Souad Massi – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 11/07/2016 1

Souad Massi – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 11/07/2016

Having Souad Massi open your autumn season of events proved to be quite a coup for the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. Save for a “Talking Gig” earlier this afternoon in Sheffield (where she was in conversation with the former manager of the Malian supergroup Tinariwen) this is the only UK date the celebrated Algerian musician – often cited as one of North Africa’s greatest female singers – will play outside of London on her current tour.

What makes this concert even more unique is the fact that Souad Massi will perform tonight alongside her fellow countryman, the percussionist Rabah Khalfa. Whilst Khalfa has played alongside Massi as part of her band many, many times before, this is the very first time that they have performed in public as a duo. And the end results are, quite frankly, astonishing.


Souad Massi’s reputation is forged on a solo career that now stretches back some 15 years. It is one that is driven by a fierce, politically-inspired determination and upholds the values of freedom in its constant fight against injustice. Her songs are imbued with love, bravery (she had to flee her native country for France in 1999 following a series of anonymous death threats) and protest against the savage intolerance that she sees all around her in the world today.

Massi’s response to the specific threat posed by the Islamic State is captured on her sixth studio album, last year’s release El Mutakallimûn (Masters of the Word) in which she musically recreated a set of Arabic poems that date back to the sixth century. Through the eloquent beauty of her voice, she has sought to remind the world of the creativity and acceptance that was prevalent in previous Muslim generations.

This evening, though, Massi largely forsakes this record in favour of a selection of some of the greatest songs from her back catalogue.  She opens with ‘Yemma’ (Mummy I Lie To You) and the title song from her 2003 album Deb, before ending the first half of this evening’s performance with a stunning reading of ‘Amessa’ (A Day Will Come), taken from her debut album Raoui.

The musical connection between Souad Massi and Rabah Khalfa is nothing short of telepathic. Complemented by a deep love and respect for each other – reflected by their supremely happy countenances right throughout – this almost innate communication between the two manifests itself in moment after moment of sublime musical artistry where traditional Algerian folk influences merge effortlessly into a far more contemporary Western sound. In one particularly scintillating passage of music, Khalfa shows exactly why he is described as le maître de la derbouka as he mesmerises us with his dexterity on the North African goblet drum.

The songs that populate the second half of tonight’s show do assume a far greater political intent as Souad Massi prays musically for the triumph of good over evil. The fact that today is the 15th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 adds an even greater emotional resonance to them. Further poignancy comes from a beautiful reading of ‘Hayati’ (My Life), a song that she wrote when only 17 years of age. Yet in amongst this serious intent there is also time for Massi – in what was a completely bizarre, but totally spontaneous reaction – to invite a man (who had been urging her to play particular songs) out of the audience to pick up her guitar and join the duo for what turns out to be a rollicking, boss nova inspired blast of sheer undiluted joy.


This evening comes as close to musical perfection as you can possibly get. We have just had the unquestionable privilege of seeing and hearing two supreme musicians in absolutely perfect harmony with each other. And the Howard Assembly Room should be warmly congratulated for affording us this opportunity by bringing such a musically diverse, illuminating and totally inspired talent to this part of West Yorkshire.

Photo credit: Simon Godley

More photos from this concert can be found HERE

A full list of all the performances in the Howard Assembly Room’s autumn programme can be found HERE

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