Algerian director Safinez Bousbia speaks from New York about her quest to unearth a forgotten musical tradition.
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30 May 2012 - 12:59 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2012 - 12:59 PM

Safinez Bousbia's debut feature documentary focuses on the art of Chaabi music, as played by Arabic and Jewish musicians in the Casbah of Algiers prior to the War of Independence. Following the war, and the forced exile of a number of Jewish Algerians to France, the musicians never played together again. El Gusto is the story of their reunion.

Safinez Bousbia insists she had absolutely no intention to make a film when she first returned to her place of birth, Algeria, with a friend. A handmade mirror caught her eye and upon entering the small shop in the Casbah, Bousbia met an 83-year-old craftsman who talked animatedly about his past. Mr. Ferkioui told her about the music that once pulsed through the Casbah, about his friends who were forced to leave after Independence and others who had dispersed widely across the capital. “At the beginning, I just proposed to help him find his friends,” Bousbia reflects. “Once I found the musicians, I heard they had amazing stories to tell. Then I thought it was worth a film. I didn't think I'd be the one doing it, because I was architect at the time! I did not have a clue as to how films were made. I think that's what made this film possible—I didn't realise how complicated it was. I looked for producers and directors who were willing to do it. No one thought it was commercial enough. Or they thought it was too risky financially.” Bousbia eventually assumed the roles of writer, director and producer of the project.

Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Bousbia located and reunited 42 Chaabi musicians in Algeria and France that had not seen each other for more than 50 years. Together they formed the orchestra El Gusto and performed first in France, and then around the world. The process of finding the musicians, facilitating the orchestra and tour and editing the film took eight years overall.

“In the initial writing, the Jewish musicians were to come back to Algeria,” Bousbia explains now. “We actually got the authorisation for it but there was a bombing three weeks prior to the concert. We were told it couldn't happen. So we looked for another [source] of funding. In 2007, we managed to put it together. We just finished the film last year.”

For the musicians featured in the film, the Algerian War of Independence was a seminal moment in their lives and as such, El Gusto provides a historical context to the emergence of Chaabi music in Algeria and the political history that followed.

“When I met these musicians and heard their stories, the war of Independence was literally something you couldn't avoid,” Bousbia explains. “You could not talk about their lives without talking about that war. It was the thing that made their lives pause. The reason that their friendships were torn apart, their music stopped, their life completely took another turn. If it hadn't happened, they would have still played together. They would have been really famous and had amazing careers. Whenever we talk about the Algerian War of Independence, it's always versions told by either soldiers or victims. It's never just by simple people, simple musicians, who maybe never gave a damn about the war. They just wanted to play music and have fun and be friends. It was important to get their version. It's a new version for my generation.

“These men were amazing,” she continues. “The stories and energy they have. They've gone through so much hardship yet they're not bitter. They are full of life. It feels good to be around people that. To see men aged in their 80s and 90s still holding onto their childhood dreams is beautiful. To see those dreams come true is even more beautiful. Through these men, I found a hidden Algeria. It's the old style of Algiers where you go to the port and a fisherman would take you on his boat. You play music at night. For me, it was important to be led by the pioneers of this town. I was very lucky. They are passing away and taking these stories with them.”

To coincide with the musicians' reunion and tour, an El Gusto album has been produced by celebrated musician Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and will be distributed by EMI.

El Gusto is screening at the Sydney Film Festival on June 14 and 16. For more information visit the festival website.