Algerian singer Idir died in Paris on Saturday night at the age of 70. He was a leading figure of Algerian music and with him the memory of Algerian immigration in France has died.
His fellow countryman Zinedine Zidane called him “Monsieur Idir”. Idir embodied both strength and tranquillity; his presence commanded the same respect that one might have for an uncle. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu understood the role that this Algerian singer, who spoke and sang in Kabyle, had in every Algerian family: he was more than a singer, he was like a member of the family.
One of the interviews I had with him began with a personal story. He had just lost his mother and telling this story was obviously very close to his heart. At the beginning of the 1970s, when he was still called Hamid Cheriet, a discreet geology student, he started singing in public. He composed his melodies and wrote his lyrics in Kabyle, inspired by verses of traditional songs he had been lulled to sleep with as a child. Modestly, he chose a stage name, Idir, the name given to fragile newborns because it means “He will live”. Success came with the song “Avava inouva” (“Little father”). This melodic song is built like a dialogue between a daughter and her father who try to ward off with their words the coming of the devouring ogre.
“Please, Father Inouba, open the door for me! Girl Ghriba make your bracelets jingle I fear the forest ogre Father Inouba O Ghriba girl I am afraid so too.”
When he returned to his Kabyle village of Aît Lahcène, where he was born in 1949, his mother would always talk to him about a young singer whom she had heard on the radio. It was she who had introduced her son to her culture and language, and never ceased to praise this young singer, marvelling at the beauty of his lyrics and melodies.
“I would stay silent,” he said. “I knew my mother wanted me to finish university and even more so I’d get a ‘serious’ job. But then ‘Avava inouva’ became a success and I was invited to sing on Algerian television. I knew my mother was going to watch the recorded show. I didn’t want her to find out that Idir was me in that way so I told her the truth.”
He told me this with a smile, finding the situation still funny after more than 40 years. His mother’s tears were the only response. Not tears of pride, but tears of fear: “For her, singing was not a serious job for her son,” he said softly. “I made my mother cry at first, but later she followed my whole career with pride.”
So it was in 1973 that Algeria put a face to this young Kabyle singer. He was wearing a pair of flared jeans, long curly hair and the burnous of his ancestors. “Avava inouva” became an international hit. Described by some as “the first African hit”, it was broadcast in 77 countries and translated into fifteen languages. This was followed by an album of anthology, Ssendu, a mix of soft and rhythmic melodies, with subtly engaged and discreetly subversive lyrics. Do not be mistaken, Idir described the Algerian political situation in poetic but committed metaphors. Although he did not write critical lyrics clearly in opposition to the government, like other Kabyle singers such as Mahtoub Lounes, Lounis Aït Menguellet or Ferhat Mhenni, Idir was equally critical. Poetic and political.
Algerians were not mistaken, though, detecting opposition and criticism in his lines: “the country has been eaten by the fool” or “Shake it and throw it” (“Zwit-Rwitt”) which could be heard, beyond its festive sound, as a call for change. In a country under the rule of the all-powerful National Liberation Front (FLN), such songs coming from a region reputed to be so resistant, were necessarily suspect.
Idir chose to move to France at the end of the 1970s. In exile, he would also sing about his nostalgia for his country, a country dear to thousands of Algerians who migrated to France, many of whom came from the same region as him. The suitcase; the boat that made the voyage from Algiers to Marseille; the cold; the work in the steel factories: all of this was also reflected in his songs.
He thus managed the tour de force of singing about the “Algerianity” or what it is to be and feel Algerian and the exile of the Algerian diaspora. He became a connection to the home-country for many. Idir’s album Identités, was a series of luminous collaborations with French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, Ugandan singer Geoffrey Oryema, French singer Maxime le Forestier, Raï star Khaled and Scottish singer Karen Matheson. It was a celebration of Algeria in all its diversity — Maghreb, Mediterranean, Arab, Berber and African — and the Algerian diaspora. Algeria is a crossroads as well as a melting pot.He continued to follow the upheavals of his country from a distance, geographically speaking, but not emotionally or artistically, especially those that shook his native region in the spring of 1980. In the effervescence of the post-Boumediène period, Kabylie, a region known for being resistant and rebellious to any power, from the French colonists to the FLN state, was in turmoil. In March 1980, in Tizi-Ouzou, a conference by the writer Mouloud Mammeri on ancient Kabyle poetry was cancelled. The people behind this decision refused to explain themselves; it was said to be “an order from Algiers”. Demonstrations shook the region, stretching as far as Algiers, where a huge demonstration took place. Repression and arrests were the state’s response. The issue was first of all cultural and linguistic in a country where, since its independence, Arabic had taken over from French as the official language. The Algerian language policy then resulted in a massive Arabisation of the administration and the education system.
A breach between the state and the Kabyle region continued to widen, which Idir would report on by singing regularly on the anniversaries of the revolt. Despite his national and international prestige, the singer was always careful to keep his distance from the Algerian authorities. And if he returned to Algeria as a private citizen, he would refuse to perform there; he did this for 38 years. However, as soon as his death was announced, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune wrote in the middle of the night on his Twitter account: “I heard with great regret and sadness the news of the death of the late Hamid Cheriet, known by the artistic name of Idir, the internationally renowned icon of Algerian art. With him, Algeria loses one of its pyramids.”
One evening in November 2017, I met Idir again. He was about to embark on a singing tour of Algeria. This was a major event for one who kept telling himself that he was “being killed by the small fires of not being able to sing in his own country”, as it was for his Algerian public as well, across many generations. He didn’t know then that one year later his country would enter the boiling point of Hirak, but he had time to follow a year of demonstrations, receiving them as “a breath of fresh air”.Meeting in a Parisian café, Idir arrived with a felt hat screwed on his head and a newspaper in his hand. Discreet but not mousy, measured but not distant. He knew that his Algerian tour had been scrutinised and commented upon extensively by the Algerian media. He had made a point of starting it on the evening of the Yennayer Festival, the date of the Berber spring. Similarly, if his tour was going to start in Algiers, it was going to cover the whole of Algeria, Constantine, Oran, Ghardaïa, Batna, Annaba and Tizi-Ouzou.
He explained his long absence by, first of all, “fundamentalism in Algeria, and the Civil War and terrorism in the 1990s.” He added that he had grown wary of this trend of inviting singers as official sponsors or partners. “I wanted to go and sing in Algeria in front of those who wanted to listen to me, without having to have a cover or an alibi. So I started to resist, a bit like Don Quixote, because, like him, I didn’t know I was fighting windmills. I told myself that if I was a 100 per cent Algerian, I had to recognise my identity as well as my quality as an artist. You can’t give someone a passport, a citizenship and deny them the fact that they speak a language that is not recognised, that is not national. Amazigh is now an official language but not national.”
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No one is a prophet in his own country and Idir knew that. The question of the Amazigh culture and its recognition as an integral component of the Algerian identity was part of his struggles. Although the Algerian constitution now recognises the Amazigh language, Idir noted, quite rightly: “It is not ‘official’ as I would like it to be. Because a state language has been put above it, the Arabic language. Now, if the Amazigh language is official, there is no need to have a language above it, and therefore, a contrario, others below it.”
He also regretted that in its Constitution, Algeria was presented only as an Arab country. “To this statement, I reply that Algeria is a country. Full stop. The Algerian Constitution adds to the postulate that Algeria is an Arab country another affirmation: ‘Islam is the state religion’. I believe that the State does not have to have a religion.”
However, Idir was not an activist for the independence, or even the autonomy of Kabylie, as the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK) is, for example. “I have nothing to do with the MAK, I have never criticised them. However, I have been criticised by them many times.”
Reflecting on the tensions and fervour around his return, his tour, Idir wondered: “There is a very explosive climate in Algerian society, which I am effectively crystallising, in spite of myself.” Exactly one year after this interview, the Hirak Movement protests broke out. After all, then, one can indeed sometimes be a prophet in one’s own country.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.