Two-sentence review: There is some fantastic music in the documentary El Gusto. I heartily suggest that you watch it!
Longer review: The documentary El Gusto is about Algerian chaabi music in general, and some musicians who used to play it, who came together to play it again, after many years apart. The film has been called the Algerian version of the Buena Vista Social Club.
The film has three main elements – a tour through the narrow, twisty streets of old Algiers, anecdotes about chaabi and life in Algeria, before and after the country’s independence from France, and musical performances.
Chaabi music has roots in Arab, Berber and Andalusian music. It was heard at weddings, parties and in the bars and cafés of the Casbah. Have you heard Rachid Taha sing Ya Rayah? That’s a chaabi tune, though Taha is usually described as someone who sings rai.
Chaabi orchestras include piano, violins, lutes, ouds, mandoles, banjos, zithers, accordions, drums and tambourines. People had already been playing it for decades when El Hadj Mohammed El Anka began teaching formal classes at the Municipal Conservatory of Algiers in the 1950s. Back then Muslims and Jews were neighbours and friends who partied together and made music together.
Safinez Bousbia, the film’s director, was studying architecture in Ireland in 2003 when she took a vacation trip to Algiers, the city where she was born. While discussing a purchase in Mohamed Ferkioui’s mirror shop, she learned about his earlier life as a chaabi musician. He was among the first graduates of the El Anka’s course at the conservatory.
Bousbia was so fascinated by his story that she wanted to find out what had happened to the other musicians, and to help them re-connect with one another. It took her several years to locate them. Some were still in Algeria while others had moved to Paris or Marseille long ago. Once the connections were made, they wanted to meet and they also wanted to play together again. They did so under the name El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers. The film includes footage from rehearsals and concerts in Algeria and France. An audience in France enthusiastically sings along to Ya Rayah. (The group went on to perform in the U.S. and the U.K., as well.)
You can preview and buy the group’s two albums, Abdel Hadi Halo & The El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers, and Orchestre El Gusto on iTunes.
El Gusto, directed by Safinez Bousbia, In French and Arabic with French subtitles, 93 minutes long.
With Mamad Haïder Benchaouch, Rachid Berkani, Ahmed Bernaoui, Robert Castel, Abdelkader Chercham, Luc Cherki, Maurice El Medioni, Abdelrahmane Guellat, Joseph Hadjaj, Liamine Haimoun (and many more).
El Gusto will be shown Monday Oct, 10, 2016, at 13:30, at Cinéma du Parc as part of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal.