Slimane Azem was an Algerian singer, composer and poet. He was born on 19th Septmber 1919 in Agouri-Gueghrane, in Grande Kabylie, Northern Algeria, and died on 28th January 1983 at Moissac, Tarne-et-Garonne.
The Kabyle people are part of a much larger group, the Berbers, who are the largest ethnic group in North Africa, occupying an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Niger. The Maghreb or western North Africa on the whole is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers from at least 10,000 B.C. Since the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the seventh century, large numbers of Berbers have spoken Arabic. However, after the invasion of North Africa by France between 1830 and 1847, Algerians were forced to speak French instead of their previous mother tongues, the Berber language and all of its dialects, including Arabic.
Aged 11, Slimane, one day to be known as “le Brassens des Kabyles”, with no education apart from a native love for the fables of La Fontaine, became a farm worker for a French colonist at Staoueli, a small seaside town near Algiers, where the French forces had landed in 1830. In 1937, aged 18, he decided to try his luck in France and landed a job in a steelworks at Longwy before being mobilized in 1940. Two years later he left and worked as an electrician on the Metro for two years before being deported to a work camp by the Nazis. Used to the mountain air of his home village, Slimane made the confinement of his underground existence the subject of his first song: A Muh A Muh.
Upon his return to Paris after the liberation, he took over the management of a café, ‘La Riviella’, in the 15th arrondissement – one of many such establishments frequented by North Africans. Here, he formed an amateur orchestra which played at weekends, evoking the atmosphere of his country of origin, and used this to try out new compositions. He was noticed by Mohammed El Kamel, who had worked in an outfit headed by someone known as ‘the Caruso of Algiers’, and encouraged Slimane to start composing ‘new songs – a bit out of the ordinary’. He learned that ‘a chanson is not just a poem’: “il fallait trouver un sujet original” (you have to find an original subject), and this led to cutting his first disc A Muh Muh.
Slimane’s passionate outpourings of longing for his homeland went down big with the local immigrant community, who beat a path to the door of Madame Sauviat, a record dealer from the Auvergne who specialised in magrebine and oriental music and whose descendants still keep the shop on the Boulevard de la Chapelle. It was Madame Sauviat who introduced him to Pathe-Marconi.
During the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962) he continued to write and compose, including the smash hit Crickets, quittez mon pays! (Locusts, get out of my country!), an attack on colonialism, with the colonists being compared to the plagues of insects currently ravaging Algerian crops.
He sang mainly in his native Kabyle, but come the seventies, two recordings in French, Algerie, mon beau pays (Algeria, my beautiful country), and Carte de Residence (Residence Permit) won national acclaim. In 1971 he became the first Algerian artist to be awarded a Disque d’Or.
I remember that stormy night with my father and mother/ In exile from a young age I got my things together/ For my first voyage into exile across the seas/ I can still see my village and all those dear to me/ For me this landscape is the most beautiful in all the earth/ Algeria, my beautiful country, I’ll love you till I die/ I am growing old far from you but nothing will stop me loving you/ With your sun, your mountains and your beautiful scenery/ Whatever becomes of me I will never forget you/If I only speak of this to myself I will have failed in my duty/ I have led a gypsy’s life and gone through a nightmare/ When I sing this poem I recover my hope/ Algeria my beautiful country, I will love you till I die.
Once Algerian independence had been gained he became critical of the regime – thus earning the opposition which forbade his return. Terrified of dying in exile, he had no choice but to do so – on the farm in Moissac where he grew figs and olives on the proceeds of his earnings.
Slimane Azem has spoken for several waves of immigrants: those of his era, and much later. As one immigrant, who had arrived post-independence in 1962 to a reception of riot police and employment checks (blue stamp if fit for work, red if not) said, “He is no longer here, but his words still speak”.
In recognition of his enormous influence, the city of Paris named a square in his honour last year. As did Moissac, where he is buried.
Copyright August 2015 Pat Harvey