Hasna el Becharia, a free spirit

A female perspective on Gnawa music


28/01/2010 - 

In a culture still largely dominated by men, the Algerian Hasna el Becharia has succeeded in making a name for herself far from her corner of the Sahara where she long lived. With her guitar and guembri, this veteran singer revisits Gnawa culture in her second album Smaa Smaa.

RFI Musique: What is your relationship with the guembri, the traditional instrument that we always see you with on your album covers?
Hasna el Becharia: The guembri and I have a bit of history. My father was a Gnawa master and I wasn’t allowed to touch this instrument. When I dared to do so, I was beaten. That’s why left the guembri alone and started on the guitar. It was only in 1999 that I finally came back to it in France for the Women of Algeria festival. I was invited, and it was only then that I let myself play the guembri. When I arrived in Paris, I dreamed of my father saying: “Go ahead.”

For the past ten years you’ve split your time between your native Algeria and France. How has that changed the way you approach or make music?
It’s changed a lot, of course. In Europe, I sing solo, and I sing my own songs. At home in Algeria, it was for friends at weddings. I only played guitar. Two women sang instead. I haven’t played at a wedding for ages, I miss it. It’s another style, but now I’m used to giving concerts and I like it a lot. Just like the studio. I was scared about doing the first album. But for the second, it was fine.

How did you approach the second album, Smaa Smaa ?
This is a very personal record, I got a lot of suffering and memories out of my system. I gave everything I had in me. At the same time, there is joy like on the track Sadrak, a love song that recounts the way a couple met. My deceased brother used to sing it and I wanted to do it in his memory. He was a great musician. I see his image when I sing on stage, and that’s why it’s on the album.

What did it change, recording in the desert rather than in a Western studio? En quoi cela change-t-il le résultat d’enregistrer la musique sur place, au cœur du désert, plutôt que dans un studio en Occident ?
What’s different is you mind and your experience. These songs are almost like family for musicians there in the Sahara, they grew up with them. And then there’s the location. We were in an old ksar, in very old houses. The acoustics were extraordinary. And there’s the simplicity as well. There’s no stress. If things aren’t working, we just brew some more tea. You can feel all that listening to the album.

You performed at the second PanAfrican festical in Algiers in July 2009. Was this a particularly important occasion for you?
Yes. It means that I, an Algerian woman, sang at the PanAfrican, like Miriam Makeba. At the first festival I was young, I was 22 or 24 years old and I remember that Miriam Makeba was there. I saw it on TV. She had written a song which said she was free in Algeria. She was an African and Algeria was her country as well. For me, they were important words. I said it as well when I sang for my country the song Djazaïr johara.



Hasna El Becharia Smaa Smaa (Lusafrica/Sony) 2010

In concert, 28 janvier 2010 at the Café de la Danse, Paris

Bertrand  Lavaine

Translation : Hugo  Wilcken