Souad Massi ‘El Mutakallimun’ (Masters of the Word’) (Wrasse) 3/5

souad-massiAlgerian folk singer Souad Massi is a musician with a difference in that her early career was focused on message-laden politically infused rock and grew up in the socially turbulent district of Bab-el-Oued in Algiers. Subsequently, as a lead solo singer now settled in France, she has chosen to concentrate her attention on gentler folk hues. Now at a crossroads in her career after some critically acclaimed releases that have sold well in France and Europe more generally, this album is stylistically varied, but probably too much so. As a result, the mish-mash of genres does her an injustice and one thing is for sure: Souad Massi possess a beautifully clear as deep blue sea water voice that needs the most sensitive of instrumentation in order to hear it to its full effect. Her voice is heard to most empathetic effect on the gentle opener, the quietly introspective ‘Bima el Taaloul’ and fans of Yusef/Cat Stevens would feel very much at home here. In theory this album is supposed to be devoted to the poetry of Arabic culture. All the more reason, the, to back this up with some traditional music accompaniment. Instead Massi wanders all over the place with reggae, 1960s ye-ye pop and bossa nova featuring on given songs and this merely undermines the project as a whole which loses any sense of cohesion. There is for example a quasi-spoken delivery on the reggae beat of ‘Hadari’ the nminor chords and strings on the pop outing ‘Saimtou’ which is not Massi’s forte at all.

If one had to make a parallel with a career that developed gently, then accelerate, perhaps folk-blues singer Bonnie Raitt might be a useful comparison. She was allowed by her record company to develop her own sound over several albums and then finally found major success later on, but has pursued her own path with integrity. Souad Massi is simply to good a singer to be tampered with in this manner and the sooner she is left to her own devices to return to her favoured folk sound, the better. As it is, this release risks confusing newcomers and alienating long-term fans.

Tim Stenhouse