Dressed in a silvery, collared top and faded skinny jeans, her dark hair pulled back into a loose plait, Algerian singer Souad Massi smiles as she sets up her next number, "Samira Meskina" (Poor Samira).
"It's about a woman who's still dreaming," she told the crowd of hundreds at the Kennedy Center last week in Washington. "And I support her."
Later, in an interview, Massi says the song is a qissah haqiqiyah — or true story — about her own sister named Samira, who faced many problems did not have the opportunity to study much, and though she had aspirations, felt it was too late to fulfill them. "She dreamed of freedom," Massi says. "I sing for her and for all girls living in the same situation. It's hard."
For them, Massi is a sign of what can come true. Once a girl with big dreams as well, she's overcome struggles of her own and matured into a world music icon. She's a far cry from the plastic Arab pop singers whose often pouty lyrics are set to tireless techno beats. Instead, she's recognized for blending far-reaching genres to create an original sound against her ascendant voice. Massi has returned to the United States after nearly eight years, for a tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence, on July 5, with her next show slated for Saturday in New York.
"I'm very proud to be an Algerian, because my people" have suffered greatly from war, Massi says. With a grisly war of independence against France and then the 1990s civil war behind them, she says Algerians are known for their bravery and working hard for their freedom. "So I'm proud and very happy to celebrate…our independence."
A day after her performance, Massi ordered a shot of espresso and orange juice, which she made sure is fresh, at her Washington hotel. Her schedule was packed with appointments, including a visit to the Algerian Embassy, a sponsor of her North American tour. She has swapped her onstage heels for black sneakers, but is still clad in jeans. The Paris-based Massi is often compared to Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman, since she says they're all women, play the guitar and like folk music. But she also knows she's more than that.
With Berber roots, Massi picked up the guitar as a teenager, studied classical music in Algeria, and indulged in flamenco and Turkish music. She's gone on to weave Algerian folk music, rock, Arabic rhythms, sub-Saharan African tunes, Indian drums and a host of other influences into her repertoire. "I begin working when I have the lyrics," she says. She hunts for the sound, regardless of its origin, that speaks to her words. "It comes naturally."
Even as she creates something new, Massi is conscious of the past. It's evident during her concerts, with her playing the acoustic guitar and other band members strumming electric guitars and striking the drum-and-cymbal set, while Rabah Khalaf beats the darbouka and other traditional percussive instruments, by hand. Massi says if artists have historical and cultural awareness, such as learning about a great poet, it can inspire their writing, and they create "at a higher level." "It's very important because if you have the knowledge, then the artist is cultured, educated," she says.
In fact, her primary advice to emerging artists, besides working hard: "They should complete their studies, it's really important. The time when one could drop out of school and go into singing is gone." Nowadays, one must be well-informed and well-spoken, she says. Within Algeria, she acknowledged that those pursuing classical music and rai, a local style made famous globally by the likes of Cheb Khaled and Rachid Taha, have it easier, versus musicians in say rock or rap or her form, who don't have as many opportunities to be heard. "For young singers and bands who play, for example, rock music and new kinds of music, there are not a lot of festivals to express themselves, to play," she says. "There are a lot of obstacles to do this kind of music."
In 2010, prior to the uprisings that propelled the Arab Spring in nearby Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Massi released her album, "O Houria" (Liberty) and she went on what she called "a big revolution tour." Algeria, which did not have a revolution, held parliamentary elections in May, but continues to wrestle with issues such as high youth unemployment — which the International Monetary Fund put at more than 20% in April — a factor cited among the triggers in mobilizing young Arabs elsewhere. When it comes to analyzing Algeria's neighbors undergoing great change, Massi says one can't generalize, since each country has its own unique experience. But she is slightly pessimistic, she says, if Islamist parties, which have gained ground in Egypt and Tunisia, try to create an Islamic state and clamp down on cultural activities and musical performances.
"The situation is not stable; we have to wait and see," she says. As she and others brace for what the future holds, across the region, it appears to be a learning process. "The word 'democracy' in the Arabic language still do[es] not exist," Massi says.
The singer's reach is reflected when diverse audiences, far from her homeland, tap their feet and clap along to her tracks. Before last week, Mai El-Sadany, 22, an Egyptian-American who works at a Washington think tank, says she had never heard of Massi. But she can't stop listening now.
"Algerian Arabic is very different than Egyptian Arabic, but it's nice to see such a confident Arab woman onstage," El-Sadany says. "She really brings together people from different backgrounds — who don't always understand every word she says — and beautiful messages of unity and love."
Next month, Massi marks her own milestone, with her 40th birthday. ("Don't write it! I'm joking, I'm joking," she quips.) The mother of two still breaks it down on her guitar and jams with her band mates, personifying folk rock under a kaleidoscope of strobe lights. With several albums under her belt, Massi keeps creative through several projects and hopes to carry on cultural exchange through her music. She's also dabbling in other mediums. Her hit song, "Raoui" (Storyteller), made it to the soundtrack of Sacha Baron Cohen's recent film, "The Dictator." And Massi has been cast to star in a feature film by Najwa Najjar, a Palestinian director.
"The true artist is always searching and he is never happy with the results," Massi says. "He always wants to improve himself and to create, and so we're still learning, we stay searching and that is wonderful."