A Franco-Arabic acoustic duet

Djazia Satour (right) sings into a microphone as she plays the bendir; in the background, sitting at a grand piano, is pianist Pierre-Luc Jamain
Expressive vocals and Arab melodies with jazz elements: Djazia Satour (right) and pianist Pierre-Luc Jamain perform together (image: Sylvain Sabard/TiTi Photographe)

Djazia Satour is one of the most eminent Algerian vocalists of our time. Her new stage project sees her performing her songs in a duo setting with pianist Pierre-Luc Jamain and bringing to life the sounds and tonal colour of her childhood home.

By Stefan Franzen

Contemporary Algerian music often has a female face: take songwriter Souad Massi, for example, a world music star since the start of the millennium with her blend of Arab song, flamenco and chanson. Or the cellist and singer Nesrine, familiar to listeners of jazz as a member of the trio Nes. 

The latest discovery in German-speaking countries is Djazia Satour, who's already been in the music business in France for two decades. More than is the case with her fellow musicians, Djazia Satour's songs focus on her Algerian roots.

Satour was born in the capital Algiers. As a child, she listened to classic Arabic chansons and châabi, the "music of the people", that emerged in the 1930s from a traditional Arab-Andalusian sound. She also grew up with the songs of the Kabyle Berbers, an ethnic group to which some of her grandparents belonged. 

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From Algiers to Grenoble

She arrived in the French city of Grenoble at the age of 10. As a teenager, she began to sing, initially with no ambitions of starting a musical career. Music made life more bearable and gave her a sense of freedom, she recalls.

Then she got more serious about her music: Satour joined the internationally renowned rock band Gnawa Diffusion as a backing singer; her half-brother is one of the founding members of the group. Later, she became a member of the trip-hop and electro formation MiG.

Satour embarked on a solo career in the 2010s, and her three solo albums released since then take a two-pronged approach: on them, she explores not only her Algerian roots, but also soul and R&B, switching to English lyrics for the latter. 

Regardless of the language she sings in, Satour's verses are forthright, outspoken and flavoured with feminism; they speak of fears for the future but also of the irrepressible desire for freedom. She sings of the exile and flight across the Mediterranean of her Maghreb compatriots, and in her song "Zintkala", she even relates the colonial experiences of Native Americans to those of Arab nations.

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Fiery percussive dialogue

In her most recent work Aswât (Voices), the primary focus is on acoustic sounds and the tonal colours of her childhood home. These shimmer through in a wide variety of styles. Her personal take on châabi plays a big part here, involving typical plucked instruments such as the mandola and the banjo, with a prominent role given to the frame drum known as the bendir. 

For the vocals, this time she returns exclusively to Arabic: "The Arabic language reflects what I am with my entire history; it awakens a whole host of feelings in me," said Satour before a performance in Belgium. "At the same time, I wanted to use these Algerian instruments in a very unpolished way. Not to revive the tradition – I haven't 'bathed' enough in this music for that – my aim, instead, was to unite my various influences," she said.

Djazia Satour's new stage project condenses her liaison with Algerian music into an intense duo. Her partner for these performances is the stylistically agile pianist Pierre-Luc Jamain. This is an intimate summit meeting that brings together voice, drum and keyboard in new arrangements of Satour's songs. 

Piano and drum merge in a fiery percussive dialogue; when Satour brings her expressive vocals to the fore, balladesque and melancholy tones come into their own. Jamain's piano playing picks up the ornaments of the Arab melodies and adds jazz accents. These sparing, concentrated sounds throw open a window on a world that meanders between nostalgic arabesques and contemporary global-political anguish.

Stefan Franzen

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon