The artist who took Algerian music to the world
The death of Algerian icon Idir has brought an important chapter of Algerian music to a close. Through his brilliant career, Idir modernised and promoted the richness of Kabyle melodies and poetry, popularised North African culture, and advocated for unity and tolerance both in Algeria and in France.
Looking at Idir’s life in music is looking into Algeria’s relationship with its history and identity, but also questioning what it means to be exiled in a new country, France, and to be a citizen of the world.
Hamid Cheriet, better known as Idir, was born in 1949 and grew up during the Algerian War of Independence in Aït Yenni, a small village bordering the Djurdjura mountain range of Kabylia. It is within this setting that Idir developed a deep understanding of the rich oral traditions of his own Kabyle culture, a branch of Amazigh (Berber) culture.
Initially he did not pursue a career in music. But his life took a turn in 1973 when he was called on at a moment’s notice to replace the Kabyle singer Nouara at Radio Algiers. It led to his recording Rsed A Yidess (May Sleep Come) and A Vava Inouva (My Dad). A Vava Inouva would soon become his most iconic work as well as one of the first North African songs to gain international recognition.
In 1976, after completing his military service and moving to Paris, at the request of the French label Pathe-Marconi, he produced his first album, named after his hit A Vava Inouva. This marked the beginning of a long and fruitful career in music.
Shortly after gaining independence from the French, the new Algerian government began a steady-paced process of arabisation throughout the country. This involved promoting Arabic as the national language. This denied much of the country’s rich linguistic and cultural diversity. This was particularly true among the Amazigh factions of the population, who accounted for a third of the total.
These repressive government policies resulted in mass political protest throughout Kabylia in 1980, a period known as the Berber Spring, later followed by the Black Spring in 2001. These two periods of social unrest were violently repressed by the Algerian government.
It is these repressive policies that Idir, a fierce defendant of his Kabyle heritage, dedicated much of his life to fighting. He did this through his unapologetically Kabyle music and his role as an advocate for Kabyle culture.
Some artists, such as the late Matoub Lounes – another great figure of Kabyle music – were outwardly critical of the government in their lyrical content. Idir’s lyrics bore their power in their poetic depictions of Kabyle social life and culture.
This album, followed by Ayarrach Negh (For Our Children) in 1979, bears the musical mark of Idir’s sound. It is a savant blend of traditional instruments: the shepherd flute which he learned to play as a child, the bendir (a frame drum), the tambourine, and darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum) accompanied by the guitar, bass, and drums.
Filled with a feeling of melancholia and nostalgia as an exile in France, his songs convey his deep yearning for home and touch upon universal themes. It is in their universal essence, bearing collective memories and histories, that his songs retain their power.
After a decade-long break from show business, Idir returned to centre stage in 1991 with a compilation release, followed by the release of his third album two years later. In 1993’s Les chasseurs de Lumières (Light Hunters) Idir addresses his favourite themes: exile, liberty and love. It came at a time of serious political upheaval with Algeria experiencing a violent and bloody civil war between the military government and Islamist groups.
Idir produced only a handful of studio albums. Nevertheless his contribution to the world of music and culture was immense. He will be remembered for promoting his Kabyle heritage to the world, thus contributing to its sustainability against cultural erasure, for seeking a peaceful, democratic, secular, and united Algeria, and for his vision of tolerance and integration in France. All artfully – and subtly – done through his music.