'I Used To Be A Dreamer': To Change The World, Souad Massi Starts With Herself

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on April 27, 2018 3:08 pm

Over the past 20 years, Souad Massi has sung provocative songs challenging authority and weaving stories in Arabic, French, and Kabyle, languages from her native Algeria. She's never been afraid to take risks through her music. "You want to know all my secrets?" Massi asks. The Algerian artist laughs and says she has only the best.

While on tour in the United States, Massi spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro from KUOW in Seattle and performed three of her most powerful songs.

"I used to be a dreamer. I wanted to change the world. I was so shy and reserved. I didn't know how to talk to people," she explains. So instead, Massi found her outlet through music. She was 17 years old when she wrote her first song, 2001's "Raoui." The title means "Storyteller" in Arabic. Massi says she wrote it to forget her troubles and "just to fly away."

Now, Massi is a celebrated international artist. In her 20s, she joined the political rock band Atokar — a rarity for a woman at the time — and eventually left Algeria for France due to government pressure. On her fifth album, 2015's El Mutakallimun"Masters of the Word" — Massi pays homage to the works of important Arab thinkers and poets stretching from the ancient past to present day. She hopes her music will not only bring peace and healing to Arabs, but all people.

"I was very sad to see and to hear what the media shows from the Muslim and Arabic world," Massi says of the album's mission. "We have very intelligent people who have a real gift for humanity. "

Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar is one of Massi's chosen poets. Matar spent much of his life in prison for supporting democracy in Kuwait, and now lives in exile in England. Massi says she wants to give a voice to Matar's revolutionary poetry in "Ayna (The Visitor)."

The song describes an "enlightened leader" arriving before a large crowd and and asking them to tell him their grievances without fear. The song's narrator describes "my friend Hassan" asking the leader about living conditions and then mysteriously disappearing. One year later, the leader reappears before the crowd. The narrator sings:

No one dared, and so I said:
"Where's the bread and where's the milk
And the guaranteed housing?
Where's the employment for all
And the free healthcare?
And pardon me, O Excellency,
Where is my friend Hassan?"

Massi could have turned these words into a mournful tune, but instead the song almost sounds like a satire. She says that it's common in African culture to give sad lyrics a buoyant melody. "We can make a song very... groovy," she laughs.

Massi is no stranger to the pain and suffering that plagues the modern world. Though she is not the 17-year-old dreamer she once was, she finds hope when she sees people from all over the world at her shows.

"It is very hard to change the world," Massi says. "We have to begin from ourselves to correct what is not good in us. And after that, we can help other people and we can try."

NPR's Linah Mohammad contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SOUAD MASSI: (Singing in Arabic).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the past 20 years, Souad Massi has written provocative songs challenging authority and weaving stories. She sings in Arabic, French and Berber, the languages of her native Algeria. In her 20s, Massi joined a political rock group, which was rare for women at the time. They eventually got in trouble with the government, so she left Algeria and settled in France. Souad Massi is currently touring the U.S. She brought her guitar to the studio in Seattle, where we spoke with her. For some answers she switches into Arabic. She began by playing this song called "Raoui."

MASSI: (Singing in Arabic).

The title in English is "Storyteller." In this song, I ask the storyteller to tell me any story that it was in far time.

SHAPIRO: Long ago.

MASSI: Long ago just to forget my troubles, my sadness and my real life, just to fly away. This is the first song I wrote.

SHAPIRO: The first song you ever wrote. You were 17 years old.

MASSI: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Take us into the life of that 17-year-old.

MASSI: You want to know all my secrets?

SHAPIRO: Only the best ones.

MASSI: I have only the best.

(LAUGHTER)

MASSI: I was a very - (through interpreter) I used to be a dreamer. I wanted to change the world. I was so shy and reserved. I didn't have a strong personality. I didn't know how to talk to people. I was just so introverted.

SHAPIRO: You say you used to be a dreamer. You used to want to change the world.

MASSI: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Does that mean you no longer feel that way?

MASSI: (Through interpreter) Honestly, it's very difficult now because look at our reality with everything that's happening in our world. But I try to do my part by making music not just for Arabs but for the entire world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LASTOU ADRI")

MASSI: (Singing in Arabic).

SHAPIRO: Your latest album called "Masters Of The Word," "El Mutakallimun"...

MASSI: "El Mutakallimun," yes.

SHAPIRO: ...You highlight the works of important Arab thinkers and poets stretching from the present day to the past. Why is this important to you?

MASSI: Because I was very sad to see and to hear what all the media show from the Muslim and Arabic world. We have very intelligent people who let a real gift for the humanity. And I liked with my little job just to say to the people, don't forget that.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about one of the poets that you thought should not be forgotten.

MASSI: For example, I discover Ahmed Matar. He's from Iraq. And he spent all his time in prison because he support the democracy. And so he had a lot of trouble in his life.

SHAPIRO: He's alive today. This is a present-day poet.

MASSI: Yes. He lives now in England. And he's very, very old. And I discover him and his courage. And I take his text, his lyrics, and I try to make music, to give a voice for his lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AYNA")

MASSI: (Singing in Arabic).

SHAPIRO: The lyrics of the song are really powerful. It describes a leader arriving and saying, tell me your grievances with sincerity and frankness, and have no fear. So my friend Hassan spoke up and said, your excellency, where's the bread and where's the milk and the guaranteed housing? And the enlightened leader says, thank you for your honesty. You will be rewarded. And one year later, the leader returns and asks the same question. And then the lyric says, no one dared, so I said, where's the bread and where's the milk and the guaranteed housing? And pardon me, oh, excellency, where is my friend Hassan? The person who spoke up was disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AYNA")

MASSI: (Singing in Arabic).

SHAPIRO: You could have chosen to write that song in a way that was mournful and sad, but instead it almost sounds funny, almost like a satire.

MASSI: Yeah. It's common in the African culture because we can make a song really groovy. You say groovy?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, sure. Yeah.

MASSI: (Laughter) With rhythm very strong and the lyrics very sad. Yeah, it's common in the African culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUAD MASSI SONG, "AYNA")

SHAPIRO: Is most of your audience in the United States people of Arab and North African descent, or is it a lot of white people? Is it everyone?

MASSI: It's mix of a lot of people. That make me happy. When I'm on stage and when I see people from different, you know, country and age are here, that make me happy.

SHAPIRO: It gives you hope that you can still change the world and dream the dreams that you dreamed when you were 17 years old.

MASSI: You know the very famous philosophe Jalaluddin al-Rumi?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MASSI: You know him?

SHAPIRO: Rumi, of course, yeah.

MASSI: Yes. So he said, when I was young, I thought I'm genius because I dreamed to change the world.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MASSI: And he say, now I'm intelligent because I'm going to change myself. So we have to begin from ourself to correct what is not good on us. And after that, we can help other people. And we can try - I say try because it's very hard - to change the world.

SHAPIRO: Will you perform something to take us out?

MASSI: Yeah, if you want.

SHAPIRO: Beautiful. What would you like to play for us?

MASSI: "Ghri Inta" - love song because we need love in this world.

SHAPIRO: Well, before you play, let me just say, Souad Massi, thank you so much for talking with us.

MASSI: Thank you very much.

(Singing in Arabic).

SHAPIRO: Souad Massi's most recent album is called "El Mutakallimun," or "Masters Of The Word." She is currently touring North America and spoke with us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle. She was accompanied by Mahti Delil (ph) on the mandola.

MASSI: (Singing in Arabic). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.