Dahmane El-Harrachi: Bluesman of Algeria? - دحمان الحراشي.

Howl-o, 'gain and welcome to another post at the Audiotopia.

Each country in the Middle-east has its own troubadour singer: Egypt has Chiek Imam, Morocco has Lhadj Belaid, Turkey has a ton of these and a half… Algiers has one, too: Dahmane El-Harrachi.

There is a beginning to every story, and ours begins with what made Algiers a country of immigrants when the first French troops arrived in that country in 1830. The population was fighting against this invasion writing with their blood (as most Arabs say there…) the story of a nation that went under the mercy of some foreigners for no reason at all: two Jewish ‘black-foot’ merchants were behind 'debt' for France which gave France reason enough to occupy the whole of Algiers.

Same as the Moroccan Lalla Aicha (or, Aicha Qandisha), there was another fighter woman in Algiers that stories of her resistance became legends sung for generations to come. Her name was Lalla Fatima N'Soumer, or simply Lalla Fatima. This woman has sparked many songs in both Morocco and Algiers. The Algerians were fighting for freedom, but with time, grew tired as the colonizers were depleting their country’s resources. That’s exactly what France wanted to do to Algerian Arabs: de-Arabize them by driving them from their villages and ultimately their country.

Soon, even their Arabic language was deformed into a strange vernacular that has more French words in it than Arabic ones. And, the colonizers didn’t stop at that, nah: they changed their culture into that of a wank-water, stupider-than-thou French one that bore their mark and their mark alone. Songs were the nation’s only solace at times like these: troubadours sang around the outskirts of the capital city Algiers (Ajjazaier - الجزاير), to make a living just like old country bluesmen did around the south... howlin’ their throats out about the injustices of the ‘man’, and how they wanted to be free.

Our singer El-Harrachi’s music harks back to early blues musicians, and Arabic ones in particular like Algerian chaâbi godfather, the famous Hadj M'hamed El-Anka. Harrachi was also influenced by many chaâbi 40's singers of his time: El-Hajj Menouar, Khelifa Belkacem, Shiek Bourahla, Shiek L’Arbi El-Annabi, Abdelkader Ouchala, etc. Dahmane also was a virtuoso who played the banjo and the mandole (a cross between a mandolin and an oud). Here's his story.

Dahmane El-Harrachi:
Dahmane El-Harrachi circa 60's.
Originally a Chaoui (from the Shawia region شاوية, part of the Aurès Mountains in east Algiers), Dahmane El-Harrachi (born Abdelrrahmane El-Amrani, 1925-1980, his nickname is a clipform diminutive of Abdel-Rahmane, and the Harrachi part was of him hailing from El-Harrach or harrach حراش district in Algiers formerly known as Maison-Carrée), was a kid in the southern Berber village of D’jilal, part of the Khanshala/Khenchela Province. His father Sheikh El-Amrani took the family and moved to Algiers the capital city in 1920 and settled in the El-Abiar district where he worked as a muezzin (prayer-caller in Muslim traditions), at Algiers' Great Mosque (El-Jema’a El-K’beir). His father being a muzzien has influenced his singing ability and gave him a pro bono, daily practice as he listened to his father shout the words of the athan/azan (prayer-call) five times daily.

Haj El-Anka maître du chaabi.
As a teenager in a colonized Algeria, Dahmane El-Harrachi was like any of the pre-Independence generation of young Algerians: throw the boy to the streets to learn a vocation or two, and become self-dependent because his father couldn’t support his family alone. So, the young Dahmane tooled around with his hands; working once as a cobbler/shoemaker (seven years), a receptionist, and a tram ticket-collector connecting El-Harrach in Bab El-Oued. Being a working kid around the streets of the capital Algiers gave him a panoramic ear-view of those ‘baladi’, or chaâbi singers, and when he turned 16, he played songs on the banjo (called there santir/santira) so brilliantly. It was during this period that he started some promising musical debut, including a troupe of amateurs giving concerts all over Algeria.
A Pathé Marconi early record.
School education certificate in hand, he left for France in 1949, staying first in Lille (five years), Lyon (three), the city of Metz (also three years), until he finally settled in Paris in the early 60’s playing at the famous Cafe Maghreb for the workers who worked at the Renault factory. Workers would rush to hear him sing, identifying with him and through his songs their blues and suffering away from their homeland. This is how it began to be known. Meanwhile, he has recorded his first album at Pathé Marconi in 1956.
Singing and playing his mandole at a wedding circa 70's.

His first song was titled ‘Behdja Bidha’ (meaning: White Algiers ‘will never lose its luster’) and he composed the song ‘Kifech Nennsa Belad El-Khir’ (How Could We Forget The Land of Plenty). Right after the liberation war of independence which cost Algiers one million martyrs in 1962, the immigration-appeal snapped and most Algerians left Algeria finally to go to France. This life away from their families in that country was full of sad life-stories of failures, hard trials, and ‘ghorbah’ or expatriation blues. These became songs that carry realities and sufferings of Dahmane's countrymen and gave him the much-deserved status of being a spokesman for that fringe of Algerian society who worked and lived around Paris where he settled in the early 60’s.
Dahmane El-Harrachi on the shores of Algiers 70's.

Attentive as an observer and vigilant in the middle of these workers, Dahmane has always avoided falling into the sordid ambiance. What contradicted his somewhat dissolute life that he sang about things both true and beautiful when he was really a pessimist. That’s the blues he helped build around the Casbahs of Algiers. The music of El-Harrachi kept some melodic lines a pensive reservoir of old-time proverbs and sayings drawn from the oral tradition of poetry. Chaâbi music "established" by El-Anka was full of allegories and semi-dialectal citations pumped into the ‘melhoun’ style of North African music. It’s that Dahmane used a more simplified everyday talk, understandable throughout the North African community. This explains, in part, his success.
Bluesman's pose circa 1965.
Chaïebi or chaâbi Algérois chansons popularized by Dahmane El-Harrachi bore the stamp of redjla (improvisation). He took the genre onto another level with his wisdom and especially rusty gravelly voice, modulated by alcohol and tobacco. He’s a story teller; the troubadour, the ever-traveling vagabond... He was a hobo bluesman singing in an Algerian dialect so simple, and being an impressive multi-instrumentalist (he was a virtuoso banjoist, mandolinist, tar-player, darbouka-touter etc...), Dahmane also sang chaâbi interpretation of old, classic tunes taken off the beaten track. Elegant drinker he's nicknamed the 'Aznavour' of Algiers by some, and others compared his playing to that of early country blues singers and players.

Djamel Chir, Dahmane El Harrachi
et Matoub Lounès 1980.
Discovered later on by the new generation, EI-Harrachi was treated to a Festival of Maghreb Music held in the late 70s at La Villette. He came back to an Algeria in the late 70's: this land that never ceases to evoke in him its way nicely images, and made two appearances before having a tragic ending, where in August 31, 1980 and in a return visit to his homeland he had a terrible car accident on the coastal ledge between Ain Benian (west of the capital) and Algiers. He was 54 years old when he died.
El-Harrachi from Saha Dahmane, 1970's.
Dahmane has a vast repertoire of songs. You can find here some significant extracts and tracks that I collected. He was part of a musical audio-documentary filmed in the 70’s, and directed by Hadi Rahim for Algerian ENTV Television (Saha Dahmane Haj Rahim, or translated roughly to ‘Thank You, Dahmane’) in which his most famous song Ya Rayah (You Who’s Gone Traveling), appeared on film sung by the man sitting on the shore, clutching his mandole. Recently, rai singer Rachid Taha honored him by 're-inventing' Ya Rayah into a shorter version that witnessed a huge popularity all around the world. But, nothing's like the old masterpiece itself.

At later days in early 70's.
Rachid Taha, echoing the famous song Ya Rayah of Dahamne El-Harrachi has maintained the memory of a major figure in Algerian popular music; one who keeps his gravelly voice intact to enchant an all-acquired company. Even Rachid's voice is a copy-act of Dahmane's own. The song itself deals with the problems faced by immigrant Algerians, hard-feelings, envy, etc... all these social pathologies that were left by a colonialist France years ago, asking his beloved folks to stick together and revert back to old traditions set by their good faith and ageless culture, and to go back to their homeland in simple, easily-understood words of qasid, or popular poetry.

Dahmane El-Harrachi performed concerts in China, Japan, New York, and Paris and other parts of the world. His son, Kemal El-Harrachi took his father's lead, and issued a debut album titled 'Gana Fenou' (He Sang His Art), in a thankful gesture to his father's music and unique artistry. True that: Dahmane's music will stay a living art the same as any blues singer's music that still resonate on for a long time after his death.

Si Dahmane, thank you! Saha!

Chaâbi Algérois - دحمان الحراشي

Note:For more information on the Algerian Chaâbi genre, try this wonderful blog. I also have to thank other blogs written in French for their useful help on making this post. Saha!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Algeria is a country in the Maghreb (North Africa), which has nothing to with the way the Middle East