In 2003, the Ireland-based architect Safinez Bousbia was visiting her native Algeria when she encountered a craftsman working on a mirror in a Cashbah shop. Noticing old photos pinned to another mirror, Bousbia asked about them. The craftsman turned out to be accordionist Mohamed Ferkioui, who proceeded to tell Bousbia the story of the Muslim and Jewish chaabi music troupe El Gusto and the Municipal Conservatory of Algiers he’d attended in the late 1940s. Fascinated, Bousbia decided to track down the musicians with the intent of getting the band back together and eventually making a film about them.
Her task wasn’t easy: Many of the players were elderly or dead, a large number of the Jewish musicians had fled to France after Algeria won independence in 1962, and some of the Muslim members had scattered all over the country. But newer musicians entered the fold, and with the help of Blur‘s Damon Albarn, the project got off the ground. The group recorded music, Bousbia made the film (El Gusto), and the musicians played together in Europe, eventually performing in Morocco, too—-though the Jewish musicians still avoid Algeria. This evening, the 19-person El Gusto Orchestra—-with seven original members—-makes its D.C. debut at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
So what does this Algerian Buena Vista Social Club sound like? Well, a mix of guttural, melodramatic, and romantic vocals; a dash of French cabaret; and a North African, Middle Eastern, and Andalusian wall of sound. They incorporate a variety of stringed instruments as well as accordion, percussion, and a piano. You don’t need to know the mandolin-like mandole, the zither-like qanun, the oud, or percussion instruments like the tar, bendir, and the darbuka to recognize the speedy belly-dance like rhythms, Arabic classical interludes, and touches of what sounds like tango. But what they’ll play tonight won’t be as epic as what they would have performed 60 years ago: Guitarist/vocalist Lucien Cherki writes via email that a lot of the compositions are newer and shorter versions of their old songs, since “a lot of what we learned when we were younger would have been songs of 30 to 40 minutes in length.”
El Gusto has been translated as “good mood,” and that largely conveys Cherki’s feelings, too. “We never really thought we would see each other again, any of us, let alone play together and now to come to the United States at this time of our lives; it’s truly a dream,” he writes. Of course, they’ve encountered their share of stumbles—-particularly a lack of funding. “But what’s really great is that everyone is working together to get things done.”
El Gusto Orchestra performs at 6 p.m. tonight at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Free.