At Mzab - An Amazigh society by Hammou Dabouz - Part 3

At Mzab

An Amazigh society in Algeria

c onfronting a crisis

Part 3

by Hammou Dabouz


A culture which fails to be contemporary becomes an anachronism and is bound for oblivion by the direct route. Diversity, self-expression, transformation and prosperity are the fruits of vitality in a culture; such diversity is as precious as biodiversity. In the Mzab there has always been a literary and cultural life, even though the culture is based on oral traditions. At the moment this invisible heritage is documented by a great wealth of manuscripts relating to various domains, be they historical, linguistic, religious, legal, social … and literary. Such rich diversity had in no time caught the attention of Europeans who harvested it for use in much interdisciplinary research.

It is culture which expresses the most profound wealth of the Mzab. Each period of history has left a rich legacy of technical prowess and knowledge which constantly evolves in each generation. Regarding the current generations, it is their evident duty to consider how the cultural heritage of the Mzab can be preserved to reflect its true glory, whether the range is expressed via poetic, technical, or artistic means. The presence and power of popular culture is a national reality; its status is given legitimacy through its structures. The future of the At Mzab depends fully and more pervasively than ever on the relationship of these structures to the particular linguistic and cultural elements of Amazigh culture, in harmony with their universal religion.

The long list of oral folk tales (tinfas, in the Amazigh language of the Mzab) - in their latest stage successfully resisting oblivion - requires an act of rescue through the written form. Traditional story-telling is situated at the interface of two types of society, one traditional, one emerging. It is an inventory offering a varied menu of themes and typologies. Simplifying the pattern somewhat, we can class the stories in three categories:

  1. Legends inspired by holy texts, yet shaped to the realities of geography, culture, economy and social life.

  2. Stories with their roots in the Mzab region, and whose particular themes are embedded there.

  3. Stories inspired by well-known works belonging to other cultures (such as “A Thousand and One Nights”) with no specific links to the historical reality of the region.

Excluding the stories of the first category, the others show common features, as follows:

  • Regarding their content, the stories are short, sometimes very short (anecdotal and pertaining to legend)

  • The anecdote recounts the origin of an adage or a legend.

  • The hero is always of lowly birth: a widow, an orphan, a pious person, a young girl, etc.

  • Being oral in form the narrative is flexible – details emerge and disappear depending on the story-teller.

  • The traditional story has no named source; it stems from the world of popular anonymous story-telling.

  • A considerable number of the stories have no title. Where there is one, it is the hero’s name or is a traditional short formulaic one.

  • The oral story is related by a woman keeping vigil.

  • Unlike the art forms of song and dance, the popular story is also appreciated by holy men.

  • Stories told in the Mzab, like those in the rest of Tamazgha, have corresponding versions in the Mediterranean tradition.

Oral expression is the marked feature of various intellectual and artistic forms originating in the Mzab. Despite the long-standing oral heritage (stories, wise sayings, poems, proverbs, songs or other forms of expression) being the conveyor of a whole treasure-trove of intellectual, moral and artistic worth, everything has given the impression that for literate Arabic-speakers only import of a religious nature is worth writing down. Today it can be stated that the transition from an oral cultural production to its written form was signalled in the 1980s by the creation of the Tumzabt council and its resolute male members. These men marked out the beginnings of the path for the Amazigh language in the Mzab to move from the oral stage to the written. Currently, the Mzab numbers dozens of men who have produced hundreds of poems and prose. The number of poets has been rising steadily, especially since the 1990s, and poetry collections achieve publication these days. Moreover, the early 1990s saw the beginnings of Tamazight being taught in the Mzab at the Tagherdaght El-Islah institute, with courses on the Tumzabt language and its literature – a significant marker along the path from oral to written form. This teaching, which has resisted all sorts of attempts to discourage it, continues to this day.

Furthermore, since the 1980s Mzab students have eagerly taken ownership of their language and culture by pioneering cultural exhibitions at universities and within certain associations, the most well-known being the Bergan (Berriane) association, for the protection of the environment and cultural heritage. In this context, after making requests to the HCA (Haut Commissariat à l'Amazaghité) there took place from 22nd to 24th March 2000 the second edition of the festival of Amazigh poetry at Bergan.During this time two shows were put on (Tifawt and Izmulen). As for mass media, apart from the presence of tumzabt on Channel 2, the Ghardaia local channel has since its inauguration been devoting - in a very low-key way - the bare minimum of broadcasting time to various Mzab Amazigh language programmes.

The arts


It is generally accepted that the Mzab region is behind the times with regard to Amazigh-language songs, despite the priceless richness of the region’s heritage. This and the whole environment can now give birth to a previously unexpressed and original dynamic and verve; this is especially the case for singing, where so many artists have been active since the 1970s. This coincided with the advent of singer Aadel Mzab, the pioneer and father of Tumzabt singing, who alone succeeded in earning regular audiences in the Mzab and in Kabylie.

Despite a history of more than three decades the present circumstances of Mzab singing in the Amazigh language is not easy to master, for various reasons. Stagnation threatens to weigh upon the process of producing songs in the Amazigh language in this region. In this essay it is important to note that the aim is to highlight briefly – without involving us in the thematic and musicological details - how contemporary singing arose in the Mzab, and under what circumstances it then developed.

It is appropriate here to distinguish this singing from traditional songs performed at various social occasions (weddings, religious usage, etc) and not accompanied by musical instruments playing the tunes. In the current historical retrospective one can discern three main phases in the life of Amazigh singing: the first phase being from the beginning of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s; the second from the end of the 1980s to the end of the 1990s; and the current stage beginning at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The first stage had its inception with Aadel Mzab’s determination that history would remember his name over the generations. Aadel Mzab has remained very much in tune with the At Mzab society and life which surrounds him, as is obvious from his choice that his performer’s surname should include Mzab – the name Mzab refers to the Amazigh-speaking part of Algeria’s northern Sahara – acting as a rallying point and means of identity for the At Mzab people. Through faithful commitment to his artistic mission and his role as a singer, he has been part of the effort to safeguard his culture and his mother tongue.

Thanks to his perseverance over decades Aadel Mzab has been able to give singing an important role in helping to safeguard Amazigh culture, precisely at a time when numerous difficulties were also at play. Having managed to bring song to a point of breaking away from anti-musical practices, he succeeded in extricating this art form from a state of paralysis and fatal backwards drift, at the same time challenging the dire circumstances of the 1970s-1980s; at that period song was considered a taboo – akin to a sin, threatening to stifle this artistic endeavour in its infancy. Concerning the word “taboo / sin”, it is worth noting that in religious traditions, everything that related to artistic musical genres, such as singing, acting and poetry were strictly forbidden by the clerical circles of iâezzaben. Thus the fact of dreaming and of being committed to song embroiled the author in merciless hostility, excommunication and repression.

The singer Aadel Mzab, like other Mzab singers, managed to overcome the ban by expressing boldly the life of Mzab Amazigh society. Thus this artistic manoeuvre had as its context the whole calling into question of the established order of the 1970s and 1980s. The songs with social themes full of feeling take pride of place in his artistic output stretching over many decades. His songs present a whole range; they are worth analysing closely because they guide us through this experience.

The topics of Aadel Mzab songs were varied. The artist ranged over social phenomena, religion, prophets, the role of young women in his country, circumcision and marriage, birth and death, festivals, nature, and significant events of contemporary life in the Mzab. We may note in passing that the sung poem “ay anuji” was rescued under extreme circumstances from a traditional (anonymous) collection. This highlights that a large part of the non-visible artistic heritage risks disappearing from the field of our experience, as long as this stays buried only in the collective memory.

In the development of song during the 1980s, this chiefly focussed on the advent of two other singers, namely Slimane Othmane and Djaber Blidi, who had brought out his only album during the course of the 1980s. The demand had altered from a preliminary stage to one where there was a considerable increase in uptake.

The second stage sees the sudden appearance of new singers and musical groups still committed to the challenge of leading the new expression for singing to a confident phase where all practitioners can come into their own. Thus Aadel Mzab, Slimane Othmane and Djaber BLIDI are joined by the groups Itran and Utciden, by the singers Alga, Amar KHELILI, Said TAMJERT, Bassa AKERRAZ and many others who have - to a greater or lesser extent - been an influence on the new expression.

So that posterity should recall this development, right at the beginning of this second stage, towards the end of 1988, a number of singers (Zitani Hammou, Djamel, Aadel MZAB and Baslimane Mahfoud) organised a two-day study seminar at the Berriane Cultural Centre; it concerned the modest journey taken by Amazigh singing in the Mzab. Aadel Mzab took part, as did nearly all the young singers of the day, as well as folklore actors from the town of Berriane. The organizers of these two days laid an emphasis on the vital need to encourage new singers to express themselves in the Amazigh language. These two study days on Amazigh language singing brought a new lease of life to the genre by igniting the dynamism and spurring the young singers to embrace sung expression in Amazigh.

This second stage can be distinguished from the first in two ways: country-wide the Algerian political scene had changed; and locally there was a new breed of singers ready to seize the opportunities for their art. This generation of artists were notable for a spirit of mobility and creativity; thanks to their efforts the scope of the music and the lyrics both benefitted from the increasing richness in quantity and quality. To accomplish this work and ensure the thematic content of the songs, the most notable poets of the Mzab region were brought to the task, among others: Abdelouahab AFEKHAR, Salah TIRICHINE, Hammou ZITANI, Ahmed HADJ YAHIA, Youcef LASSAKEUR, Omar BOUSSADA, Omar DAOUDI and many others. A great deal is owed to all these actors for participating in bringing a fresh awareness to the public and a new dynamic to artistic expression. From this point the singing reached far and wide across the Mzab thanks to the new vehicles of cassette tape and CD. It is worth remembering that the mass media applied to audio and / audio-visual expression were inevitably the means by which, very effectively, all song production was made available to the awakening conscience of the Amazigh public.

It is right and proper to mention that, apart from the genre of song in its strictest sense, a number of choirs have been created since the 1970s. The most well-known are Omar DAOUDI, Omar BOUSSADA, Omar BADJOU, Moussa RFISSE, SELLAS and others as well.

The contrast between two distinctive social stages - past and present, new and old – signifies among the younger generation a definitive break with the traditional vision of society; the rupture indicates how the Amazigh dimension expressed in song has come of age. For more than a decade Mzab Amazigh-language singing had quite markedly superseded a first step itself crucial for those stages that followed.

The third stage underway at present has seen the distribution of a Chaâbi-style album sung by Slimane Othmane. In addition, Djamel IZLI, ex-leader of the Ucciden band is putting together the next musical collection. This album - the result of careful preparation – will be launched on the international market in May 2009. Comprising 8 songs, the album is entitled “TAMEDDURT” (Existence).

In the Mzab the genre in its current stage needs encouragement and more researchers into the musicology and the themes for it to eventually bring together the conditions and the know-how required to establish the profile and identify the raw material for Amazigh-language song to develop. The current stage - sketched out in some of its dimensions – is of special interest for the artistic class by virtue of the role needed to give new impetus and broader range, involving actively those on the broad fringes of this artistic endeavour, not least poets and singers. This means increasing the appeal of song by leading it out of its present confines. One step towards this is a festival of Mzab Amazigh-language song being organized in Ghardaia (Tagherdaght) from 12-18 May 2009.

Links with other Amazigh artists


A general linking up between various Amazigh singers needs to occur, in order to facilitate a fruitful cooperation involving the Mzab and other Tamazigh regions (Amazighie); the departure point must be an awareness of a shared historic and prehistoric space, in language and culture, expressing common tradition and civilization. It is as well to note that cooperation between the Mzab and Kabylie has existed in the past – one recalls the Mzab songs being taken into the repertoire of singers from Kabylie. We mean the song “ay anuji” by Aadel Mzab taken up by the Tagrawla group from Kabylie, the poem “Tamut n Sehra” by Salah TIRICHINE sung by Ferhat MEHANI, the song “ay anugi” by Aadel MZAB interpreted by the singer Ferroudja. She also sang the poem “a lalla zet izetwan” by Salah TIRICHINE. The time is right to bring the Amazigh song genre into a new era, adapting it and allowing it to develop steadily, an historic journey which all Amazigh-speaking regions can be part of.

The medium of song was, is and will continue to be one important and efficient way - among others - of raising awareness of Amazigh culture and identity. Song as a creative endeavour remains an investment for the generations; it is not, of course, a tangible material asset, but it contributes positively towards the thriving of society. The rising generation holds these days pride of place as a forum for listening, consuming and producing Amazigh song. In short, the youth of the Mzab is the ideal medium; they are the right audience to allow Amazigh-language song an opportunity to develop both its range of themes and its musical content. Predecessors are to inspire these new artists in this “chanson genre”, and create a vibrant dynamic with potential to steer Mzab Amazigh-language song away from any great risk of stagnation.

The crisis - all too obvious everywhere - needs to hasten an awareness to match the onward march of humankind. The awareness needs to dawn quickly to rescue Algeria’s rich cultural diversity from disappearing, yet this has to involve a critical examination of a number of fraught issues touching upon administration, politics… and philosophy. And it is this which continues to act as a hindrance in the onward march of history.


Bibliographical references


ABONNEAU, Joël. 1983. Prehistoire du M'zab (Algérie – Wilaya de Laghouat) . Université de PARIS I (Panthéon Sorbonne), doctoral thesis in faculty of Art and Archaeology.

BENYOUCEF, Brahim. 1986. LE M’ZAB : les pratiques de l’espace. Entreprise Nationale du Livre. Algiers.

CHERIFI, Brahim. 2003. Etude d’Anthropologie Historique et Culturelle sur le Mzab. Université de PARIS III VINCENNES-SAINT-DENIS, Thesis for a doctorate in anthropology.

IBN KHELDOUN, A. 1934. Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes en Afrique septentrionale. Traduction de Slane, Paris,

Geuthner, 4 Vol,. IZMULEN, Yennar 2951 (2001). Revue de l’Association Culturelle BERGAN, Number 1.

RAVEREAU, André. 1981. Le M’Zab, une leçon d’architecture. Editions Sindbad, Paris.

SARI, Djilali. 2003. LE M’ZAB : Une création ex-nihilo en harmonie avec les principes égalitaires de ses créateurs. Editions ANEP. Algiers.



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