[media-credit name=”Photo by Jakie King ” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]
Safinez Bousbia’s visit to a cluttered antique shop led to a two-year quest.
BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK  |  When Safinez Bousbia wandered into Mohamed Ferkioui’s cluttered antique shop in the Casbah of Algiers (the capital of Algeria) in 2003, to inquire about a mirror, little did she suspect that she would find herself embarking on a two-year quest which would unite old friends and change many lives.

Craftsman and musician Ferkioui, 83, regaled the Algerian-born filmmaker (who lives abroad) with tales of chaabi music. He showed her precious memorabilia — including photographs of a music class from the 1940s where Muslim and Jewish musicians played together, before the Algerian revolution against the French (1954-1962) tore them apart and destroyed their beloved music.

Her interest piqued, Bousbia began searching for the surviving members, who are now in their 70s to late 90s and living in Paris, Marseilles and across Algeria. The Jews fled their homeland during and after the bloody war. “It was the suitcase or the coffin,” one displaced musician recalled. Then Muslims from the Casbah were relocated, their neighborhood left to crumble and disintegrate.

Chaabi (pronounced sha-bee) has been described as a rhythmic cocktail of European and Arabic traditions — classical Andalusian music carried to North Africa from the Jewish/Arab expulsion from Spain in 1492, plus Berber melodies and religious chants. It is sweet, mournful, nostalgic, deeply emotional. The lyrics (translated in the subtitles) are surprisingly conservative, but also feisty and provocative. They sing of injustice, betrayal, spiritual, moral and political corruption, exile, loss, God’s and man’s retribution, freedom, independence — and, of course, love and lots of drinking. It is a sublime blending of traditional percussion and stringed instruments and flute (plus piano for concerts), and that ethereal, guttural North African voice. No electric instruments (unlike hip, urban rai) are permitted.

Chaabi, which means “people” or “folk” in Algerian, originated in the poor and working class Casbah (old part of the city), where Muslims and Jews lived, worked and played side by side. (Christians and Europeans lived elsewhere in the city.) Concerts took place in concert halls and theaters, at festivals and weddings, as well as in barbershops, cafes, brothels and cannabis dens, giving it its populist roots.

In addition to the nostalgic interviews and wonderful music, cinematographer Nuria Roldos uses her exquisite camera skills to explore all the nooks and crannies of the narrow, winding Casbah streets, as if we were walking besides the old-timers, stopping from time to time to remember and reminisce.

Comparisons to “Buena Vista Social Club” are inevitable. Old guys, a long forgotten musical form rediscovered by independent filmmaker, accolades, recording contract, tours, CDs. It has that going for it (including the tours and CD), but it is so much more. It a heart-warming and heart-wrenching 50-year history of a country, of two peoples, old friends, shattered lives of suffering and sacrifice.

El Gusto means pleasure or passion — and the name given to the revitalized 42-member orchestra, featuring the original musicians with younger talents. And as one thrilled veteran commented, “On the El Gusto ship, you’ll always be content.” If the movie doesn’t make you tear up, you have no gusto.

Feature Documentary
Written & Directed by Safinez Bousbia
In French and Arabic with English subtitles
Runtime: 88 Minutes
Mon. 4/23, 8:30pm at AMC Loews Village. Tues. 4/24, 6:45pm & Sat. 4/28, 3pm at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea.