Legendary Algerian orchestra El Gusto’s North American debut Saturday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was just as important a moment in New York music history as the Buena Vista Social Club’s first American concert. To say that it had been unlikely that this band – who’d beeen defunct since the unrest after the 1962 Algerian revolution – would ever regroup, much less with most of its now octogenarian original members, is an understatement. Thanks to filmmaker Safines Bousbia, there’s a documentary out and an American tour in the works. What became most astonishing within seconds of their appearance on the Damrosch Park bandshell stage is how vital they sound: they literally haven’t lost a step. This was a seventeen-piece version of what amounts to a large Middle Eastern string band: four mandolas, three violins, a mandolin, an oud, a qanun, a piano and accordion, bass and percussion.
El Gusto play chaabi music, the ghetto sound popular in the casbahs of the 1920s and 30s. Think of the nightclub scene in Casablanca: their music sounds like that, but a million times more interesting. There were many different strains of chaabi: El Gusto’s is defined by edgy Middle Eastern chromatics set in the western musical scale, using the fretless oud and violins as well as the qanun for microtonal menace and spice. It was breathtaking to see how brilliant these musicians still are, and how timeless their music sounds. The older musicians were as agile as those a third their age, and much of what they played could be described as acoustic Algerian rock. They closed the set with a lusty singalong of the classic, crushingly sarcastic, politically-fueled mid-20s anthem Ya Rayyeh, which rai-rock bandleader Rachid Taha turned into a worldwide hit twenty years ago. Listening back to a recording of this show without knowing who the band was, it could have easily been a current-day act, testament to the ensemble’s relevance and vitality.
“We haven’t played this in a long time,” mandola player Abdelkader Cherchame admitted sheepishly before mandolinist and musical director Mohamed El Moncour Brahimi kicked off the night’s lushly swaying opening number with a gorgeously rippling solo packed with the otherworldly tonalities that would shimmer throughout the concert. The audience’s reaction was explosive, a chorus of ooo-wooo-woo-woos echoing from several pockets in the crowd. The group’s veteran frontline took turns on lead vocals. Guitarist Mohamed Sergoua opened with a fiery, flamencoesque intro and then handed off to his fellow six-stringer Lucien Cherki. He sang the concert’s iconic centerpiece, the bittersweetly nostalgic Je Suis Un Pied Noir (I’m a Blackfoot), with several diversions into the hits of the day, a series of immigrant-pride anthems among the pieds noirs, as the Algerian-born were called in France until recently (the term is now considered something of a slur). One of those diversions was a haunting, droning violin solo from Redha Tabti, an illustration of “the sounds of my youth,” as Cherki put it. Immigrant pride (and nostalgia for Algerie Algerie) in the face of endless adversity took centerstage early on and never left: a harbinger for the future of the west if there ever was one, even though these songs are fifty years old or older.
Violinist Robert Castel opened the second number with a goodnaturedly boisterous vocal intro, an expansively amusing, self-referential take on “glad to be here” sung in Arabic. As the set went on, it became clear how well-loved the slinky minor-key anthems were, the crowd exploding in cheers after the band would wind their way matter-of-factly to a big chorus. Pianist Smail Ferkioui finally got a chance to take an extended solo and did it carefully and precisely before slinking to the front of the stage and immediately it seemed that half the crowd was on their feet and running for the front row, Castel joining him with a triumphantly vaudevillian smirk, unselfconsciously ecstatic to be back to doing this at all, let alone on an American stage for the first time ever. And the subtext went unspoken: how in this contentious era, that veteran Jewish and Berber musicians could join in a concert that nonchalantly transcended any attempt to divide and conquer. That’s why the first thing dictators do when they seize power is outlaw music.