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Berber Rising! A companion to the 2002 Afropop Worldwide program

Original article (on doesn’t exist anymore so I just made a backup here. All rights reserved to their original owners.

Berber Politics and World Music

Afropop Worldwide’s Berber Rising program is certainly not the first time Berber music has been featured on our show. But it is by far our most extensive look at this often overlooked vein of North African music. Understandably, many Berber musicians and people resent the fact that so much effort has gone into promoting Afro-Arabic genres like rai and to a lesser extent shaabi internationally, while the music of North Africa’s original inhabitants is relatively unsupported, and hence less known in world music circles. The subject is complex. In the 1970s, Berber singer Idir made one of the first North African hits in Europe, but Berber music has not kept pace since. On the one hand, much of the most interesting Berber music is not pop, but rather village and urban folk music. The major forces behind promoting rai have a dance pop-oriented mindset, and this, they argue, is the reason they have mostly ignored beautiful indigenous Berber music, and even more artistic fusions like that of exiled Algerian singer/songwriters Iness Mezel and Akli D.. The argument overlooks some great Berber-related dance pop by artists like Takfarinas, Tayfa and German-based Moroccan fusion artist Houssaine Kili, but more on that later.

Berber girls in Tunisia. (Giles Trendle)

Aesthetics and style aside, it is important to understand that the whole subject of Berber music and culture is inevitably colored by Berber people’s longstanding struggle to achieve basic language rights in modern North African societies. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya–where most of today’s Berber live–the Berber language, Tamazight, is not an official language. Tamazight language broadcasts are limited or non-existent in these countries, and their governments commit no funds to educating children in the language. Some Berbers see this as part of a long-standing objective by Arab-descended North Africans to eradicate Berber culture. The theory is: if nobody speaks Tamazight, the culture will pretty much go away. Obviously, this is unacceptable to Berbers in general, so for those who believe this is the objective of contemporary governments, this is a life-and-death matter.

In Algeria, where the Berber language rights movement is most overt and powerful, there have been periodic mass demonstrations since 1980 when the so-called Berber Spring uprising forced this issue into public view. That movement continues today. In June of 2001, over 1-million Berber demonstrated in Algiers, and in May of 2002, Berber in the Tamazight-speaking region of Kabylia boycotted the country’s parliamentary elections because they feel that the country’s entire political system is rigged against them. A number of people have died in this struggle in Algeria in recent years, and no sign of a lasting resolution is in sight.

Ait Bou Buemmez landscape, Morocco

Coming back to music, whatever the objectives of governments, the paucity of Berber music in the world music marketplace is not likely the result of conspiracy. There are so many small labels and independent players in world music that even if one were to accept the idea that big labels are in cahoots with powerful North African Arabs to suppress Berber cultural expressions, this would only represent an opportunity for smaller labels to release and promote the very music their larger competitors are ignoring. At the end of the day, good music ultimately gets released and finds its audience. If nobody is promoting Iness Mezel (winner of two Kora Music Awards in 1998), Takfarinas, or Houssaine Kili in the United States, this is an opportunity waiting to be exploited, because all three make excellent music. We certainly hope that Afropop Worlwide’s Berber Rising program will help to move this process forward.

Berber = Amazigh

A note on nomenclature. The commonly used word Berber is distasteful to many, if not all, the people to whom it is applied. It probably derives from the word “barbarian,” or “outcast,” a notion that badly misrepresents the history of North Africa’s oldest known inhabitants. The land of the Berber is traditionally called Tamazgha, “land of free peoples.” The preferred words for the Berber culture, language, and people are as follows:

Culture: Amazigh [AH-mah-ZEE(ohr)]
Language: Tamzight [TAH-mah-ZEE(r)t]
People: Imazighen [EE-mah-ZEE(r)-ehn]

These pronunciations are subtle. Those “r’s” are in parentheses because they aren’t quite “r’s.” There’s just a hint of “r” there. The sound comes from the back of the throat, and goes by very quickly. Do your best! By the way, the most common greeting in Tamazight is “Azul.”

Tuareg in Mali

Brief Berber History

The Berber have been in North Africa for at least 3000 years. Very effective warriors, they managed to avoid being dominated by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Turks, all of whom made incursions into Berber lands. But after 7th century, Arab invaders had more success gradually gaining the upper hand throughout the region. Long before that, the Berbers’ vast pasture lands had been largely desertified as the Sahara Desert expanded rapidly, driving Berber communities into the Atlas Mountains in present day Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Nomadic Berber groups, including the Tuareg, probably emerged between 200 BC and 300 AD.

One of the decisive battles in the Arab conquest involved the legendary Berber queen Kahina (572-702??), in what is now Tunisia. She led the Jarawa Berbers of the Aurès Mountains. Arab fighters swept through North Africa beginning in 669 AD. Most Berber willingly converted to Islam, but they fought to maintain their political autonomy. In 683, Berbers destroyed an Arab garrison of 5,000, halting Arab advances for some five years. Writer Giles Trendle (a major source here) states that she was a Jew, although the Africana encyclopedia says she may have been Christian. Whatever role religion played in her fierce resistance, local legend holds that she was a sorceress, and under her leadership, the Berber united in their opposition to Arab invaders. What is sure is that Kahina was ruthless and brutal in attacking the Arabs, holding them at bay from 696 until 699.

Colesseum at Al Jem, Tunisia (Giles Trendle)

During that time, foreseeing her ultimate defeat, Kahina sent her two sons to convert to Islam and join the Arab caliph Hassan, who was building Tunis at the time. Meanwhile, increasingly crazed, the sorceress queen set about destroying her own kingdom so as to deny the conquerors its riches. She burned crops and leveled buildings, alienating many followers in the process, so that when Hassan attacked decisively in 669, many Berber supported him. Kahina was beheaded two years later, presumably at the age of 127. The scene of her final defeat was the Roman-built colosseum at Al Jem, Tunisia.

After a major Arab push from the Banu Hilal in the 9th century, the Berber were effectively defeated. Now converts to Islam, the Berber remade themselves as leaders of the jihad to convert other Africans. Berber went on to lead North African Islamic dynasties: the Almoravids, Almohads, and Marinids. These groups made it into southern Spain, spreading Berber culture, in some form, to the Mediterranean as part of Andalusian culture.

Just as an indication of how the Berber figure into history, the Biblical character Goliath was Berber, as was the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, and also Saint Augustine, who was born in what is now Libya.

Later on, when the French came into North Africa in 19th cent, a Berber called Abd el-Krim created the Rif Republic in northeast Morocco to resist the French. The French practiced classic divide-and-rule tactics, promoting the notion of a “Berber race.” This inevitably exacerbated Berber-Arab animosity and set the stage for the political problems that exist today, especially in Algeria, where the Berber in Kabylia persist in seeing themselves as separate and apart from, and also threatened by the Arab majority.


In Morocco, Berber-descended people represent 65% of the population. But the fact is somewhat deceptive. After layers and layers of Arabization and Islamicization, it is difficult to distinguish Moroccan Berbers from Arabs, except by the language they speak. The two languages remain distinct, but each inevitably borrows from the other, and it is possible to imagine them gradually merging over time. This is exactly the scenario that terrifies those intent on preserving what remains of ancient Berber culture. As with French Canadians, Basques and many other cultural minorities who view themselves as threatened with extinction, language is the central issue.

Most Berbers today do not write their language, but there is a written form. The Berber writing system is called tifinagh, and it’s based on an ancient Libyan script. It uses pictographic characters. The only Berber group to make common use of this system is the Tuareg of Mali and Niger.

Finally, a note about Berbers and Jews. When the Moors were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella, Sephardic Jews came into North Africa. In the High Atlas of Morocco, they found older Judeo-Berber communities. The Berber scholar Philip Schuyler writes that colonies of Jews lived in the High Atlas long before Islam came to the region. Since the formation of Israel in 1948, most of these converted Jewish Berber have left the area and moved to Israel. This is the story of the astounding Jewish Moroccan cantor, Emil Zrihan, who cites Berber rhythms as an important influence in his music.

Berber Music Today

The Explore section of has an essay on Berber music, under Styles. The URL is:
There, you’ll also find a discography including all the releases in the Berber Rising program, and other new entries. Here is some additional information on Berber music gathered in the process of researching this program.

Morocco’s Berber villages are rich with music. There are two main varieties of traditional music found there. Ahwash is exclusively village music, probably unchanged for centuries or longer. Those who perform ahwash are mostly not paid; they perform in cultural contexts such as village celebrations, marriages, and so on. During the Islamic feast of the sacrifice, these groups and others perform during the entire 3-day celebration. Ahwash texts emphasize the submission of the individual to the community. Typically, two large choruses engaging in call-and-response vocals, accompanied by instrumentalists and dancers. Since this music requires anywhere from 20 to 150 participants, it is not easily portable and so rarely heard in the cities.

Bnet Marrakech

Raiss , on the other hand, is performed by smaller groups of professional musicians who blend dance, comedy, and sung poetry. They perform in cities like Marrakech and Casablanca, and they deliver news from village and awaken nostalgia for mountain life among those who have left it behind. There is more room in raiss lyrics for ideas about individual achievements and events outside of village life. Raiss songs tend to honor orthodox Islam, but with notable dashes of syncretist belief. In these songs, things like sacrifices and evil eyes are justified in terms of Islam. Raiss instruments typically include the rebab, a one-stringed fiddle, not same as the Andalusian rebab, the lotar, a lute similar to the Gnawa guimbri, hand drums, and a bell.

One notable feature of raiss melodies is the way they leap up and down in large intervals. As one musician put it, “Our melodies are like a road over the High Atlas, a lot of sharp curves and steep slopes.”

On the Berber pop music front, two Algerian acts seem to be particularly popular with the worldwide Amazigh community. Takfarinas is a powerful singer–not quite on the level of a Khaled or Mami, but definitely impressive–and his international release Yal is well produced pop music, comparable with the better rai music recorded in Europe. Takfarinas’s double-necked lute (mandole) is a striking feature of his act, and he uses it to inject a beautiful roots element on tracks like “Irwihene” and “Lounes,” presumably a song about Matoub Lounes, the martyred singer who was both the greatest muse of the Amazigh movement and also its most soulful vocalist. Elsewhere, Takfarinas’ pop experimentations yield mixed results. “Tanoumi” is cool and melodic, if very light. “Tayri” kicks out angst-laced reggae pop. “Ayessiyi” is a hook-laden pop ditty with a bizarre electric guitar break, and “Lawliyya” is a kind of pop waltz. There are some excesses, like the anthem “Aytezyen,” which plays like bad Elton John schmaltz, and the painfully bouncy “Douga.” This album was released in the U.S. in 2000, but it’s probably some two years older than that. He’s definitely an artist with promise, and we can look forward to more mature and successful work from him in the future.


Tayfa, the other big-selling Algerian Berber pop act is less satisfying. Neither the singing nor the compositions are particularly impressive, although the CD Awal is beautifully packaged. Again, high-production Berber pop is a relatively young and undeveloped genre, and one well worth watching as it grows in breadth and depth.

Two more experimental Algerian Berber singers offer distinctly more interesting albums. Iness Mezel has been mixing traditional Kabyle music with jazz and pop since 1995, around the time she went into exile in Europe. She won two Kora Music Awards (Best North African Singer, Best Female African Singer) in 1998, and her followup album Wedfel (A Silence) justifies the honor. She sings beautifully, and her arrangements and compositions are very interesting and full of diverse influences, including Berber tradition, flamenco, and harmonized jazz vocals.

Akli Dehlas, a.k.a. Akli D. was born to a musical family in Kabylia. Since leaving Algeria, he has lived in France and California, and Anefas Trankil, recorded in Paris, is his first complete album. The album has fascinating variety, from the pretty, banjo-driven “Taqb-Aylit (Kabylia)” to the rich polyrhythms of “A Tayri (Love).” One strong pop song, “Azul (Greetings to you)” has an interesting Afro-Celtic folk aspect to it, perhaps reflecting Akli’s work with Celtic musicians in the United States. The words say, “Hey, mountains of Africa. Send us back the echo of a free people, the ones known as Tuareg.” “Akka I D-Us (Look there)” is a beautiful, lightly funky song emphasizing the fast 12/8 rhythm common in much traditional Berber music. The notes (in French and English) and artwork are good. In the tradition of Matoub Lounes, Akli D. focuses poignantly on the plight of his people struggling for rights and recognition in Algeria.

As far as pop music goes, the great find in putting together the Berber Rising program has to be Morocco’s Houssaine Kili, now based in Germany. He sings mostly in Arabic, and mixes Berber roots with everything from rock and funk to sub-saharan African gnawa, but his sound is powerful and original. His release Mountain to Mohamed is one of the great Afropop Worldwide finds of the past year. For more, see his biography under Artists in the Explore section of

A Conversation with Moh Alileche

Moh Alileche

Moh Alileche is a talented singer, composer and player of the mondol, a relatively modern Berber lute, not unlike the oud. He now lives in San Francisco, and has released an album of his songs called Tragedy: A Tribute to Matoub Lounes. The album uses an intriguing collection of string instruments and percussion and creates its own entrancing world of melodies and rhythms. Very much in the tradition of his hero, Lounes, Alileche creates hypnotic moods and textures and sings soulfully about the plight of the Amazigh in Kabylia.

What follows is an account of my conversation with Alileche in preparation for writing the Berber Rising program.

Moh Alileche was born in 1959, in a village of 3000 people in Kabylia. Kabylia is a large state consisting of some 2-3000 villages, each with between 200 and 8,000 people. The capital of the state is Tizi Ouzou. Alileche’s father was executed during Algeria’s independence war, and he went on to be educated in Arabic and French. Still, from a young age, he wrote songs in his own language, Tamazight. At the age of 9, he built his own one-stringed instrument to accompany himself. Later, he moved on to Spanish guitar, a gift from his cousin in 1971, and ultimately, in 1975, the mondol. Alileche’s instrument has five pairs of strings, all made from wound silk. Like many Kabyle musicians, he added two quarter tones to the instrument to allow him to play traditional tonalities.

Berber students protests, 2002.

Alileche was playing weddings in Kabylia and Algiers when he came to national attention in 1980 during an interview on Algiers radio. Soon after that, he went to France and tried to make a recording, but lacking the funds to record the way he wanted to, he did not succeed. He did record a few songs in 1985, but dissatisfied with the results, he did not release them. During this time, he continued to play summer weddings in Algeria with much success. Still, sensing that political turmoil lay ahead for Algeria, he began to consider options abroad. I asked him why.

“The main reason is that I knew something is going to happen in Algeria,” he said, “with the political situation. The government had decided to create political parties. Until 1989, there was just one party, the FLN. In 1988, there were political uprisings all over Algeria. Once parties started to form, I just knew something bad was going to happen.” He was right. This period led to the elections of 1991 when, fearing that a fundamentalist Islamic party might win, the government annulled the election and introduced authoritarian rule with disastrous and violent consequences.

Alileche moved to San Diego in 1990, on the advice of an American friend he had met in France. He first went to San Francisco in 1993 when Matoub Lounes gave a concert at Berklee. They had known each other for 20 years, since before Matoub began recording in 1978, so this event was both a joyful reunion, and a chance for Alileche to discover the cultural milieu of San Francisco, where he now lives.

I asked Aliliche to tell the story of Matoub Lounes.

Matoub Lounes

“Matoub dedicated himself to Amazigh,” he said, “especially in Kabylia. He sang about the language. He told the truth, like who killed certain great people. Little by little, his reputation grew. In 1980 when we had the very first big uprising in Kabylia, April 20, 1980, he was in France and he came back and he wrote a song telling what happened in April, which we call the Berber Spring. That song took him even higher. And after that, every time he recorded, he gave information, he educated people in each and every song.”

The Berber Spring uprising began when students in two Kabyle towns occupied university buildings. The military arrived at 4:00 in the morning on April 20 and ejected the students, triggering a much larger public action. Ever since that time, the date April 20 has been celebrated by Algerian Berbers as an anniversary of this seminal event in the struggle for Amazigh rights.

Matoub Lounes became a highly visible figure in this struggle. In many ways, his music continued the work of an Amazigh poet and musician ten years his senior, Aït Menguellet, who is still alive and very successful. But as Ailiche points out, there was a big difference between the two. “Aït Menguellet,” he told me, “if you listen to his lyrics, they are more indirect. For example, he can criticize the government, but if you tell him, ‘you are criticizing the government.’ He will say, ‘no I am singing a love song.’ People who listen to him, older people, understand him. But still it’s hard for younger people to understand what Aït Menguellet is saying. But Matoub Lounes it’s the opposite. He went straight. He criticized a president. He mentioned the president of Algeria right in the beginning of his career. He goes black and white. He was very, very clear in his songs, and he is the only singer–not only Algeria, but in all of North Africa–who criticized the government and criticized clearly. He would never get afraid.”

In October, 1988, Matoub was ambushed and shot 5 times by gendarmes, the government. His life was saved after he was transferred to Paris. Then in September 1994, he was kidnapped for 15 days by the GIA, an Islamist terrorist group in Algeria. Alileche says, “The whole Kabylia region demonstrated. More than 250,000 people marched in Tizi Ouzou, demanding his release. So he was released in 1994, and four years later, June 25th 1998, after he finished his last album in France, he went back home. Two weeks later, he was ambushed on the way to his home. Actually, we live in the same region, so I know exactly the road up in the mountains, and they got him.”

Nobody knows for certain who killed Matoub Lounes, but Alileche went back to Kabylia in 2000, and he says that virtually everyone there believes that the government did it. He says, “Nobody believes it was the Islamic extremists. He criticized both the Algerian government and the Islamists. That’s for sure. But still, to carry out such a killing, in the mountains–I’m not talking about getting someone in the city. This is during the day at 1:00 PM and in Kabyilia, and up in the mountains. It’s very hard to do such a thing.”

In April 2002, a year after another bloody wave of uprisings in Kabylia, the Algerian Parliament approved a constitutional amendment to make Tamazight, the language of the Berber minority, a national language. I asked Alileche whether this was a significant victory. “No,” he said, “it’s not at all significant. It’s close to zero actually. Tamazight as a national language. It has been a national language since the beginning of the language. We were expecting him [President Boutelfika] to say ‘official language,’ but he did not use that word. They would have to give the same significance for Arabic and the Berber language. For example, if they want to teach Tamazight in schools, they will have to provide professors, school, budget and all that. But what they say now, ‘you want to teach the Tamazight, go teach.’ But they don’t provide professors, or schools or money. So they are just playing with words and bluffing, and it’s next to nothing.”

“The Algerian government is doing everything to make this culture disappear from Algeria. For example, they say that the Kabylia was at one time 100% Berber speaking people, and then since Tizi Ouzou, the capital city of Kabylia, is becoming a big city and then buildings, businesses, firms, all kinds of things, they start building houses, apartments, and selling land so you can buy it and build a house or business. So people who live in Kabylia are asking to get a part of that. They don’t get it. Or they get a little bit. 10 or 15%, and then they are giving the rest to other people from other regions of Algeria, who speak no Berber. So they are bringing those people to Kabylia, and their plan is within the next century, 50 years or 80 years or maybe less, the whole region will be Arabized.”

Musician in Ait Bou Guemmez, Morocco

I asked Alileche why he thinks the Algerian government is pursuing this policy. He said, “This is my opinion. I think the reason is that the Algerian government is getting pressure from other Arab nations, such as Egypt, Tunesia, Libya, and Morocco, and maybe other nations in the Middle East–I don’t know. Why? Because they know if the Berber language is recognized officially in Algeria, the next thing is Morocco, where more than 65% of the people are Berbers. They will jump to ask for the same thing. And probably the same thing in Tunisia and Libya. Libya, there are Berbers there, but they can’t even say a word of Tamazight because of the dictatorship of Khadafi.

“You really believe that they want to destroy Amazigh culture?” I asked him.

He replied, “I will always believe that.”

For more on the Amazigh view of this struggle, visit the website of the World Amazigh Action Coalition:

The Rai King and the Berber

Khaled, 2002. (c) B. Eyre

Finally, a word on rai music and the Berber story in Algeria. As Khaled, the preeminent Algerian rai singer, told Afropop Worldwide in the Berber Rising program, his early hit “El Harba Wine” was an adaptation of a song by the Berber pop singer Idir. There’s no doubt that Idir was an important catalyst in Algerian pop music, and the fact that Arabic-speaking singers like Khaled and Cheb Mami have achieved worldwide success, while he and others singing in Tamazight have not, is understandably troubling to many. It has often been said that Khaled fails to point this out, but in our interview, he did so clearly and readily. In fact, it was not even in response to a question about Berber music. We simply asked, “What are the most important songs in your career?” and he began with this answer:

“Look, for example, at ‘Harba Wine,’ done in the 80s when things were starting to get hot in Algeria. We were starting to have problems. The first release coincided with the civil unrest of October 1988. I had recorded it in 1987. When the song was released, I was in France, and I heard that young people were singing it outside in the street. So I was afraid to go back. I told myself, ‘It’s over. If I go back, they’ll throw me in prison.’ Because the young really found themselves in that song ‘Harba Wine.’ It’s a song that was created by Idir, a Berber singer, singing in the Amazigh language. The words meant something like, ‘Let’s move, let’s boogie.’ The words were about dancing. Now me, I’m an Arabaphone. So I made words in Arabic. ‘You want to leave your country? Where do you want to go?’ Because this had become a mode in Algeria. All the young people wanted to leave. So why did they want to emigrate? Because life had become so bad. The song says that. And all the youth were singing it.”

Later in this interview, when we did ask directly about the status of Amazigh in today’s Algeria, Khaled offered a view somewhat different from that of Moh Alileche. “There are many Berbers among us,” he said, “Imazighen in Algeria who are super great, very nice. This is true. But the problem with us is that the Amazigh among us have been deprived; they have been forbidden to use their language, Tamazight. I can’t tell you why, because this has been true for a long time, since independence. In Morocco, there is Berber television. There is everything. They call that ‘chleuh.’ In Tunisia, no problem. They are in Mauritania, everywhere in Africa. They are travelers. They were the first inhabitants of North Africa. We are Arabophone. We have Berberophones, and Arabophones. The problem is this: when you crush someone, they say whatever they like. They become fanatics.”

“I sing Berber songs. I was the first to do that. I was the first to be loved by them. I don’t sing in Berber. I sing Berber music. I have Berber friends. I sing Berber songs, Idir, for example. Mami also, he also sings Berber. But the problem is we’ve been divided in Algeria… Now we have a very good president. We have a lot of problems of fanaticism in Algeria. We have to fix the problems of youth, the problems of crime. We have lots of big problems to fix. We have to fix the problem of the Amazigh. It’s all mixed together. It takes time… I am very happy to say that our president in Algeria, after one month, or two months, he freed the language. This is finished. It is not forbidden.”

Tuareg country, Mali

We told Khaled that we understood there were restrictions on the Tamazight language in Algeria.

“No, this is not true,” he replied. “They have recently cleared this, with the new president. All of our presidents were Berber. They were the ones who prevented it. I don’t know why. The current president is from my area, from the West. He is half Moroccan. He’s a real intellectual guy. So it’s the guy who comes from the West to liberate the Berbers. It’s fabulous. The Berber were the ones who forbid their own language. In France, the number one killer, the number one integriste who gives the orders to kill, is a Berber. Yes. This is the tactic, like Hitler’s. When a country has a problem of exclusion, so that children and youth are trapped in the forest and put in prison, then they are filled with hate. So the fanatics recruit youths like that for their cause.”


Contributed by: Banning Eyre