With her 10th album, Souad Massi explores new ground.
On Sequana, the Franco-Algerian singer-songwriter broadens her pallet from the intimate Arabic and chaabi folk of past releases to include vibrant Latin rhythms sung in Arabic and French.
The album was launched in Saudi Arabia last month, with Massi's first concert in AlUla.
“It went beyond my wildest expectations,” she tells The National. “It was a very sensitive and interactive crowd who really appreciated the music and material. It was a really beautiful moment and a confidence boost in terms of taking the album forward.”
A sonic journey
That urge to explore new different terrain stems from Massi’s experiences during Covid-19. With the pandemic upending her touring plans, she travelled in song.
In the desert blues of Mirage, she conjures the rugged landscapes of the Tamanrasset desert in Algeria's south, a region she describes as full of "beauty and spirituality".
Dib El Raba takes us to the North American countryside, with a twanging banjo plucked over rustic and floral acoustic guitar arrangements.
"That is a song that really takes me to my musical roots," Massi says. "It's folk music with artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez whose songs carried what they really wanted to say."
And in true folk tradition, she became next in line to reinterpret an already celebrated cover song.
When Massi first heard Johnny Cash’s 2002 haunting take of Nine Inch Nails' mournful Hurt, she penned an Arabic version.
“This is not only because of how inspiring and beautiful his version is,” Massi says.
“As an Arabic musician, these painful and contemplative lyrics are not really found in Arabic songs, which, for better or worse, tend to focus on the lighter side of human relationships.
“This is despite emotions such as sadness, pain and fear being universal and felt by everyone.”
Massi’s translation and delivery stays true to the original, released in 1994, and Cash’s haunting delivery, with the exception of the modern touches of atmospheric synths and muted beats.
The emotional directness is sustained in the title track, inspired by the Gallo-Roman goddess of the River Seine in Paris.
“During the pandemic I was doing a lot of reading and that’s when I discovered Sequana,” Massi says.
“She was also considered a goddess of healing, something I found very comforting during those difficult times.”
Massi's lyrics ask Sequana to imbue her with the courage to instil hope in her teenage daughters’ hearts, no matter how troubled the world may be today.
A better world
Massi’s own story also serves as inspiration for others to persevere.
Growing up in Algiers in the lead-up to the Algerian Civil War, which began in 1991, her love for U2's passionate anthems and the punk attitude of The Clash led her to join the pioneering band Atakor.
Their brash and potent sounds immediately drew the ire of religious extremists, who wasted no opportunity in stealing or destroying the group's equipment.
With the 1990s viewed as Algeria's "black decade", a time when the raging civil war included the murders of several prominent musicians, Massi fled to Paris in 1999 where she flourished as a solo artist.
Despite the success, the self-imposed exile from her homeland remains a key theme throughout her career.
In Sequana’s lead single Dessine-moi Un Pays (Draw Me a Country), she hopes for a better world, one not marred by large-scale displacement caused by conflict.
“Draw me a land, its borders will be paradise. Without unjust rulers and without war,” she sings in Berber over a delicate acoustic guitar. “A paradise on earth, full of flowers and happy children.”
While the dream may still be in the distance, Massi has her own heroes to keep her going.
One is Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer and activist executed in 1973 by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet.
Massi closes Sequana with Victor (Le Son de la Main), a solemn and flamenco-inspired tribute to a comrade.
“He is someone whose story I discovered during the pandemic and it so inspired me. He was not only a supporter for freedom but paid for it with his life and I wanted to honour that in my own way,” Massi says.
“We had a sense of what our freedom means to us during the pandemic and we need to learn about those who fought for what we have.”