Algerian expatriate Souad Massi moved to Paris over half a decade ago and has been doggedly crafting her blend of Middle Eastern pop and Western folk ever since. Mesk Elil
, her third full-length album, blends ephemeral folk rhythms with distinctive Diaspora-bred tales of homesickness, isolation and heartbreak. Massi's music is welcoming and beautiful; its unique mixture of African, European and Middle Eastern styles separates her work from many of her contemporaries.
There's an appealing stylistic fusion at the core of Massi's music: the guitar-wielding vocalist employs several professional French musicians to help weave her complex tapestry of sounds. Massi sings almost exclusively in Arabic, but elements of rai, chaabi and flamenco send her music dancing across West and North Africa and over the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain. It's a dazzling, worldly mix, but the disparate styles never sound as if they've been forced together.
While several tracks have extensive musical backing, Massi is at her best when the instrumentation behind her is sparse, allowing her voice to be the undisputed point of attention. Opener "Soon (Kilyoum)" is an Algerian chaabi, or town song, with urban roots and a basic backing beat. Massi's voice is ample and commanding, wrapping itself around the guitars but never smothering them. She pays respect to her compassionate brother on "Inspiration (Ilham)"; invoking Egypt's greatest musical export, Oum Kalthoum, she shows off her sonorous timbre, playing off the rough Tuareg (a trans-Saharan nomadic people) groove and solemn chorus. Even if you don't know a lick of Arabic, the music's sentiment and somber moods are readily identifiable, translating easily into any tongue.
While some listeners may prefer Massi's subtler, more pensive side, her upbeat numbers help to make Mesk Elil a more emotionally balanced effort. Her cover of Daby Touré's "I Won't Forget My Roots (Manensa Asli) (Miwawa)" includes Touré himself, performing a duet with Massi as fast-paced, percussive peat breaks the rhythmic mold established by earlier tracks. "Tell Me Why" includes Pascal Danae on vocals, and is perhaps the album's most accessible track -- it's sung in English instead of Arabic.
While it's great that Mesk Elil has some crossover potential, it actually detracts from the record's overall charm. Apparently a record label executive insisted that the song titles and lyrics be printed in English so that Western listeners wouldn't be frightened by the undulating vocals and unfamiliar rhythmic structures. This catering to the potential Western fanbase is woefully unnecessary -- Massi's songwriting and wonderful voice more than adequately express her feelings without the need for an English translation.
This slight Westernization doesn't do any lasting harm, and Massi is an exceptionally talented artist, regardless of how her lyrics and song titles are presented. Whether you're a time-tested world music follower or a new explorer hoping to expand your musical horizons, Mesk Elil is a delectable treat, well worth seeking out.