Thursday, April 21, 2011

Berber Rising 2: The Saga Continues

By Banning Eyre

The plight of the Berber, or Amazight, the original inhabitants of North Africa, is an ongoing concern, one that is playing into the unrest and change sweeping the region. Afropop checks in with Berber music on many fronts on this week's broadcast.  We have links to great resources on Berber music, and also excerpts of interviews with some of the major artists.  In preparing for this show, we spoke with a number of sources.  I had a particularly interesting conversation with Moh Alileche, a composer and singer from Kabylia, Algeria, who now lives in San Francisco. Moh's music was featured in the first Berber Rising program in 2002, and has been heard on other Afropop broadcasts. 

Moh follows the struggles of the Imazighen (Berber peoples) around North Africa, but especially in Algeria, where the cultural oppression has been intense, outdone perhaps only by the Khadafi regime in Libya.  When we spoke, Moh said that the situation in Algeria has not improved significantly since the "Berber Spring" uprisings in 1980.  "Thirty-one years later," said Moh, "nothing has really happened in a positive way.  In fact, it has deteriorated."  Nine years ago, Moh was also not optimistic, despite positive statements made by the Algerian government at that time.  "I said they were trying to eradicate [Berber culture] completely.  Now they are approaching success.  They have surrounded the Kabyle region with 100,000 military.  They say it is to protect against terrorists, but it's the opposite.  They will crush any Berber organization immediately."

The optimism of that era was based on the designation of Tamazight, the Berber language, as a "national language."  But as Idir notes in our interview, this means little.  To be taught in schools and written in public communications, the language must be "official," not merely "national."

Moh notes that while rai singers like Khaled and even Mami (recently released from a French prison after serving time for forcing a woman to undergo an abortion) can now perform in Algeria. Islamist objections to the supposed decadence of their music has now relaxed enough that they can return and perform openly.  Not so Berber singers like Idir and Takfarinas.  Although they have returned to Algeria, neither has been able to perform there since the early 1990s.  Moh says, "Young stars can sing in Tamazight, but only about love and flowers and dancing.  Nothing else."

Moh is inspired by the mood of change sweeping North Africa.  He has been paying close attention to the plight of Berbers in Libya, where just before the uprising, two Berber singers were jailed after one performed at a Berber festival in Morocco. "If you sing in Tamazight in Libya," said Moh, "you are in trouble."  Moh is working on a new song about what is going on at present in North Africa.  The working title is "It started in Tunisia."  It's his first song in English, and he shared with us his lyrics, still in progress:

It started in Tunisia
A struggle with Zin Abidine
Youth wanted a new era
And toppled the old regime

Spirit rising in the air
Quickly embraced in Cairo
People of Tahrir Square
Forced Mubarak to go

Wind blows into Libya
Bringing hope and liberty
Forty-one year old junta
Is wanted in Benghazi

People of other nations
With courage and dignity
Join the revolutions
And fight for Democracy
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