El Achab is one of those figures who have risen to real success in the heady field of chaabi. Thanks to his diligent and impassioned work, he has managed to plant his stake and impose his name on a whole genre. One has only to mention his first name to someone who likes the style and he’ll immediately start humming one of his tunes. With his warmly generous voice and his masterly instrumental skills (the mandola in his case, the instrument par excellence for the genre) El Achab has left a particular mark on this art – indeed, he has devoted the major part of his life to it, and still does so today.
El Achab began by learning the darbuka, exactly as his master El Anka had done before him, for this instrument is totally obligatory in any chaabi group; it helps in the apprenticeship of rhythm and cadence (mazan). Lessons were held in the converted cellar of some dingy old buildings known as the Old Algiers Conservatory. Financial aid was meagre or non-existent, so El Achab had only his passion as guide – but with this he was a quick learner and at the age of 14 he was already playing the mandola like a virtuoso. He was born in 1932 of poor parents who lived in the casbah of Algiers; his first experiences as a percussion player were made in a group led by Sheikh Moulud El Bahri and Moh Kanun, two major figures of their kind, whose presence at all marriage or circumcision ceremonies was constantly sought by the important families of the area around Algiers. After this fruitful experience (which was quite literally nourishing too, for this was when he received his first pay) El Achab founded his own group. He quickly attracted the attention of all real chaabi lovers – mostly dockers, shopkeepers and hairdressers, all regular concert-goers who frequented the local cafés. In 1953 the singer was signed up by the prestigious Dounia company, whose director was no less than El Kahlaoui Tounsi, one of the symbolic figureheads of Judeo-Arabic singing.
El Achab’s first recording was one of his own compositions “Bellah ana berkani” (God, I’ve had enough), with lyrics written by himself too. The record was an immediate success, but three more years were to go by before he finally reached the real heights of glory with his “Ya Bellaredj” (The little stork). This song, taken up again by Fadéla Dziria, René Perez and Enrico Macias, has been the subject of much discussion on account of its erotic undertones:
“Stork of great size
Living on the second floor,
Don’t go browsing in the garden
Of the beautiful woman with the heavy necklaces”.
Other popular tunes such as Ya l’Goumri, Mal H’bibi, El Adra and Ya El Bahdja written by Amar or by the talented Mustapha Toumi and Mahboub Bati have aroused the same enthusiastic reactions from the public, although officialdom has not lent them quite such an indulgent ear… Arabo-Andalusian or Oriental music is inevitably chosen in preference to the chaabi, for broadcasting on radio or television; the chaabi is rarely heard. El Achab was so disappointed by this disdain that he left Algeria in 1976 to settle in Paris, where he has continued to perform at parties and festivals of the Algerian community, without ever stopping his recording activity. He now has about fifty recordings to his name, on either the EP format or on cassette. This record, his first on compact disc, offers the pick of his own compositions recorded live during two concerts given in the Auditorium of the Institut du Monde Arabe.
Amar El Achab goes back to his homeland every summer to play and sing at the many weddings held during that period. He cannot resist the call of his native land, his nostalgia remains undiminished, as strong as ever.
Djamel Lounis and Rabah Mezouane
Translated by Delia Morris
Available album: The chaabi of the great masters