Brotherhood, Destiny and Rum!

In the summer of 1998 I was laid low by an unhappy love affair so I decided to go to Africa. Life in Brussels had become emotional and difficult. I felt isolated from the rest of the planet and, at times, I was plunged into absolute misery.

There was also the question of my second album. After the success of my first CD New Moon, my manager and producer Thierry van Roy and I wanted to do a second one, but we didn’t want to do just any old thing. We both felt it was better not to make an album at all than make something that was a step backward, a disappointment. The question was where to begin? How to begin? We didn’t know. We had this contact in Azerbaijan, but somehow the idea of going there didn’t do much for me. I didn’t want to start an album by just flying into s country like Azerbaijan, booking a studio, and trying to make music with the locals. We were facing several doors but we didn’t know which to open.

I decided to go to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal, alone, to relax. I loved the music of the Islands and the sound of the Cape Verdean guitar. Morna, the style of music sung by Cesaria Evora or Bana, is very melancholy and it was particularly suited to my mood at that time. I like melancholic singing a lot. I also love islands. Perhaps I’m attracted to them because I was born by the sea in Algeria. Since I was very young I’ve always been very solitary and my solitude was often bound to the sea. I often went down to the shore to be alone and to sing aloud to myself. I love the sound, the smell, the sight of the sea. I love the rhythm of the waves too.

Apartment houses line a cobblestone street in the village of Sao Felipe, on Fogo Island. Cape Verde Islands. December 1984 Sao Felipe, Fogo Island, Cape Verde Islands. Photo credit: Jean Francois Questiaux.

I took the plane from Dakar in Senegal to Praia, the capital of Cape Verde. On the plane I met a black American woman called Jaky and we shared a taxi into town. She asked me where I was going. “I don’t know,” was my reply. She recommended a hotel to me and I thanked her. I also told her that I was a musician and I was attracted to Cape Verde by the music. She promised to introduce me to a friend of hers called To Tavares, an eminent Cape Verdean musician and musicologist. My destiny had already begun on the aeroplane.

In Praia, you feel like you’re in Africa but not in Africa. For example, in Dakar there are always hordes of young people buzzing around you, trying to make a franc out of you. So naturally when I arrived in Cape Verde I was on my guard. But by contrast I found the people very relaxed, very dignified and respectful. No one invites you for a drink so that you pay for their drink, like they do in Senegal. They’re just looking for friendship. There were certain things that I had been searching for for a long time, and I found them in Praia.

They sit at the bottom of their stairs and play the guitar… a little song, a little smile, a little hello, even if they don’t know you. In a way, I would really like to live that kind of poverty. Seriously! I think it’s an altogether honourable and honest kind of existence. Abdelli visiting the town of Praia, Santiago

I spent my first few days wandering around, discovering. Praia is the main town on the island of Santiago. It’s a very poor place, only barren earth and very little agriculture. But the scenery, the smells, the atmospheres, all affected me deeply. I was very touched by the fact that although they’re poor, the people are also incredibly generous. They sit at the bottom of their stairs and play the guitar… a little song, a little smile, a little hello, even if they don’t know you. In a way, I would really like to live that kind of poverty. Seriously! I think it’s an altogether honourable and honest kind of existence.

I met up with To Tavares and he gave me the address of Le Violin, a club where all the big musicians of Cape Verde who are passing through Praia because of the international airport come to play. It’s a small place, with seating for about fifty people, a small stage and a bar. Drinks are cheap and there are no bouncers. The musicians sit in on each other’s sessions, invite each other to come up on stage. There’s no jealousy, no complexes of inferiority or superiority. People dance and drink grog. Grog is made from sugarcane. It’s like African rum. I played there a few times, singing Kabyle songs which went down very well because they’re somehow similar to what people know. Maybe one of the strengths of Kabyle music is that it assimilates easily with other styles of music. Other musicians would just take their guitars and off we’d go.

Map of Cape Verde.

After a while I decided to go to the Island of Fogo, a volcanic outcrop near Santiago. Someone had told me that the island was originally inhabited by Berbers and they still spoke a weird dialect which mixed Berber, Creole and Portuguese. I was born into a Berber-speaking family in Dellys, a small town on the Algerian coast, just north of the Kabyle Mountains. There, Kabyle culture was more or less despised by the local Arabophone authorities and the general population. It was considered better to be Arabic than to be Berber. Life was easier like that. But I always preferred being Berber. I don’t know why. I was just a rebel, I suppose.

Since independence, the rulers of Algeria had been Ba’athists, as we call them. They were financed by Syria and Iraq to impose Arabic language and culture all over North Africa. They forced classical Arabic on us but most people spoke popular street Arabic, which was a mixture of Berber, French, Italian, Hebrew, whatever. Our Berber identity and language are several millennia old. They don’t just begin with the arrival of Islam in North Africa in the 7thCentury AD but existed well before. Berber culture was always a varied culture in terms of religion and it accepted Christianity and Judaism wholeheartedly. We want to keep that openness and be open to all cultures and all religions. At one time I was very influenced by the writings of the Kabyle writer, Mouloud Mammeri, who points out that Berber culture once spread from Egypt in the east to the Canary Islands in the west. I always had a fascination for those distant Berber outposts. That’s why I wanted to go to Fogo.

But the day I was due to leave the aeroplane had broken down and so I couldn’t go. After getting a refund for my ticket I asked the man in Customs at the airport if he could recommend a place where I could spend my last few days in Cape Verde. He told me about Tarrafal, a quiet resort in the far north of the Island. I took the bus, well the truck, with the locals and their sheep and the goats. On arrival I asked around for a hotel and was taken to the Mar Azul, a small place with four or five rooms and a restaurant. The woman at reception was friendly and she asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a musician, a singer. She asked me if I had anything to listen to and I gave her a copy of my CD. She liked it and played it constantly in the reception.

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One day, on my return from the beach, I was told that someone was waiting for me on the terrace upstairs. I went up and saw a small powerfully built man, simply dressed in shorts and an old t-shirt with a black complexion and a huge welcoming smile. His name was Lico Barros and he was an executive engineer working for the state electricity company. Whenever he passed through Tarrafal he always stayed at the Mar Azul. Apparently he had heard my music in reception and asked the receptionist what it was. “It’s a Kabyle singer,” came the answer. “He’s staying at the hotel.”

Lico Barros had been involved in the Cape Verdean struggle for independence from the Portuguese in the early 1970s. He was highly politicised and knew a lot about the Algerian war against the French as well. After Cape Verdean independence in 1975, when the country had become an archetypal African socialist republic, Lico Barros had often travelled to Belgium and Algeria to negotiate energy contracts. He had a lot of respect for Algerians, and Kabyles. He was also a musician and a lover of music. “I’d like to see what this Kabyle looks like. Can I meet him?” Lico asked the receptionist. “Of Course,” she replied. “He’ll be back in a while.”

That night Lico and I drank a few beers together and then ate at a local restaurant called ‘La Garetta” which was run by a member of his family. We talked about music and politics. It was not long before we were brothers. We felt like we had known each other for 50 years.

The next morning he told me that he was going to San Domingos, up on the plains above Praia, to see his family and did I want to come with him? “I’ll introduce you to my family,” he said. I said yes. So the next day we drove together to San Domingos in his car. It was a fabulous village, high up in the valley. Most of Cape Verde is very arid and rocky but up there the air is humid and there’s a lot of water. The mountains are covered with banana and mango trees. It reminded me of Kabylia.

Most of Lico’s family, his uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. live in San Domingos. He was the intellectual of the clan. Arriving with him was like arriving with the village chief. You’re received like royalty. I could walk anywhere I wanted and the people had complete confidence in me. That touched me very, very much. It was fabulous.

Abdelli. Photo credit: Jean Francois Questiaux.

San Domingos is also the spiritual home of the morna. What really impressed me is that everyone has a guitar, often with only three strings instead of six. Materially they’re very poor people. But many of them have composed songs which are very well known throughout Cape Verde, even the world, and have been sung by Cearia Evora, Bana, Bao, etc. None of them have ever received a franc in payment of their rights. They’re just very generous people. The oldest and greatest amongst them was called Ana Novo, which means ‘New Year’. He’s a very great composer.

Every Sunday, musicians come to San Domingos from all over the island to play together and party. Fifty or sixty people turn up and gather in the village square under a big tree to sing and drink rum. So it was on a Sunday that I was there in the square playing my guitar and accompanying Lico who was playing my mandol. It’s a hard instrument but he looked like he’d already been playing it for twenty years. Others were joining in on guitar, on maracas. I was singing in Kabyle and they were accompanying me. A special bond of empathy was created between us.

At that moment Lico said, “Abdelli, why don’t you come and record your album here?” “Well I’d love to,” I replied. “I’d love to stay with you and just play but how? It’s too impractical.” Then Anan Novo, the spiritual master of that whole scene, said to me, “Yes but Abdelli, we’ll help you do it.”

And then the idea came to me. Everything seemed clear, right, full of promise. I would start the new album in Cape Verde. That was it. In that moment everything was decided. I had come to the island bearing a heavy suitcase full of sadness and uncertainty about my future as a singer and a man. I had come in search of relief and of music and I had also come to visit the frontiers of my Berber culture. But fate had lead me to Lico who in such a short time had become a brother, a friend. Through him and through his country, I found what I had been looking for. I knew what I had to do.

The official video for Abdelli's song 'Asiram / Hope', featuring footage of the recording process for his album Among Brothers

The next evening Lico and I left San Domingos and returned to Praia. We saw each other a lot over the next few days. Lico introduced me to his musician friends and pressed me about the project. He would help to organise everything. He had friends in ministries and in Customs. He could handle the paperwork and the necessary arrangements. I put him in touch with Thierry and they started organising things together. There was a lot to do because over 100 pieces of equipment needed to be flown in and got through customs. It wasn’t an easy job. But I too really wanted to record in Cape Verde. I found that the musicians there had a very good understanding of what I was trying to do. I like the sound of their guitar playing. I really loved the colours of that country and of its music. I felt that my cup was full while I was there.

It was the meeting with Lico which unleashed a chain of events leading to the creation of the album. We had become like brothers. It was more like a relationship of love, although neither of us was homosexual in any way. He became a kind of spiritual guide for me. I confided in him and he confided in me. He was also looking for someone. He was very happy to meet a musician who loved what he loved. I called him my first black friend and he called me his first Kabyle friend. That’s friendship. I believe in that.

Lico Barros died in a car crash in July 1999. It was terrible. It was very hard.

Destiny threw us together in a fraternal way, a very strong way, and when he wanted to separate us he didn’t ask our permission first. I would have loved him to still be around, to hear what he started, to still exist. He was really someone who was very, very generous, not only to me, but to his people, his culture, his country. When I heard the news of the crash that night, it was very hard for me, but I felt even more for those people to whom he brought that warmth, that love, the people of San Domingos who are very, very poor. He was their father and I think he meant even more to them than he did to me.

But, anyway, I don’t think he’s gone, because he’s still here.

Abdelli went back to Cape Verde on December 22nd 1998 to start recording this new album Among Brothers with Thierry. The album was also recorded in Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso and Belgium. It was released in June 2003 by Real World Records.

Featured release:

  • Among Brothers


    Released 04 May 2003

    Abdelli journeyed for three years over four continents to create this album: Cape Verde to Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso and Belgium. Abdelli’s beautiful, heart-rending Berber songs come together with the extraordinary musicians they encountered on their route.

By Andy Morgan

This article was written by Andy Morgan based on interviews with Abdelli. Many thanks to Thierry van Roy and Paul de Sutter for their help during its preparation.

Main image: A stone road leads across the volcanic crater that tops Fogo Island. Photo credit: Jean Francois Questiaux.

Published on Mon, 28 January 19

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