One orchestra you will not find at a music festival
L'Orchestre National de Barbès takes its name from the Boulevard Barbès in the 18th arrondissement de Paris, an area known as "little Algeria". It is here that much of the sediment stirred up by France's colonial misadventures in North Africa has settled, and in musical terms that sediment is remarkably fertile. The ten piece band had its early roots in Belcourt, a working class section of Algiers, and several founder members including a Sufi percussionist left Algeria for France as exiles. The residents of Barbès jokingly consider the area to be an independent state and the title track from the self-styled national orchestra's latest CD Rendez-vous Barbès is a hymn of praise to a little bit of Africa stranded in the heart of Paris, a concept that does not meet with universal approval. Traditional North African instruments such as the guembri and karkabou blend with synthesizers and electric guitars to produce L'Orchestre National de Barbès' unique mix of contemporary rai and centuries old gnawa blues. The band connects with audiences in venues as varied as stadiums and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, gaining a glowing review at the latter from the classically oriented Arts Desk.
There is a lot that classical music can learn from how L'Orchestre National de Barbès has its four Es firmly in place. They engage with socially relevant lyrics that portray what life is really like in immigrant communities in Europe today - what a contrast to the tourist brochure image of Europe currently being portrayed in BBC TV's Symphony series. They educate by singing about polititical issues: for instance one of their songs highlights the plight of North African soldiers who fought for France in World War II but who now receive no recognition from the French government. They enlighten with the mystical power of healing rhythms while avoiding fashionable but tacky East meets West routines. Finally they entertain through their passionate commitment to live music. No classical musician has made the case for live music more eloquently than L'Orchestre National de Barbès did at a recent London concert when they declared from the stage "you can cook by yourself, but you can't make love by yourself". Yet more support for Pablo Casals' view that "music must serve a purpose".
* Founder member Aziz Sahmaoui left L'Orchestre National de Barbès to form the University of Gnawa. Read more about him in the memorably titled Who needs self-righteous bullshit artists?
* This post is part of my Algerian autumn series.
Rendez-vous Barbès was bought in France. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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