A new documentary from the Arab world focuses on Muslim and Jewish musicians who reunite thanks to their common passion, after being torn apart by war 50 years ago.
The film "El Gusto," showcases the group performing together in concert after the half-century of separation.
The men play Chaabi, a traditional Algerian music they learned as young students at the Music Conservatory of Algiers in the 1940s.
Side by side
For decades, the Muslim and Jewish friends played music together and lived side by side in the hilly neighborhoods of the Casbah.
“Whether you were Jewish, Christian or Muslim, it didn’t matter,” says filmmaker Safinez Bousbia. “These men that used to hang around in all these underground bars and drinking and jamming all night, with Africans, with Western Africans, with Corsican people, with Maltese. It was just a boiling point of meeting all sorts of people.”
Bousbia, who was born in Algiers but grew up in Europe, hadn't heard much about the music which originated in the land of her ancestors. But she's learned quite a bit about it over the past decade.
Chaabi music comes from the word "Chaab", meaning "people," according to Bousbia.
“Chaabi music is a bit like jazz,” she says. “It actually originates from different influences where there’s Andalusian, there is Flamenco, Spanish, there is a lot of African beat and there is Oriental tunes and melodies. It’s mixing all these styles together with a lot of improvisation.”
Separated by war
In the mid-1950s, three decades before Bousbia was born, the Algerian War of Independence forced the group of Chaabi musicians to disperse.
The Jewish members fled to France, while the others scattered throughout Algeria. The men didn’t see each other again for more than 50 years.
In 2003, during a trip to Algiers, Bousbia met one of the group's original members in his mirror shop. Along with his old photographs, Mohamed Ferkioui shared his story about the fellow musicians he'd become separated from.
“I just was so touched by this man’s passion and story,” she says, “that I wanted to help him find his friends.”
It took her more than two years to find his long-lost friends, mainly by searching through the conservatory's registration records. Soon after, she started organizing a reunion concert for the group, now called El Gusto, in Marseilles, France.
Going through the ardous and emotional process of reuniting the men gave her the idea for a documentary.
El Gusto - the film
Since she had no experience as a filmmaker, the young architect sold her home and jewelry to finance the project. The entire adventure, from start to finish, took nine years.
Bousbia says it was all worthwhile.
“For me, it was the attachment of the men. I was fascinated by these men that were just full of passion,” she says, especially given their age. “The youngest was 72, the oldest was 96 or 97."
Despite the challenges of age and distance, the musicians travelled from Algeria and all parts of France to reconnect with their old friends in celebration of their shared passion.
Life was very difficult for these men, says the filmmaker, “and that’s why it was important for me to show it through the film, and for people to understand what these people went through.”
“What was fascinating about these men,” she adds, “is no matter what ordeal they went through, they weren’t bitter about it. It was a page of history they didn’t choose.”
Labor of love
While El Gusto might have started as their dream, she says, at some point, it became hers as well.
“I saw these men change and open up and for me it was important to understand.”
"El Gusto," the documentary, was recently presented at the Arabian Sights Film festival in Washington DC. The sold-out crowd gave Bousbia a standing ovation.
“Chaabi is something really unique to the city of Algiers, to the Casbah,” said Abdallah Baali, Algeria's ambassador to the U.S., who attended the film’s opening. “And this music, which is intended to really please a category of Algerians in Algiers, has become the music of everybody.”
As for the El Gusto orchestra, the men are currently on a sold-out European tour and recently produced their third album. A U.S. concert is planned for the near future.
Bousbia says she hopes El Gusto will remain as a Chaabi orchestra and that her film, and the music of these passionate men, will inspire future generations to continue the Chaabi tradition.
Extended Interview with 'El Gusto' Filmmaker Safinez Bousbia by VOA's Carol Castiel