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Over the eleven years she has spent in France, Souad Massi has invariably led us down unexpected paths to unfamiliar crossroads. An Arabic-language folk singer? She actually remembers performing on the first rock record made in Algeria. An Algerian singer? What about the echoes of Cape Verde and Brazil in her songs? A world artist? She has entrusted her latest album, O Houria, to Francis Cabrel and his fellow traveller, guitarist and producer Michel Françoise.
On the album - all acoustic guitars and vocals recorded up close - Souad Massi sings in French, Arabic and English. From 'O Houria', a hymn to liberty, to her outburst on 'Stop Pissing Me Off'; from the tragedy of 'Nacera', a battered woman, to the humanist compassion of 'Un Sourire (A Smile)', she expresses a complete range of emotions, laid bare by Cabrel and Françoise’s production.
In the early days, Souad had a craving for rock, an urge to visit England in search of the trademark roots sound captured by the unshielded mikes of its studios. But later, years after the 2005 release of her third studio album, Mesk Elil, she also began to dream of an all-French album, a tribute to those non-Arabic-speaking fans whose loyalty over nearly ten years had made her one of the most important singers of her generation. Her record company suggested she should meet Michel Françoise and listen to his songs, and this turned out to be excellent advice. Before Michel had even finished playing his demos, she already knew that two of them would form part of her next album. Then another surprise was in store: Francis Cabrel listened to the Arabic demos she had left with his friend and volunteered to co-produce the album straight away.
She and Cabrel had met a few years previously when she was on the panel at the Rencontres d’Astaffort, an annual event providing training for new artists. She had something in common with Cabrel and Françoise: a passion for wonderfully simple folk, ranging from classics by Neil Young and Leonard Cohen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album, a genre that brilliantly expresses all the dramatic depth of the human condition in a few guitar chords and everyday language.
The three spent two weeks in the Astaffort studio, working towards this goal with direct takes, songs performed live and sudden ideas captured in all their immediacy. “They restored my confidence. Francis and Michel sometimes made me sing a word twenty times to work on the pronunciation and get the tone just right, but they also kept vocals I’d recorded on the song demos. They always preferred spontaneity.”
Produced with such simplicity, the songs sometimes achieve all the purity and self-evidence of great classics. 'Tout reste à faire (Everything’s Still to Be Done)', for instance: an unexpected duet between Souad Massi and Francis Cabrel. “Francis asked me what I wanted to talk about. I told him I was less interested in writing about love this time, that there were a number of things eating away at me. I talked to him about injustice, protecting the planet, bringing people together and dreaming of an end to war. ‘But that’s naïve,’ I added. He didn’t agree. ‘It’s not naïve, it’s beautiful.’ He wrote the words of Tout reste à faire in French and I thought it should have a chorus in Arabic. I wrote it phonetically for Francis and he recorded it in a single take.” The song also features a virtuoso oud performance by Mehdi Habbad, formerly half of DuOud and now the front man of Speed Caravan. Mehdi is Souad’s neighbour in Algiers, but she actually met him in Egypt, where he dazzled her with his rock technique, enriched by lessons learnt from the great masters of Yemeni tradition. His oud playing on the album provides the perfect foil for Michel Françoise’s folk guitar.
Mehdi Habbad also recorded a remarkable oud part for 'Une lettre à Si H’med (A Letter to Si H’med)'. The song - with a melody reminiscent of both Hank Williams and Joe Dassin - is Souad’s plunge into Algerian political and social realities. “It’s addressed to the ex-mayor who never did anything to repair the road to my district. In the winter, the surface was so often flooded that people couldn’t go to work. When a delegation from the neighbourhood came to complain, he escaped through the back door. Now he’s in prison and we’ve been promised the road will soon be repaired. But I hope this song will be heard at home.”
Souad had never really written any straight protest songs before, “but politics is everyday life”. She was relieved when Paul Weller gave her some advice. She told him she was sometimes unable to write about subjects she wanted to explore and “he told me something very simple, something you wouldn’t imagine coming from an artist who’s written so many important songs: ‘Hey! Just write it as it comes. Forget about rhymes, frills and rules.’ That really helped me. It’s what making a folk album’s all about.”