The decisive date for Algerian singer/songwriter Souad Massi's career was by all accounts not her joining the flamenco band Les Trianas d'Alger at age 17 but January 10, 1999, her debut performance at the Parisian Cabaret Sauvage where a captive audience swooned and highly complimentary press reactions and thunderous applause soon led to her year 2000 debut, Raoui | The Storyteller. Now making Paris her home, Souad's African home country is not yet liberated where the status of women in society is concerned. Being naturally defiant and stubborn, Massi's breakout from cultural oppression makes her a natural champion for women's rights and sensitive to the existence of those still enslaved by ancient traditions.
On her first album, the listener is struck by a mixture of vulnerable honesty of early Tracy Chapman-style, clever tunesmithing reminiscent of landsman Kadda Cherif Hadria and the modernized AfroPop elements of Paul Simon. From sparse numbers self-accompanied on guitar to more densely woven cuts adding Hamid Djouri's oud, various traditional and modern percussion, basses, background vocals and Moktari's modal violin, center stage always belongs to Souad's elastic vocals.
What must have surprised those crowds at the French coming-out venue remains fully evident on this record - a fully-fledged mature artist who is still raw with the powerful emotional need for self-expression. There's nothing glib, slick or overproduced yet as so often happens eventually when commercial success dilutes the original motivation. More exotic for American audiences than French listeners who are fully acclimated to their African/Arabian immigrant segments with the concomitant visibility and acceptance of their music -- just think Fifth Element and the soundtrack during the original air taxi escape into the city's sewers -- Storyteller is nevertheless so modern in concept and execution that the appearance of non-Western instruments like the Arabian oud and violin is more novel flavor than alien confusion.
In the end, that's what sets this disc apart, too: A thoroughly contemporary take on the WorldBeat phenomenon from a griot-meets-Joan Baez songwriter's perspective. French speakers will additionally chew on lyrics like "we are all hostages only the kidnappers change, we are all kidnappers, only the hostages change". Calling Souad Massi a female Bob Dylan from Algeria wouldn't be too far off and should prepare prospective listeners what to expect. And her European tour through Spain, Italy and Germany commenced this month - check out her website above for details. I would if I still lived in Europe...