Souad Massi: Mesk Elil (Honeysuckle)

Souad Massi
Mesk Elil (Honeysuckle)

With a voice as sweet as honeysuckle drifting in through an open window, Souad Massi has captured the attention of international audiences. Her third recording Mesk Elil (translated as “Honeysuckle”) proves that all this attention is definitely earned. She is a young woman with great talents as a singer, musician and song-writer, having explored many styles of music including those of her native Algeria (such as chaabi and raï), in addition to experimenting with merging styles such as flamenco, Cape Verdean morna and West African blues. Yet throughout it all she has retained the feeling of those North African nomadic rhythms.

Like many other artists, Souad Massi considers herself to be a “citizen of the world.” She left her war-torn native Algeria in 1999 and moved to Paris for greater artistic freedom. “I am a musician, a dreamer, a melancholic, and an optimist”, she says of herself. Her songs are filled with the pain and nostalgia of parting with one’s homeland, as well as sorrow over parting with a lover. For the most part she sings in Arabic, but she adds a dash of English here and there, and a few songs are sung in French. She prefers to sing and write in Arabic, however, as she feels the process of translating her words into another language dilutes the message in her lyrics. The Algerian dialect has more subtleties, allowing her to say the same thing in many ways and with different intonations. I have often noticed with many international artists that when they sing in a language that is not their own they often sound less interesting and less powerful. The emotional impact is just not there.

What makes her current CD, Mesk Elil, different than her first two recordings, Raoui (“The Storyteller” released in 2000) and Deb (“Heartbroken”, released in 2003) is the addition of orchestration on a few tracks, such as the title track, “Mesk Elil” or “Honeysuckle”. This features her poignantly beautiful voice, full of sadness and homesickness for her homeland. In the chorus to this tune she sings: “I miss everything; I miss you and it hurts, / And I miss the scent of mesk elil too.” Honeysuckle does have a scent that can send us back to our childhood; it is one of the prime examples of a “Proustian miracle”. While Souad Massi may be gaining popularity on the international stage, she is considered a rebel in her homeland and as such she lives in “exile”.

This is also the fate of many other Algerians living in Paris. In the incredibly beautiful song, “Hagda Wala Akter” (“There’s Worse”), Massi writes about the fate of a female friend of hers whom she met in the street:

“She took my hand and began to talk to me, /

Tears black with kohl ran down her cheeks, /

And she told me, ‘My sister Souad, there’s worse’.

Although this album is filled with longing for her homeland, Massi is due to return for concert in Algeria soon. Hopefully she will be able to capture the positive attention of a new audience in the place she so obviously loves and misses deeply.

On Mesk Elil, Massi also duets with some excellent singers. On “Manensa Asli” (“I Won’t Forget My Roots”) she duets with Malian guitarist and singer Daby Touré. This is an upbeat song on which she declares that “It’s important to respect your roots, / And just as important to respect other people’s”. Massi’s roots are North African and Muslim; but she has no desire to fall back on the stereotypes of either. When asked to describe herself, she says simply “I am African.” Indeed, she is unmistakably North African in her delivery and poetry. Souad Massi, who is still quite young, hasn’t been on the international music scene for very long; and already one can see from her first three outstanding recordings that she has a very promising and long career ahead of her.

RATING 7 / 10