Totally Amazigh Sounds From North Africa Taking the West

Eyal Sagui Bizawe
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Fes Festival of Amazigh Culture, September 2014.Credit: Sandy McCutcheon
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

At the beginning of the month, the Fes Festival of Amazigh Culture was held in Morocco (the people are better known by their Roman nickname, Berber). This is the 10th year the Moroccan city is hosting the festival, whose goal is to promote multiculturalism in Morocco and provide a platform for the culture and language of the country’s original inhabitants.

This is in addition to the Twiza Festival that took place in another Moroccan city, Tangier, last month, also for the 10th time. These follow other Amazigh celebrations earlier this year in Algeria and northern Morocco. This coming December, meanwhile, a one-day festival of Amazigh cinema is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles.

There’s no doubt that Amazigh culture has been undergoing a revival in recent years. Not that it ever disappeared entirely. The Amazigh who live in North Africa – from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the shores of the Mediterranean to Niger, Mali and Mauritania – never gave up their culture and language, with all its dialects. Many of them converted to Islam with the Islamic conquests of the 7th century C.E., and later also underwent an accelerated process of Arabization, and their language and culture was oppressed in the various countries. But throughout the years, many of them made sure to preserve the Amazigh traditions, which are different and unique to every region and tribe.

For example, in the 20th century there was poet and writer Marguerite Taos Amrouche, who, although she wrote in French, is considered the “Goddess of Kabyle song.” She was born in Tunis in 1913, to a Kabyle family (Amazighs from Kabylie, a region in northern Algeria), who converted to Catholicism and were forced to flee the country. In the late 1940s, she became famous as the first female Algerian writer to publish a book in French. And in the 1960s, her collection of traditional songs “Berber Songs from Kabyle,” was the album that gave rise to the Amazigh musical revolution. She would be followed by additional Kabyle singers who would become more famous – Abdul Rahman Abdali, Takfarinas (Hassen Zermani) and others.

Outstanding singers

There are two outstanding singers who deserve special mention. One is Idir (Hamid Cheriet), who was born in Algeria in 1949 to a Kabyle family, moving to Paris in the 1970s. In 1976 he issued his first album, which was very successful. The song “A Vava Inouva,” the title song of the album, quickly became a hit and was translated into over 10 languages. Idir himself went on to become an ambassador of Amazigh culture in general, and Kabyle music in particular.

Another Kabyle singer who became a symbol of Amazigh culture and the struggle for recognition was poet and philosopher Lounès Matoub. Matoub, born in Algeria in 1956, was not only an Amazigh symbol, but mainly a symbol of the secularism and liberalism that he wanted to promote in his country. His vocal talents were discovered by Idir, when Matoub arrived in France in the ’70s and began to perform and publish songs. As opposed to the songs of Kabyle singers and poets who preceded him, his songs were direct and harsh in their criticism.

Matoub’s character turned him into an figure of hatred for the Islamists and the Algerian regime. His songs were banned, but his popularity only increased. Finally, in 1998, when he was in the mountainous region near his native city, he was murdered at the age of 42, apparently by Islamists. His death led to a wave of protests and demonstrations by the Amazigh, and since then they commemorate his death every year.

The fact is that in the various North African countries – but mainly Morocco, Algeria and Libya – the attitude toward the Amazigh and their culture differed from place to place, but everywhere Amazigh culture was rejected throughout the years in one way or another. Tamazight, which includes all the dialects of the Amazigh language, was also repressed and even banned from use.

“The Arabic language,” said Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2005, “will remain the national language and the only official language of Algeria.” And former Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi said three years later to the Amazigh in his country, “You are allowed to call yourself whatever you like as long as you’re at home, but you are only Libyans the moment you are outside the house.”

Gadhafi apparently failed to learn from the past, misread the present situation and certainly didn’t foresee the future. He didn’t learn from history that countries with various oppressed nations and peoples are fated to fall apart in the end. He ignored the situation in which millions of Berbers – living in districts distant from the capital of Tripoli, like Zuwarah – spoke only Tamazight among themselves, taught their children the language, and conducted their lives and rituals according to various Amazigh traditions. Gadhafi didn’t anticipate the revolution, or his downfall and death in October 2011.

Recognition of Tamazight

A few months later, a series of Amazigh festivals were held in Libya: in Nalut and Zuwarah (strong Berber districts), but also, for the first time, in Tripoli as well. But the struggle of the Amazigh for recognition of their culture and language, or for cultural autonomy, is still far from complete. As of today, Morocco is the only country that – at least according to its constitution – recognizes Tamazight as an official language. But it is still not really in use in official documents, on signs and so on, and in the other countries the situation is even worse.

At the same time, more newspapers are being published using the Amazigh language, and more children’s books, television programs, radio networks, magazines, periodicals, films and music – lots of music – have begun to appear in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Niger and other places. Today, various Amazigh singers can be found performing worldwide, such as the Tinariwen troupe from northern Mali, whose members are Tuaregs – the nomadic Amazigh living in the Sahara Desert – and together they create music that is influenced both by North African rhythms and sounds, and by rock, folk and blues (try singer Bombino).

The Romans used to call anyone who didn’t speak Latin a “berber” (“barbarian”), and that included the local inhabitants they encountered in North Africa. But we know that what one empire considered barbarians are now “free men” (the meaning of the word “Amazigh”). Only a ruler as blind to reality as Gadhafi could have said in modern times that there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people. Oh, sorry, he said Amazigh.

Fes Festival of Amazigh Culture, September 2014.Credit: Sandy McCutcheon