Abdel Hadi Halo and the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers

The traditional Algerian music style known as chaabi (Arabic for “popular”), which first made its appearance in the late 19th century, is said to have been inspired by Arab Andalusian music, evolving under the influence of elements of blues, jazz, tango and chanson. Exploring themes of exile, loss, love, friendship and betrayal, chaabi often carries a strong moral message. Abdel Hadi Halo and the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers have taken traditional chaabi and added their special flavor, resulting in a sound which appeals to a wide audience, both young and old, without compromising the spirit of the tradition.

This unique blend of Algerian, French and Spanish music with Berber, Jewish and Arabic influences was recorded in 2006, live at the Conservatoire d’Algiers, by Damon Albarn (frontman for Blur), under the record label Honest Jon. The album features an orchestra playing a variety of musical instruments, including gambar, oud, bender, violin, accordion, banjo and piano, with the musicians exploring a number of styles, while vocals and percussion serve as the anchor to each track. The driving force behind this album is Abdel Hadi Halo, the son of Hadj El Anka, a well respected musician who is widely considered to have been the Grand Master of Algerian chaabi.

Chaabi reached its height of popularity in Algeria during the 1950s. At that time it featured predominantly in clubs that served as gathering places for music-lovers and musicians, including French expats, American GIs, Algerian Muslims and Sephardic Jews. An interchange of instruments, scales and musical inspiration among these musicians served to further cement the popularity of chaabi. After Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, more than 100,000 people, mostly European colonials and Jews, fled north in fear of reprisals in what was now a Muslim country, bringing this period of musical collaboration between these differing nationalities to an end.

Although chaabi may have lost much of its appeal among young musicians, the older generation never lost their love for this unique genre. Abdel Hadi Halo and the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers have taken great strides toward rediscovering the true mystique of chaabi and introducing it to the rest of the world. Live concerts throughout Europe in 2007 saw many former Muslim and Jewish bandmates, including rabbis and imams, reunited in their love of music.