People milled around the lobby of the community center, chatting like old friends and copiously exchanging the Parisian bise – one kiss on each cheek. It was clear that most of the center’s clientele that night were regulars, people who had been looking forward to meeting each other yet again at the Paris Chaâbi. Chris and I, however, were not regulars. This was our first time at the Centre d’Animation Dunios, our first concert, our first opportunity since we had arrived in Paris to experience firsthand the Algerian popular music known as chaâbi. I could tell Chris was nervous.
This was, after all, the reason why we had come here. After months of networking and dreaming and planning, the doors opened for Chris to perform his graduate research in the city – research on the music genre as it relates to the sizeable Algerian immigrant population in Paris. The community center had invited Chris to attend the chaâbi concerts that they regularly hosted and to interview musicians and other concert attendees, all the while attempting to answer the question, “Why does this music matter?” Now we were there, 4,000 miles from home and in the lobby of a humble community center in the 13th Arrondissement, about to kick off his research with our first live chaâbi concert.
As we stood in the lobby, observing the mass of people from our corner perch, I quickly fell in love with the Paris Chaâbi family. Most of them were middle age, some older still. Some had arrived with spouses; others, alone. Two men with silver hair and mustaches embraced like brothers and planted kisses on each other’s cheeks. They greeted each other in French, a conversation I couldn’t quite understand but I could infer by their toothy grins that they were pleased to see one another. A handful of 20-somethings could be found scattered throughout the lobby too. I watched as one young woman introduced her “date” to some friends as her Papi. She had brought her father – seemingly for the first time – and was excited for everyone to get to know him.
At 8:15, the doors opened to the concert hall and people began to file in. Like the rest of the center, the hall is modest and contains a dozen rows of chairs and a small stage at the front. This evening, the room was dimly lit with red ambient light illuminating the stage where Merzak Boudjelouah and his musicians would soon perform. Most people, desiring to be as close to the action as possible, took seats in the first 3 or so rows, while the rest slipped into the back, sitting alone or in small clusters. There were about 60 spectators in all.
It was 8:40, a respectable 10 minutes late, before Boudjelouah and his 5-member band emerged without fanfare from behind the curtain. Applause cut through the chatter as the audience slowly realized that their entertainment had just entered the room. Each musician, settling soundlessly into his post, took up his instrument and braced himself behind it like a shield. The hall grew quiet, still, breathless.
And then, they began to play.
The keyboard entered into the istikhbar first, then the violin, the guitar, and the banjo, their layered improvisations ebbing and flowing, their doodles and rhythms different but complimenting of each other in this customary prelude. After a few minutes, Boudjelouah started to sing – he too improvising on both lyric and pitch. He was clearly the front man, the leader, the one we had come to see. But he wasn’t showy, wasn’t arrogant or attention-seeking. His voice, like the melodic instruments that accompanied him, became but a component in the hauntingly poignant story of love, loss, and struggle the music would tell us over the coming hours. I listened, entranced and unblinking, until the darbouka broke my hypnosis. In an instant, the ‘dum’ and ‘tak’ of the hand drum signaled the close of the improvisatory introduction and the beginning of the first song. The other musicians followed and gracefully fell into the tune, strumming and bowing and running up and down the keys in their newfound groove. Boudjelouah continued to sing, his lyrics rhythmic and biting, passionate and purposeful. I couldn’t understand a word of the Arabic, but I could tell that each syllable was precious to him and, therefore, they were precious to me too.
The band’s cohesion – the effortless intertwining of voices and melodic instruments and percussion – was invigorating. It made me want to tap my foot or clap or even dance a little. But, as I peered out over the backs of the motionless heads in front of me, I decided to restrain myself. There wasn’t another head bob or foot tap in sight! The band eased seamlessly into the next song, and to the one after that, and the audience sat still in their metal chairs, just listening, just enjoying. I found it difficult to play along.
But then, something changed. I am still not sure if it was the adjustment in meter, the transition into a well-known and beloved popular song, or simply the band’s euphoric togetherness at that moment that awoke the audience from its trance. But, without warning, the hall erupted. There was clapping, stomping, cheering, whistling. A group of women sitting towards the back began ululating, their high-pitched vocal trill charging the musicians with encouragement, egging them on. A handful of young people rose from their chairs and began to dance, shuffling and spinning in the aisles. Men danced with men, women danced with women, some danced with their spouses or by themselves. Suddenly, it was a party and we were lucky enough to be a part of it. [Click here to attend the party too!]
The concert continued late into the evening. A short intermission gave Chris the opportunity to speak with several members of the audience who wanted to participate in his research. All of them were intrigued and amused that a white guy from the United States wanted to study chaâbi. Many were shocked that he knew about the genre at all. “How is it that you came to be interested in our music?!” they wanted to know. Despite their confusion, they were thrilled that Chris wanted to learn and were even more excited to share their personal chaâbi stories. Some were amateur musicians themselves, others had friends who played regularly in various venues around Paris. One young man happened to be the caregiver for an 80-year-old chaâbi musician who, in his heyday, had studied and performed professionally in Algeria. Enthusiastically, the man assured Chris that he would have a meeting set up between the two of them within the week. Needless to say, reception to the project was positive, and Chris and I both felt warmly welcomed into the Paris Chaâbi family.
We left the community center that night exhausted but, at the same time, rejuvenated. I was so relieved that Chris’ research would be getting off the ground. And, I was thankful to have been privy to something so important, something that is not often considered part of the Paris experience but that is unbelievably relevant to the culture and so near and dear to the hearts of those in the Algerian diaspora. Chaâbi tells their story, helps them come to terms with what their parents and grandparents endured – things that perhaps the history books can’t quite put into words.