The long Eid weekend saw much of Cairo take to the road and head north to Sahel for the official start of summer in Egypt. While for many that meant clubbing is back in session, one of the highlight events of the weekend along the North Coast took place in Marassi, where France-based Algerian singer, Souad Massi, took to the stage for her latest gig in Egypt.
Fueled by a slight crush on her and the fact that he was in Sahel at the time, Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein sat down with Massi to talk about her sixth and latest album, her ambitions as a female musician in the Middle East and the drama that led her to split ways with her French record label.
-There are only a few hours left before your latest gig in Egypt – what keeps you coming back?
This concert is probably my fourth and I always come because of my fans in Egypt. I love the country and the people and I’m proud to have a fan-base here. It’s always an honour to perform to the quality audiences in Egypt –people who genuinely love my work.
-Your new album, El Mutakallimun, means ‘masters of the word’ – how far do you believe in the power of the word?
Absolutely – especially when I think of the novelists, authors and poets who have changed the world with their words.
For example, when it comes to poetry, Ahmed Matar is a perfect example. He’s an Iraqi poet who used to write political poetry – and for that, they feared him. They were afraid of his influence and how he could change the minds of many people. That just shows how affective the written word can be – in every age, in every society.
-But is the pen mightier than the sword? Can words beat a gun in a showdown at dawn?
It’s hard for a word to stand in front of a gun, but it’s not impossible. Look at Ghandi – he managed to free a vast and great nation like India. The philosophy of life should be forgiveness, but it was hard for him when you have seen how his people suffered – it’s not easy to stay peaceful. It’s extremely difficult to harness that kind of strength, but not impossible.
-The album marked a new chapter for you – you left your record label. What made you make that decision?
I had problems with the record label at the time. I was signed to a French label that didn’t want anything to do with this album, because there’s this kind of ‘war’ against Arabs, against our culture and our norms – and Islam to be specific. It became very difficult to make the album there; I decided to leave the label and produce it myself.
As my first independent album, the real difficulty came with promoting it. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but it was a challenge that I welcomed. I’ve always said that an artist must be fearless and always take on new challenges, no matter how big of a star they are. How can an artist evolve and make new and interesting music without challenging themselves?
-You have a big following outside of the Middle East, especially with Arab communities abroad – how has the album been perceived by fans in the West?
I’m proud of this project, because I see and talk to a lot of Arabs in Europe who aren’t fluent in Arabic. I introduced some of the old Arab poets in my music which has made many of them curious and interested to learn more about Arab culture and the language. I still want to attract their attention and communicate to them through my music, even if they can’t speak Arabic. Being aware of our culture and where we came from is very important. I have people approach me and tell me how my music changed their perception of Arabic poetry and that’s fantastic.
-Who do you consider an inspiration to you?
Well, the person I dedicated this album to was my brother, Hassan, because he helped me in endless ways in my music career – it’s difficult for a woman to become an artist in the Middle East and I owe him so much. I also dedicated it to the teachers and professors who taught me and helped shape me into the person I am.
-You’re known for being politically vocal – how do you see the current state of the Middle East after the ‘Arab Spring’?
For me, the most important thing is to be free. Are we free in our own countries? We’re definitely not because of the basic fact that we’re not self-sufficient. No Arab country has the power to stand in front any developed nation, because, like it or not, we need them. A free man must be independent.
When you travel around the world, you come to learn a lot of things about life. We need to pay attention to education. Only education and knowledge can make us a developed region. Unfortunately, a lot of Arab countries, if not all, don’t make those values a priority. Even the Arab countries who view themselves as ‘developed’ are not in my opinion. They seem to be more engaged in constructing the highest towers and skyscrapers, but they’re importing everything including the minds who are building those skyscrapers. For me, they’re still slaves.
There is, of course, hope. A human being can’t survive without hope. We need to work hard and believe in ourselves. We need to be strong and we have to be educated to be strong.
-Those were some pretty heavy questions – let’s take a break with something a bit lighter and fluffier. What kind of music do you enjoy?
I love all kinds of music – everything and anything I can get my hands on, particularly new underground music. I’m currently listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and I also enjoy Sufi music. At the other end of the scale, I have to admit that I’m a fan of Sting and Stevie Wonder.
I really get a buzz from discovering new bands from other countries. From Egypt, I’ve always loved Wust El Balad and Cairokee and there are lots of good, underground bands in Jordan and Lebanon, too. I wish there was some kind of underground music festival in the Middle East; a festival where we all meet once a year.
-You recently made your acting debut in Eyes of a Thief – is this a path that you might follow?
It depends on the project. It needs to be something I’m capable of doing – I’ll be the first one to put my hands up and admit that I’m not a professional actor, but if there’s a character I relate to, then why not? Eyes of a Thief was my first acting experience and it was interesting and difficult at the same time.
I stayed in the West Bank for a month and met incredible people, who inspired me. Despite their hardships, they have this admirable inner strength. They’re the most generous people I’ve met in my life. You forget that you’re in the West Bank and that there‘s a war happening outside. They’re free in their minds.
-What advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians in the Middle East?
My advice for young artists who want to pursue a musical career is to never leave school. This industry is very unpredictable, even for the talented. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, you’re not guaranteed to sign with a big record label and become a star – that’s just not how it works. To be an artist, you must have patience. Talent is not everything. You need to have the personality and charisma for it. It’s also very important for an artist to study, write and read music so that when they work with other artists and band members there’s a musical communication of some sort.
Don’t push your education by the wayside. Don’t risk it all.
Stay up-to-date with all things Souad Massi on her official Facebook page.
By Mahmoud Hussein