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Souad Asla et son groupe Lemma - désert - © Joel Bonnard

North African and Oriental artists – the rise of female musicians

North Afri­can and Orien­tal artists – the rise of female musicians

As Inter­na­tio­nal Women’s Day approaches, the Ara­bo­fo­lies Fes­ti­val – taking place at the Paris Arab World Ins­ti­tute (AWI) – focuses its atten­tion upon musi­cal trail­bla­zers and poe­tic pio­neers. A rich pro­duc­tion cata­logue also tes­ti­fies to their artis­tic and social com­mit­ment. But where is gen­der equa­li­ty at in the music sec­tor ? Kami­lya Jubran, Souad Asla, Naïs­sam Jalal and others share their thoughts.

Music, sound and poe­try – whe­ther sung, played, dan­ced or shou­ted by women – is sprin­ging up all over the world. For the first edi­tion of the Ara­bo­fo­lies Fes­ti­val orga­ni­sed by the AWI, North Afri­can and Orien­tal female artists offer a rich range of crea­ti­vi­ty. We’ve just heard flau­tist Naïs­sam Jalal revi­sit the album she recor­ded with Pales­ti­nian rap­per Osloob (Al Akha­reen). On 8 March, Souad Mas­si will per­form songs from her album in tri­bute to women, the release of which is sla­ted for August. In the mid-2000s, sin­ger Aynur Dogan’s pro­file was rai­sed by Fatih Akin’s docu­men­ta­ry Cros­sing the Bridge – The Sound of Istan­bul. On 9 March, the unpre­ten­tious diva – whose name means “moon­light” – will sing of the suf­fe­ring and hopes of the Kur­dish people.

Video Aynur Doğan, Qum­rike

Crea­tive women from all geo­gra­phi­cal and sty­lis­tic horizons

Beyond Ara­bo­fo­lies, a great many albums and qua­li­ty stage per­for­mances tes­ti­fy to the crea­ti­vi­ty of women. The gentle and fear­less Kami­lya Jubran, Pales­ti­nian sin­ger and oud player, brigh­te­ned up 2017 with her incan­des­cent album Hab­ka (dis­tri­bu­ted by Aba­lone / L’Autre Dis­tri­bu­tion), recor­ded with bas­sist and arran­ger Sarah Mur­cia. Then there are also the girls who skil­ful­ly mas­ter turn­tables and machines, such as Tuni­sian DJ Mis­sy Ness. During the 2018 edi­tion of the Afri­co­lor Fes­ti­val (in Seine-Saint-Denis, near Paris), Lem­ma – a group of ten Alge­rian desert sin­gers and drum­mers (aged 23 to 74!) – foun­ded by sin­ger, author and com­po­ser Souad Asla, dazz­led Le Théâtre d’E­vry, while legen­da­ry sin­ger Has­na El Becha­ria – also a mem­ber of Lem­ma – tur­ned the (jam-packed!) Mai­son Popu­laire in Mon­treuil-sous-Bois into a dance floor.

Video DJ Mis­sy Ness, Makouk Vol. 1, All Stars Night, Cai­ro, Egypt

In Februa­ry, fol­lo­wing the suc­cess of her record Aswât (dis­tri­bu­ted by Alwâne Music / Dif­fer-Ant), the sin­ger Dja­zia Satour cap­ti­va­ted audiences at Le Café de la danse (Paris) and Caf’Muz (Colombes) with the soo­thing effects of her subt­ly mixed Chaâ­bi. The great­ly-anti­ci­pa­ted muse of the Sah­ra­wi people Azi­za Bra­him (sin­ger and per­cus­sio­nist) will be per­for­ming on 26 April at the Pan Piper venue in Paris for the launch of her fifth album. Born and rai­sed in a refu­gee camp, she will be sin­ging about resis­tance. The list is long ; female vir­tuo­si­ty becomes flesh and sound thanks to crea­ti­vi­ty from all geo­gra­phi­cal and sty­lis­tic horizons.

Howe­ver, like female artists in gene­ral – wha­te­ver their coun­try of ori­gin – sin­gers and musi­cians from North Afri­ca and the East do not enjoy the same pro­fes­sio­nal oppor­tu­ni­ties as their male peers. They have fewer sche­du­led concerts, less pre­sence in the media, less access to sub­si­dies, less recog­ni­tion, prizes and other dis­tinc­tions, etc. It’s not about poin­ting out indi­vi­dual res­pon­si­bi­li­ties. The pro­blem is above all socie­tal and social. But if we all – women and men alike – paid atten­tion to this pro­blem, pro­gress could be made.

Video Dja­zia Satour, live 2019 teaser

Women account for only 18% of music indus­try leaders

In France, stu­dies show that only 5% of pro­fes­sio­nal jazz ins­tru­men­ta­lists, for example, are female.  Also, in jazz, accor­ding to a 2016 ADAMI docu­ment, bare­ly 10% of women are invol­ved in artis­tic pro­duc­tions ; the world music sec­tor is doing bet­ter ; there the figure rises to 16%. The per­cen­tage of women lea­ders in world music (artis­tic direc­tors, main artists, soloists…) amounts to 18%.

Dis­cri­mi­na­tion can fre­quent­ly be found in the detail and is most­ly prac­ti­sed uncons­cious­ly. In 2016, Almot Wala Alma­za­la, Naïs­sam Jalal’s second album, was the fourth big­gest sel­ler among jazz records at the Fnac (a spe­cia­list French retail chain) two months after its release. This signi­fi­cant recog­ni­tion sho­wed that the French flau­tist, com­po­ser and band lea­der of Syrian ori­gin had grab­bed the atten­tion of a niche and well-infor­med audience. It was also sur­pri­sing to see a spe­cia­list maga­zine intro­duce Naïs­sam Jalal as a “new­co­mer” after the release of her next album… She who was nomi­na­ted for the Vic­toires du Jazz in 2018 explains : “It’s very dif­fi­cult to tru­ly and objec­ti­ve­ly assess what dif­fi­cul­ties I have faced as a woman, since gen­der dis­cri­mi­na­tion is rare­ly seen expli­cit­ly. Usual­ly, those who prac­tise dis­cri­mi­na­tion don’t even rea­lise it. They just don’t take us serious­ly. Gene­ral­ly spea­king, I think the music indus­try is very male-domi­na­ted. As a woman, gai­ning legi­ti­ma­cy demands a lot of hard work”. The female artists we inter­vie­wed about being the daugh­ters of immi­grants – or per­cei­ved as such – share Naïs­sam Jalal’s obser­va­tion : “The pre­ju­dice I face all too often is moti­va­ted by two things : that I’m a woman and the daugh­ter of an immigrant”.

Video Souad Asla-Lem­ma, Lemti

Buil­ding cre­di­bi­li­ty in a pre­do­mi­nant­ly male environment

Women in other fields – agents, tour orga­ni­sers, mana­gers, for example – face simi­lar obs­tacles. Lei­la Chaï­bed­dra is the artis­tic direc­tor of Tar­tine Pro­duc­tion, which works with sin­gers such as Dja­zia Satour, Eli­da Almei­da and Maya Kama­ty. She says : “The ques­tion I get asked most often is : ‘When will I get to meet the boss of Tar­tine Pro­duc­tion?’ When I tell them I am the boss, there’s always a moment of hesi­ta­tion, as if the other per­son is having trouble belie­ving it because it seems unli­ke­ly. My main chal­lenge has been to build my cre­di­bi­li­ty in an envi­ron­ment where most venue and fes­ti­val direc­tors are men, who are used to dea­ling with male tour mana­gers in the main.” Souad Asla confirms : “I had to assert myself as a legi­ti­mate song­wri­ter and do so in a very male-domi­na­ted envi­ron­ment convin­ced it has a near mono­po­ly on know­ledge and exper­tise. For­tu­na­te­ly, the situa­tion has impro­ved, but there’s still a long way to go”. When we ask Souad Asla about the big­gest chal­lenge she has had to face, she is quick to ans­wer : “Run­ning the Lem­ma pro­ject. I brought toge­ther as many as 12 women from my vil­lage, deep in the deserts of sou­thern Alge­ria, 1,200 km from the capi­tal. I had to convince them – and espe­cial­ly their fami­lies (hus­bands, sons, fathers…) – to leave their homes, give up their ano­ny­mi­ty and per­form in front of an audience. Our mis­sion is to safe­guard these ances­tral songs. It’s essen­tial we find ways to get them out there. We’ve had to lead a cultu­ral, social and eco­no­mic struggle against obscurantism”.

Some women have fled their coun­tries because of war and other tra­ge­dies. Ouri­da Yaker, head of Tour’n‘sol Prod, left Alge­ria at the end of the 1990s, the Black Decade. She set­tled in France, not for fear of ter­ro­rism but to “be free to work and not give in to the sys­tem”. High­ly concer­ned about the condi­tions expe­rien­ced by female artists in France, she has set up an orga­ni­sa­tion to help bring to the fore musi­cal talents that were neglec­ted at the time. Sidi Bémol, Naïs­sam Jalal, Souad Asla, Fan­fa­raï Big Band, among others, now bene­fit from Ouri­da Yaker‘s com­mit­ment. She tells us, “I have always thought of my orga­ni­sa­tion as a tool for the artists I help. They are like fami­ly to me. I am not alone ; we stick toge­ther. But the road has been long, dif­fi­cult and still is”. Thanks to the efforts of Tour‘n’sol Prod – and of course a cata­logue of talen­ted artists – Fan­fa­raï Big Band and Lem­ma will per­form at the Opé­ra de Lyon on 15 June. Res­pect to this pres­ti­gious cultu­ral ins­ti­tu­tion for ope­ning its doors to these two fan­tas­tic bands and allo­wing new audiences to dis­co­ver them !

Video Has­na el Becha­ria, Hak­met Lak­dar.

Ara­bo­fo­lies, a trail­bla­zer in its approach to women

Since coming to France in 2002, Kami­lya Jubran has had time to assess the situa­tion. “I noti­ced that the place given to women, regard­less of natio­na­li­ty and ori­gin, is limi­ted. Besides, women are often redu­ced to the role of sin­ger. I had abso­lu­te­ly no idea about that when I was living in Pales­tine, where new gene­ra­tions of female musi­cians have mana­ged to break into the cur­rent scene. We can see this hap­pe­ning in Leba­non and Egypt as well, even if equa­li­ty does not exist there yet. Young women are clear­ly laying claim to their place”. Kami­lya Jubran’s expe­ri­ments are extre­me­ly deman­ding. At Ban­lieues Bleues, a famous fes­ti­val in the Paris area held in late March, she will lead a pro­ject with Sodas­si, a group of six voices from the bub­bling under­ground scenes in Ramal­lah, Bei­rut and Cai­ro. Sophis­ti­ca­ted as well as daring, the pro­ject will com­bine rock, jazz, elec­tro and slam in a breath-taking “pan-Arab” avant-gardism.

Video Kami­lya Jubran & Wer­ner Has­ler, Al Shaatte Al Akhar / كميليا جبران وفرنر هاسلر – الشاطئ الآخر

Put toge­ther by Marie Des­cour­tieux, cultu­ral acti­vi­ties mana­ger at the AWI, the exem­pla­ry Ara­bo­fo­lies pro­gramme includes a high pro­por­tion of women. Which goes to say that where there is a will to present female artists, there’s a way… On 7 March, as part of AWI Thurs­days, Ara­bo­fo­lies will invite contri­bu­tions to a debate entit­led Magh­reb : A Lega­cy Put To the Test of Equa­li­ty [Magh­reb : l’héritage à l’épreuve de l’égalité] – a free event sub­ject to avai­la­bi­li­ty, like all free events at the AWI. “Then, on 8 March, we’re plan­ning a forum, a new space for free expres­sion aimed lar­ge­ly at civil socie­ty in the Arab world,” says Marie Des­cour­tieux. “This time, we’ll pro­vide a plat­form for women’s struggles on this theme, some­thing com­mon to both sides of the Mediterranean”.

Yes to the Zone Franche ini­tia­tive in favour of a world music quota”

The artists we’ve met do not close them­selves off as vic­tims. They act unflin­chin­gly with as much pas­sion and patience as tena­ci­ty. Before them, pio­neers such as Alge­rians Mali­ka Dom­rane, Zahoua­nia, War­da and the legen­da­ry Chei­kha Rimit­ti, the Leba­nese Magi­da El Rou­mi and her pre­de­ces­sor the vene­rable Fai­ruz, not to men­tion the famous Egyp­tian Oum Kal­soum have paved the way. These female war­riors have never suc­cum­bed to the well-known French saying “Sois belle et tais-toi” [Be beau­ti­ful and keep quite]. On the contra­ry, they have tire­less­ly used their art for the sake of artis­tic research and social, edu­ca­tio­nal and sha­red causes…

Video Naïs­sam Jalal et Osloob, Al Akha­reen albumFight Back (live)


Naïs­sam Jalal has the final word this time : “I have long resis­ted quo­tas and posi­tive dis­cri­mi­na­tion. Still, maybe this is one of the solu­tions. When we are igno­red, mecha­nisms, even legis­la­tive, must be requi­red so that our work and contri­bu­tion to socie­ty is taken into account. From this point of view, the Zone Franche ini­tia­tive aimed at imple­men­ting ‘world music’ quo­tas is posi­tive, legi­ti­mate and ines­ca­pable”. Female artists do indeed deserve much more recog­ni­tion, more fes­ti­val pro­grammes and other events to match their talent. Echoing a poem by Mah­moud Dar­wish, we honour the doves who fly to save the roses, but also the rose bushes.

Video Fay­rouz, Nas­sam Alay­na El Hawwa


At the Arab World Ins­ti­tute : Exhi­bi­tion devo­ted to Arab divas from 20 March, 2020.

Naïs­sam Jalalhttp://​nais​sam​ja​lal​.com

Kami­lya JubranCD with Sarah Mur­cia, Hab­ka (Aba­lone / L’autre Dis­tri­bu­tion), www​.kami​lya​ju​bran​.com/:

Souad AslaCD Jawal (self-pro­du­ced) & CD Lem­ma (Buda Records / Uni­ver­sal), www​.face​book​.com/​s​o​u​a​d​-​a​s​l​a​-​1​1​5​8​1​3​6​5​8​4​5​7​0​45/:

Dja­zia SatourCD Aswât (Alwâne Music / Dif­fer-Ant), https://​dja​zia​sa​tour​.com/

CDs and DVDs (relea­sed by MLP):

Oum Kal­soum, CD Al Atlal ;

Fai­rouz, DVD Fai­rouz à Las Vegas ;

Oum Kal­soum, DVD Ya Mas­sa­har­ni ;

War­da, DVD Live at Palais des Congrès de Paris.


Alge­ria, women’s voices :


Fara C

© Héloïse Fricout


Fara C has been managing the Jazz / Black Music / World Music page at L’Humanité since 1986, the road companion of Jazz Magazine, RFI, France Musique, as well as L’Académie du Jazz and the Victoires du Jazz. She is the writer and co-director of a documentary about Charles Lloyd, Le moine et la sirène - Le chant de Charles Lloyd.

A lecturer, teacher, mathematics enthusiast and poetry lover but first and foremost a citizen, she has organised concerts in support of the homeless and other causes. Fara C is passionately on the trail of the thrills of creativity.

“In my opinion, in writing, music or mathematics, we are presented with the same mystery to fathom, a common quest for art and the soul,” Fara C.


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