Ali El Khencheli

©Alain Weber

Ali El Khencheli, whose real name is Mahmoud Djellal, is the best living example of a generation of “ vocalists ”. He was born in Khenchela in 1914 in a family of peasants originating from Chreaa (Tebessa). His father fought the war of 1914-1918 and Ali still remembers the profound entrenchment of colonialism and the local citizenship status to which he was subjected. But this has not handicapped him because, aside from his knowledge of the Koran and Arabic grammar, he speaks fluent French.

Ali El Khencheli started his long career of singer-composer in 1935. He still remembers three great shioukh  (plural of sheik :  master) from those times : Si Abdellah, Roumadnia and the famous Aïssa El Jarmouni whose reputation across the Chaouïa country is legendary. The latter had such a powerful voice, limpid tone and moving style of performance that Ali El Khencheli still remembers him after such a long career. El Jarmouni was born in Arris but, culturally and aesthetically speaking, the music lovers link his singing style to the H’raktas of Aïn El Beïda. He recorded his first records of popular Algerian music in Paris in 1928 and then in 1934, with Bachir Reçalçi, the representative of  Baïdaphone in Tunisia. El Jarmouni and El Khencheli worked together from 1938 to 1945 and the latter considers this the most beautiful period of his artistic life.

Accompanied by the great gassab (flute player) Bendebache, Ali El Khencheli recorded his first record in 1949 with Fista, an Algiers based production company. He has composed more than fifty songs, including the four on this disc, Kharjat Men l’Hammam (She has stepped out of the bath), Hezzi ‘Ayounek (Raise your eyes), Ma Lebestek Men Lahrir (How I covered You with silk) and Ajbouni Ramgat Ghzali (My gazelle’s eyes have seduced me). However, the titles sung in the Berber language are anonymous. In all these songs, Sheik Ali is accompanied by Sahraoui and Slimane, two of the greatest Chaouïa gassabs (flutists). Their talent is demonstrated in the number called Maaraka , where they indulge themselves in an exercise of absolute virtuosity.

Today, Ali El Khencheli is considered the greatest Chaouïa ghannaï (singer), mou’allif (composer) and abendaïri (percussionist). There are many music lovers in his circle and he is still very much in demand for performing at private parties. He is the last keeper of a style of singing which no longer exists. Just by listening to his singing of Ma Lebestek Men Lahrir, takes you across two thousand years of history in a few minutes. Almost as if recited, just obeying the natural inflexion of words, the few verses of this song express the harsh climate and austere life of the Aures. Even when the songs are about love, the charm of this music lies in its restraint. According to Sheik Ali, no “ luxuriance ” of performance should come to weaken of the affirmed metrics, the defined vocal tessitura and the short and regular diction of the verses.

The falsetto voice he uses is the translation of the Chaouïa sentiments of power and limits. Vocal power is sought for the dynamic equilibrium of the sounds produced by the gasbat (flutes) and abendair (framed drum). The falsetto voice, on the other hand, imposes an absence of fioritura in the melody and a limit to the register of high pitches. This voice which sometimes comes within a hair’s breadth of pain, forbids, according to the Chaouïas, the extravaganzas and effeminateness of urban music.

In Berber-Chaouïa music, the quest for vocal travesty (male singer/falsetto voice) gives a large advantage to male singers. The women, except presently for Beggar Hada and El Baïdia, have mostly been engaged in dancing.

Taoufik Bestandji

Translated by Mona Khazindar

Available album : Songs from the Aures