Some call chaabi music "the soul of Algiers." A blend of Berber and Andalusian musical traditions, chaabi music was in its ascendancy in Algiers during the early part of the 20th century, a vital part of life in the Casbah section of the city, played at weddings and festivals by orchestras made up of Jewish and Muslim musicians.
The Algerian War of Independance brought an end not only to French colonial rule, but also to this harmony between cultures as many Jewish residents, faced with the stark choice of "the suitcase or the coffin" reluctantly chose a life in exile in France, where they were sneered at and derided as "pieds noir." The musicians of the chaabi orchestras were scattered.
El Gusto is a 2011 documentary very much in the tradition of The Buena Vista Social Club. The story begins in Algiers as a young French woman revisiting her family roots in that city spots a handmade mirror in a small shop and strikes up a conversation with the shopkeeper. She becomes fascinated to learn that the shopkeeper was once a member of a chaabi orchestra, and as he pulls out faded photographs and tattered handbills that reveal a vanished way of life she decides that something must be done. And it is really quite amazing to see what one young woman with determination can accomplish.
We meet with many former chaabi musicians still living in Algiers, who take us through the warren-like streets of the Casbah as they describe the way things used to be: the many cafés where chaabi musicians met and played, the parties, the evolution of chaabi music as a form. There are black and white clips from the early days of the War of Independence (a period explored in depth in the classic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, which would be an excellent accompaniment to this documentary), with one former musician describing how the rebels would sometimes use wedding celebrations as fronts for clandestine meetings.
The culmination of these reminisences and the climax of the film is a reunion in Marseilles of many former chaabi musicians, some coming from Algiers, others from Paris, to join others already resident in Marseilles. Together they rehearse in preparation for a triumphant reunion concert tour. Of course an album follows, as well as this excellent film.
You can watch a trailer for the film here.
Two more VIFF screenings remain: Wednesday October 10th at 6:30 pm at the Vogue Theatre; and Thursday October 11th at noon at the Empire Granville 4.