Vocalist Samira Brahmia Bridges France and Algeria with Love

19 September, 2022
A visu­al from Sami­ra Brah­mi­a’s “Awa” album, 2022 (cour­tesy Sami­ra Brah­mia).

 

Back with her sec­ond album, “Awa,” the French-born Alger­ian singer and gui­tarist recounts her jour­ney from the Bar­bès Café in Paris to her com­ing tour, includ­ing dates in Lon­don, Gene­va, Paris and Tunis, Tunisia.

 

Melissa Chemam

 

Samia Brah­mia’s first album “Naïliya” came out in 2006. But the artist’s musi­cal jour­ney began more than a decade ear­li­er. Born in the ear­ly ‘80s in Ollainville, near Paris, when her Alger­ian father was study­ing med­i­cine, Sami­ra went back to Alge­ria with her fam­i­ly as a child. There, she devel­oped a pas­sion for African Amer­i­can icon Ella Fitzger­ald, the Alger­ian diva Cheikha Rim­it­ti, French leg­end Edith Piaf, and the Cape Verdean voice of Cesaria Evo­ra, while also lis­ten­ing to many African and North African musi­cians. Even as she embraces west­ern pop-rock (she began her career in the choir of the Alger­ian rock group Index), Brah­mia inte­grates the diverse com­po­nents of Alger­ian iden­ti­ty: Amazigh, Arab, Mediter­ranean and African, but above all, woman.

“My edi­to­r­i­al pol­i­cy is the women, life and the sto­ry of life, told by a woman,” she tells me, the day before the show­case to launch her new album at the Insti­tute of the Arab World (IMA), in Paris, while still rehearsing.

In the 1990s in Alge­ria, while the coun­try went through a ter­ri­ble civ­il war, she felt the need to broad­en her hori­zons, as she dreamt of becom­ing a more pro­fes­sion­al singer, com­pos­er and lyri­cist, and of express­ing love and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, not anger.

“I real­ized that my oppor­tu­ni­ties in music were lim­it­ed in Alge­ria, because it’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent sys­tem than in the west­ern world. Singers have to play at wed­dings, they can’t pro­duce their own records or per­form live. So, I decid­ed to take a chance and go to France. As I was born here, I nev­er had issues with work per­mits or res­i­den­cy sta­tus, that was my luck. I’m not orig­i­nal­ly French, though, so I had to do some work around my cit­i­zen­ship and my iden­ti­ty. It was always hard in the back of my mind to admit that I was in France despite the painful his­to­ry between our two coun­tries. But I came for a first con­cert and then I start­ed singing reg­u­lar­ly with the events under the aegis of the Bar­bès Café.”

These were con­certs orga­nized by French and North African artists to cel­e­brate the diver­si­ty of the Paris music scene and the lega­cy left by Alger­ian musi­cians who had come to record in the French cap­i­tal since the 1960s. This is how Sami­ra left Alge­ria in 2003, though reg­u­lar­ly going back. At the time, she could live from her work in music, com­mer­cials and films. Her first album “Naïliya” came out three years later.

Her tal­ent was quick­ly rec­og­nized in France, with her skill on the gui­tar and a com­mand­ing pres­ence. Intense per­for­mances show­cas­ing her beau­ti­ful voice, in con­certs for the Bar­bès Café, Les Folles Nuits Berbères and Cabaret Tam Tam, at the Cabaret Sauvage venue in Paris, were praised by some of the top per­form­ers on the French music scene. Sami­ra would share the stage with artists such as Cheb Khaled, Ayo, Rachid Taha, L’Orchestre Nation­al de Bar­bès, Julie Zenat­ti, Gnawa Dif­fu­sion, Justin Adams, Idir, and Chimene Badi, to name a few.

We first met around 2014, when I inter­viewed her on her expe­ri­ence as a dual nation­al. At the time, she said, “My songs talk about our ances­tors, about exile and peo­ple who had to cross moun­tains and oceans to find a safe place. As a French and Alger­ian per­son, I can­not help ques­tion­ing our iden­ti­ties, as Arabs, Berbers, French, Euro­peans, North Africans…What helped me believe in my dreams was my very diverse child­hood, between the two coun­tries. I dis­cov­ered some of the best names in music as a child in Alge­ria, I start­ed play­ing the piano and singing. I went on stage for the first time in 1994, with an Alger­ian band, but I was also influ­enced by the Eng­lish and Amer­i­can cul­tures. I opened my hori­zons to pop rock music, Celtic tra­di­tions, and sounds from the South of Alge­ria. And I also had a lot of admi­ra­tion for the great French women artists like Juliette.”

In 2015, she was select­ed to par­tic­i­pate in the ultra pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion show, “The Voice.” She then defend­ed “Haram­tou Bik Nouas­si,” a love song from the Arab-Andalu­sian melt­ing pot, gal­va­niz­ing an audi­ence on both sides of the Mediter­ranean. And it made her a house­hold name for many French view­ers, which helped her get out of the “world music” label where most for­eign artists land when mov­ing to Europe.

A year lat­er, Sami­ra Brah­mia was picked by direc­tor Rachi­da Brakni, also the daugh­ter of Alger­ian par­ents and win­ner of a French Film Acad­e­my César award, to costar in her first full-length film, De sas en sas, about women who thor­ough­ly vis­it their sons, broth­ers and hus­bands in prison, and bond over the dif­fi­cul­ties of such lives.

Over the past five years, Brah­mia has con­tin­ued to tour with many artists. She mean­while worked on writ­ing more songs with a view to pro­duc­ing a sec­ond album. She sings in French, Ara­bic, Eng­lish and often in Kabyle. “It’s a lan­guage I learned with Kabyle musi­cians, as my fam­i­ly is not from Kabylia, but it’s so defin­ing for Alger­ian cul­ture and music!” she says. “For this album, I want­ed to do every­thing in the best way, to explore how I had grown as a musi­cian over the years. I also real­ized that I want­ed to explore more my African side. I always felt African, as my father taught us a lot about our his­to­ry, and this aspect of our cul­ture that has been almost erased by the colo­nial peri­od. But our African­ness has always been a part of my life, and I want­ed to explore it artis­ti­cal­ly. That’s why the album is titled ‘Awa,’ which is the name of Eve in dif­fer­ent African lan­guages, Eve as our uni­ver­sal moth­er. I was inspired by our moth­ers, our lin­eages, the women who made us. And by the fem­i­nin­i­ty and fem­i­nism we need in this world. There remains a lot to do for them, for us, and for human rights in general.”

Sami­ra Brah­mia has also been involved for many years as an ambas­sador for equal­i­ty in copy­right in Africa with CISAC, the Inter­na­tion­al Con­fed­er­a­tion of Soci­eties of Authors and Com­posers, and ONDA, the Nation­al Office for Copy­right and Neigh­bor­ing Rights in Alge­ria. This year, she was also reg­u­lar­ly invit­ed on French tele­vi­sion to dis­cuss her engage­ment for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the Alger­ian cul­ture in Europe. “I have a lot of hope when I go to Alge­ria,” she tells me. “Young peo­ple have a thirst for life and a true cre­ative force. They have learned from our past mis­takes, and they want to be pio­neers of change. France and Alge­ria have pas­sion­ate rela­tions, but I want my con­tri­bu­tion to be in favor of more inte­gra­tion and more mutu­al understanding.”

“Awa” also came out of her work with her instru­men­tal­ists, accom­pa­ny­ing her on stage, a band of five oth­er play­ers, with an elec­tric gui­tar, a bass, a key­board, some brass and drums, while she sings and plays the acoustic gui­tar. “I want­ed to cre­ate a project for the stage, which would pro­pose a jour­ney,” Sami­ra adds. “Some­times I sing alone with my gui­tar; oth­er times we sound more rock’n’roll…”

And it was a jour­ney that mag­i­cal­ly trans­port­ed her audi­ence on the night of her pri­vate show­case at IMA, in Paris on Fri­day, Sep­tem­ber 16th, where I caught her live. Dressed in black and sur­round­ed by bright pink lights, she gave a very mov­ing per­for­mance, dis­clos­ing her new songs but also some of her favorite cov­ers, includ­ing homage to the South African icon Mari­am Make­ba and the leg­endary Kabyle singer, Idir.

Among the crowd were also most of the women who were filmed for the music video of her first sin­gle, “Mama,” danc­ing and wear­ing clothes from the dif­fer­ent parts of the world they orig­i­nate from, whether West Africa, India, North Africa or Japan.

With this sec­ond album, com­posed as close­ly as pos­si­ble to her per­son­al feel­ings, Sami­ra Brah­mia shows more of her warm and strong per­son­al­i­ty, evok­ing the tra­jec­to­ries of women artists Myr­i­am Make­ba or too often for­got­ten Alger­ian female singers Cheikha Rim­it­ti and Badi Lal­la, who is often cred­it­ed as the moth­er of North African blues and inspired bands such as Tinariwen.

“I believe that music can and should be used as a pow­er­ful tool to heal the soul and con­nect peo­ple togeth­er,” she says, “and I am con­vinced that music can save the world.”

 

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