Songs from the Aures

Ali El Khencheli

Considered as one of the greatest singers in the Aures, Eli El Khencheli, although he is now very old (he was born in 1914), stands out with his incredible vical power. Accompanied by two reed flutes and percussion, El Khencheli perpetuates a Chaouia Berber tradition which tolerate no “luxuriance” of the interpretation likely to weaken the ratified rhythm an thus imposes on the artist a total absence of melodic embellishments. The charm of these songs about social like or being in love resides in their restraint. They are carried by the voice of Ali, in turn cajoling and melancolic, almost reaching pain.


1Lali abar wa yessir/The passer-by – 5’42
2Kijina men Aïn Mlila/When we arrived from Aïn Mlila Mlila – 5’45
3Ayache a memmi/Ayache, Oh my son – 6’03
4El h’wa wwa dhrar/The wind from the mountains – 4’43
5El bahri jebba/The north wind blows – 7’39
6 – Flute solo (gasba) – 3’21
7Assalah ou ‘ami/Salah, my cousin – 7’53
8Kharjat men l’hammam/She has stepped out of the bath – 8’07
9Hezzi ‘ayounek/Raise your eyes – 5’47
10‘Ajbouni ramgat ghzali/My gazelle’s eyes have seduced me – 5’50
11Maaraka /Battle – 5’21
12Ma lebestek men lahrir/ How I have dressed you in silk – 7’18

Interprètes et instruments

Ali El Khencheli (singing, bendir)
Sahraoui and Slimane (gasba)


Kaïs, the urbanized village where Sheik Ali El Khencheli lives today, is about fifty kilometers from Khencheli, right in the middle of Chaouïa  Berber country. In the old days, the village was joined to the Khencheli district and resembled, in morphology and social structure, the other villages of the Aures.

According to the configuration attested to by Leon the African, the Aures extends well beyond its present linguistic geography. The Batna-Khenchela-Biskra-Khangat Sidi Nadji quadrilateral demarcates a territory inhabited by populations coming from extremely different tribes. The people of Chaoui origin are no longer in majority. In Oued Abdi, which remains the most Berberized region of the Aures, you will find many Berberized Arab tribes, such as the Bni Bou Slimane.

In Arabic, the term “ Chaouïa ”, which appeared around the 14th century, means “ shepherd ”. Although the Chaouïas are sheep breeders, their life style remains quite sedentary. The thaquelathin (villages) of the Aures are situated on peaks, just like the ones in Kabylia. The legal and social organization is under the authority of the Jama‘a, comprised of imokranen  (assemblies of elders possessing noble morals and ascendancy), elected or designated by the whole tribe.

The Aures Berber dialect, the second in Algeria in demographic importance, is beginning to fade away and is no longer used by the younger generations. There still remain four great zones of linguistic influence : about thirty kilometers from Constantine, the zone stretching from Aïn M’lila and the Khroub to Oum El Bouaghi and Aïn El Beida, is considered as Herakta territory. The Nemenchas and part of the Hanenchas living south of Khenchela and Tebessa make up the second zone. The third zone is comprised of the Aures of Ouled Abdi, the people of Nara and Menaa and, in the old days, the Touabas and the Aoudças, the Daouaoudas and the Oudjanas in Chelea. The fourth and least Berberized zone is located west of Batna on the way to Setif.

Chaouïa dialects are quite similar to those of the rest of Algeria. Chaouïa phonetism presents the same general characteristics of Berber dialects in North Africa, i.e., a compound vocal system (a, i, u) without contrast of duration, together with a non phonological neutral central vowel and consonantal system whose occlusives’ generalized spirantation is marked in a certain number of morphemes by a simple laryngeal breath (h).

In the Chaouïa Berber songs of this recording, the mingling of Arabic and Berber languages becomes more and more frequent and the syntactic forms do not correspond to the rules of the Chaouïa dialect. On this point, Sheik Ali El Khencheli reminds us of the fact that the spontaneity of the Chouaras  (poet composers), including himself imposes a mixing between Arabic and Berber languages which, although deforming these rules, results in an evident power of diction and poetry.

The music group and the song

In the Aures, the traditional music group hardly exceeds four members : two gassabs  and two percussionists, one of whom is also the singer.

The gasba  is a slanted reed flute comprising seven frontal holes and, in rare cases, one rear hole. The latter is only used in performing qsentini (Constantine) tunes. Thanks to a system which uses wax to block and unblock the holes, the gasba is one of the rare “ tunable ” wind instruments. This system allows access to tonalities which best correspond to the vocal tessitura of the singer and intervals that facilitate the precision of the scales of the different hwawat (tunes/modes). The technique which uses circular breaths is almost generally used in all the different regions. This allows to economize the breath, while obtaining a continuous sound as well as the specific drone of certain tunes.

Chaouïa singers recognize three major “ schools ” : the “ school ” of Aïn El Beïda, represented before by Aïssa El Jarmouni which is known for the khrouef, amari, harkati etc. hwa (modes), the one of Batna and Arris dominated by the soltani, belbekey and fatni modes and the Khenchela school which uses almost all the tunes. There are more than twenty ayta  (exercises in vocalization), including the rakrouki (free, non measured style) and the merouani of the Tebessa and Souk-Ahras region, the mejani and sraoui of Setif, the qsentini of the north, dominated by the great singer Brahim Echouaï, the abdaoui, a purely Chaouïa style, the barbai (musical genre used for the dance) of Chichar Taberdgua, close to Khenchela.

In general the modal tunes are determined by the songs. Each song is preceded by a tesriha (semi-improvised melody), which confirms the tune and permits the singer to perform the syahs (provoking songs creating rivalry between the guests of the different tribes in order to gain rechq, a sum of money).

Dances and Songs of the Aures and Khenchela

There are several genres of dances which accompany the Chaouïa song. Particularly performed in the family circle, the terhab is a collective dance combining a group of men and a group of women. Face to face, they take turns in singing a song. Between professionals, it is the Azrya  dancer of the Ouled Abdi who is the most sought after due to her beauty and status of a liberated woman. Her extremely beautiful dance is performed in solo.

In Khenchela, a local dance called the trig-esaf (alignment), assembles twelve women doing the same steps as the abdaoui of the azryats. Another dance called babari, is performed with the participation of musicians. Before coming on stage, each dancer, coupled with one of the three musicians, awaits the richa or noqta (timbre, modulation) that stimulates her the most. At that moment the flutist plays a slow rhythm (yethaquel) and allows the dancer to go on stage (yektaa). On his signal, the dancer must go back beside her musician. The two other couples must rivalize to reach at the end, a collective dance and music. The dance music is quite varied and is essentially made up of two parts : a long pause (tesriha kbira) and a short pause (the tesriha sghira), each determining different modes and rhythms.

Taoufik Bestandji
Translated by Mona Khazindar

The recordings

1Lali abar wa yessir  (The passer-by), Chaouïa song

2Kijina men Aïn Mlila  (When we arrived from Aïn Mlila), anonymous patriotic song of the Aures. The author praises the courage of the young resistants during the Algerian war.

Kijina men Aïn Mlila seb’ïam ‘ala rejlina
El batogase kataa rejlina wa w’çalna l’aourès s’ken bîna
Zouj dhrari chagou lejbel hezou lebiassa wa zedou errafal
Awwal dharba gassou lichar et’khali ya hamouda nejma wa h’lal

When we arrived from Aïn Mlila
After seven days of walking
The shoes tore our feet to pieces
And we came back to the Aures that has protected us
Two boys have joined the resistance
They took up a piece of artillery and shot a hail of bullets
On first shot, they hit the tank
Your martyrdom, Oh Hamouda, will serve the star and the crescent (the flag).

3 Ayache a memmi  (Ayache, Oh my son)

This song in Berber language talks about a boy named Ayache who has left his mother to join the resistance. His mother, having visited a votive stele in Tbikaouin, implores the spirits to protect her son. The rest of the song portrays a sentimental deception.

A’Ayache ammemi enzourat Tbikaouine
Magrounet el hwajeb aberkane Etitaouine
Magrounet el hwajeb wa kahl el ayoune
Ache wrak enchaabouth amezianet ellegmoume…
Oh Ayache my son, I will go to Tbikaouine
Her eyebrows are arched and her eyes, black
Her eyebrows are arched and her eyes, black
What awaits you, oh girl with the pretty neck.

4El  h’wa wwa dhrar  (The wind from the mountains), Chaouïa song

5 El bahri jebba  (The north wind blows), Chaouïa song

6 – Gasba  (flute) solo

7Assalah ou ‘ami (Salah, my cousin), Chaouïa song

8 Kharjat’ men l’hammam  (She has stepped out of the bath), Arabic song

Satirical song composed by Ali El Khencheli in 1949. The producer of these recordings, well aware of the sense of the political satire, called on the intelligence services who, after many negotiations, allowed the author to record.

Kharjat men l’hammam t’ souje
El khalkhal iyguerbaa fi rejlihaa
Et’ kahal wa t’souak wa t’hammar
Wa khat essouak ‘ala sennihâ
Barkey men t’khalkhil el h’zam
Rahi Dzaïr adhabtiha

She has stepped out of the bath, strutting about
The anklets tinkle at her feet
She colors her eyes and mouth
And a trace of s’wak  shows on her teeth
Stop gyrating your stomach
You have tortured all Algeria

9 – Hezzi ‘ayounek  (Raise your eyes), Arabic song

10 ‘Ajbouni ramgat’ghzali  (My gazelle’s eyes have seduced me), Arabic song

11Maaraka (Battle) instrumental piece with two gasbat  (flutes)

The battle is a metaphor used by Chaoui flutists in order to express an alternating performance whereby each one shows his capacities. Both must then play together, on the same mode, the finale which is thus regarded as a reconciliation.

12 – Ma lebestek men lahrir  (How I have dressed you in silk), Arabic song

  • Reference : 321.024
  • Ean : 794 881 472 222
  • Main artist : Ali El Khencheli
  • Year of recording : 1999
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music Style: Chanson bernère
  • Country: Algérie
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Chaouïa
  • Composers : Ali El Khencheli ; Sahraoui et Slimane ; Traditional
  • Lyricists : Ali El Khencheli ; Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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