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Souad Massi: Carrying The Sound Of Algeria On Her Back

Souad Massi performs earlier this month at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. (Courtesy of the artist)

Algerian singer and guitarist Souad Massi paid a visit to the U.S. recently, touring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence. While in D.C., she stopped by NPR's headquarters to play a Tiny Desk Concert.

After the show, she came downstairs to chat with Weekend Edition Sunday, carrying a guitar on her back. Massi says she's never without one and doesn't really care if it's an acoustic or electric.

"I play the folk and classical because I can't, when I am alone, play like in my album," Massi tells host David Greene. "When I am with my band, it's rock and more strong."

That's a privilege for an Algerian musician. The civil war pitted fundamentalist rebel groups against the military government there; musicians, journalists, even women who didn't cover their heads were targeted for assassination. Massi says she's glad to be playing at all.

"We played rock music, so really we were making noise, and it was very dangerous for us to play in the night," Massi says. "It was a very hard part of my life and for the life of a lot of musicians and women."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here at NPR, we have our own theater, of sorts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our Tiny Desk Concert with Souad Massi is about to begin, so please head on over to the skinny end of the 5th floor. Thank you.

GREENE: We're lucky to have musicians visit from around the world. And we often talk them into performing what we like to call a Tiny Desk Concert. Our recent guest was Algerian singer Souad Massi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHIR ENTA")

SOUAD MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: That was Souad Massi's song "Ghir Enta," or "I Only Love You."

(APPLAUSE)

GREENE: After the show, the 39-year-old musician came into our studio to chat with us. Down the elevator, walking through the corridors, she carried her guitar on her back. Holding tight to that instrument has been a symbol of pride ever since Souad learned to play. In Algeria, in the 1990s, it was not easy being an aspiring female musician.

You, as a girl, would try to go to music class and there were men who would spit at you and harass you. I mean what was that like?

MASSI: It was very hard because it was, you know, in the beginning of the civil war in Algeria. So I'm a girl and I put a jean, and I have my guitar. And it's j'attire l'attention, I keep attention...

GREENE: Attracting attention.

MASSI: Attracting attention, so it was like a provocation.

GREENE: A provocation, Massi pushed past the jeers and the harassment.

MASSI: We played rock music. So...

(LAUGHTER)

MASSI: ...really, it was we make noise. And it was very dangerous for us to play in the night. And so, it was hard, hard part of my life and for the life of a lot of musicians and women.

GREENE: When Souad Massi says dangerous, she means it. The civil war in Algeria pitted fundamentalist rebel groups against the military government. And musicians, journalists, even women who didn't cover their heads were targeted for assassination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Souad Massi sings in Arabic, French, sometimes Berber. She got her big break in 1999, when she was invited to a music festival in Paris. And she now has five albums under her belt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

(APPLAUSE)

GREENE: Upstairs you played for us what sounded like very traditional sounding Arabic. But you seem to stay away from - often I think of North African pop music as sappy love tunes. You seem to do more rock. I mean...

MASSI: No, I like love songs. But I like to speak about all things touch me, about political, about history of somebody who is sad, for example. Or a woman who are fighting to have her rights, for example, or political. I like to speak about all who touch me around me.

GREENE: Ever so delicately, Souad Massi sings about truth, about denouncing discrimination, and about hope. She doesn't preach about politics, her message just seems to come naturally from within.

This is a song called "Amessa."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMESSA")

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

"Amessa," a day will come where the sunshine will shining. And it's a metaphor, I speak about the truth, la verite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMESSA")

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

(APPLAUSE)

MASSI: Since I'm a little girl in my family, and my mother and all the womans in my family pushed me to study, to be strong. Because she told me it's the only way to be respected, to help other people. So it's in my blood.

GREENE: In her blood and in her music. This song, from her 2010 album "O Houria" is called "Tout Reste A Faire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUT RESTE A FAIRE")

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: There's so much left to be done, she sings in French, and that's how Souad Massi feels about the Arab Spring. One day, she hopes, young women won't have to go through what she did to gain respect. But she says getting there will take time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUT RESTE A FAIRE")

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: You can watch Souad Massi's Tiny Desk Concert at nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUT RESTE A FAIRE")

MASSI: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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