies, and although she was still an unknown in the Middle East and North Africa, Ms. Massi quickly became an Arab music pop star in Europe. Her second album, Deb (AZ/Universal France) sold over 200,000 units in France (US- Wrasse/Caroline).

Ms. Massi has continued her impressive musical evolution by embracing flamenco, gypsy rumba, and even Congolese music, while maintaining her identity as a highly personal songwriter. El Mesk Elil, released in the fall of 2005, reflects on her growing homesickness. The lyrics evoke a memory-rush of Ms. Massi’s childhood. Other songs on El Mesk Elil bring in influences from Senegalese and Tuareg music, also North African tradition and Latin rhythms. 

In 2005 Ms. Massi won a BBC RADIO 3 award for Best Singer/Songwriter in the Middle East and North Africa. That year the UN appointer her a Spokesperson for the International Year of Microcredit. She has garnered numerous other honors since then, including being voted one of Forbes Magazine’s “40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa” in 2011.

In 2008 Ms. Massi released her fourth album, Acoustique, and in 2010 she created her most fully realized recording to date, Ô Houria (Liberty). This mature and worldly set of songs is inspired by poetry, philosophy and the writings of the 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. On Ô Houria, Ms. Massi sings about the restricted lives of girls in traditional families the stigma of divorce, the terrible bind an abused wife finds herself in, the pain of exile, and about freedom.  As ever, the music is a rich and subtle blend of folk, pop, R&B, and African rhythm, worked into the melodious framework of an Arab song.

Ms. Massi has toured extensively in the past year through Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. She recently made a prestigious appearance at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco, and a historic performance for thousands at the Palestinian International Festival in Ramallah.  In the summer of 2012, Ms. Massi tour North America, where she will perform the Montreal Jazz Festival and New York’s Celebrate Brooklyn. Ms. Massi’s New York show coincides with the American Fourth of July independence celebration, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence.

In that same spirit, Ms. Massi recently collaborated with flamenco guitarist Eric Fernandez to form a new ensemble called Chœurs de Cordoba (Voices of Cordoba). Chœurs de Cordoba presents a similar diversity of backgrounds among its nine members. The group’s performances combine flamenco guitar and dance, Arabic classical tradition, and Andalusian music and poetry. This blend creates a unique sound with a powerful message of cultural and religious harmony.

In 2012, Ms. Massi is making forays into the world of cinema. Her song “Raoui” is part of the soundtrack for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film The Dictator. Ms. Massi is also slated to star in a new feature film by award winning Palestinian director Najwa Najjar. The film is a meditation on love and war on the West Bank, and will mark Ms. Massi’s first appearance on the silver screen.

Watch Past Performances

Video 6/30/2012: Souad Massi

The Algerian singer, songwriter, and guitarist blends musical styles such as rock, country, and Portuguese fado, often employing acoustic guitar and multiple languages in the same song. Presented in cooperation with Embassy of Algeria, Ambassador Abdallah Baali, and US-Algeria Business Council.

Souad Massi