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‘Come, Ask My Heart’: Voice, Meaning, and Affect among Algerian Sha’bi Musicians in Paris

By Christopher Orr, Florida State University (2019)

This dissertation explores performances of Algerian sha’bi music in Paris as affectively powerful experiences for the Algerian migrant community. Literally meaning “popular,” sha’bi developed as a modernized form of colloquial sung poetry among the working class of mid-twentieth century Algiers and remains a significant mode of cultural expression today. Drawing from extended fieldwork, I compare an array of formal and informal performance contexts in and around the French capital, ranging from cafés, to large concert halls, to private soirées. Through interviews and my own observations, I consider the interdependency of place and intimacy in the expression of authority, morality, ecstasy, tradition, and communal belonging in sha’bi praxis.

Sha’bi is a music shaped by histories of colonialism and migration, and yet rooted in strong associations of place through evocations of its city of origin. Rather than adhering to well-worn dyadic constructions of home and exile, I explore the idea of place in multiple guises, both real and imagined, as it either constrains or enables shared ecstatic experience among listeners in diaspora. This approach not only opens exciting opportunities to understand the immediacy of ecstatic musical experience, but better accounts for the complexities and contradictions of the migrant experience.

During successful sha’bi performances, participants transform physical spaces into places of intimacy by entraining with one another’s emotional states. This state of shared heightened emotion is vested in the role of the shaykh, or lead vocalist, who moves the audience through skillful execution of sha’bi’s musical conventions and his demonstration of textual knowledge through a convincing interpretation of the musical poetry. Central to this experience is the voice of the shaykh, which imbues the text with affective power and establishes the singer as the embodiment of tradition. The singer invites the audience into a shared ritual of ecstatic, musical interaction in which bodily co-presence and emotional entrainment bring listeners together in collective effervescence. Through close examination of performances, I analyze how singers employ explicit references to place as well as more abstract tools of affect and vocal manipulation to connect with audiences and produce successful, emotionally heightened experiences. I contextualize my findings within recent research in voice studies and music cognition, as well as more regionally specific literature on Islamic ontologies of the voice and its power over the listener.

Perhaps most importantly, singers are imbued with moral virtues by adoring devotees, which allows them to shape the emotional experiences of individual performances. Informed by the insights of my interlocutors, I examine how the sha’bi singer comes to embody the weight of tradition and joins with musicians and audiences to facilitate intimacy across a range of Parisian environments.

“Ya Rayah”

The following is perhaps the most well-known sha’bi song. Its composer Dahmane El Harrachi (1926-1980) is regarded today as one of the most important figures of “sha’bi of exile,” having performed, recorded, and lived many years in France away from his native Algeria. Known for short songs written in accessible Arabic, El Harrachi distinguished himself from earlier sha’bi singers who interpreted thirty- or forty-five-minute renditions of classic malhun poetry. This clip is a live performance by the composer’s son Kamel El Harrachi at the 2013 Ile de France music festival in Paris. Sha’bi enthusiasts living in Paris today question the efficacy of large, public performance venues for invoking emotionally powerful performances. As I consider in the dissertation, performances such as this one show the active role of audience members in overcoming the anonymity of such spaces to create the intimacy of the ideal sha’bi experience.

Example 1: “Ya Rayah” (Oh, Traveler), performed by Kamel El Harrachi

Ya rayah win tusafir truh ta’ayya wa-twili
Sh-hal nadamu-l-ba’ad-l-ghaflin qablik u-qabli
Sh-hal shift buldan l-‘amrin wa-l-brr l-khali
Sh-hal dayy’at awqat wa-sh-hal zid ma zal tkhali

Oh migrant, to where are you traveling? You will inevitably end up returning
How many naïve ones have gone before you and me?
How many overcrowded nations have you seen, and others empty?
How much time have you already lost and how much more will you lose?


The second clip is an hour-long live interpretation of one of the most famous texts in the classic malhun repertoire, “al-Maknasiyya.” The performer, Amar Ezzahi, passed away in Algeria shortly before the start of my fieldwork and featured prominently in nearly every one of my conversations. A humble and reclusive musician from a popular neighborhood in Algiers, Ezzahi is held up as an example of the ideal sha’bi singer—one whose voice conveys authority of poetic interpretation while at the same time evoking an exemplary moral character and a closeness to ‘the people’ that lies at the heart of the genre’s popular ethos. As I would discover, Ezzahi personified the figure of the sha’bi shaykh as an embodiment of musical knowledge, pedagogical lineage, and moral authority in the community.

Amar Ezzahi
Amar Ezzahi, ca. 1980s (1941-2016)

One of the most famous poems of the classic malhun repertoire, “al-Maknasiyya” remains a standard text for sha’bi musicians. Written by the Sidi Qaddour al-‘Alami (1742-1850), the poem recounts a dramatic chapter in the poet’s life when he returned to his hometown of Meknes, only to find that his home had been confiscated by the townsfolk. The poem serves as a public rebuke of the town leadership in Meknes for betraying his trust. According to tradition, the poet eventually succeeded in reclaiming his house, and today the location has been converted into a zawiya where he is venerated as a saint.

After an improvised instrumental introduction on mandole (Algerian fretted lute), Ezzahi sings the opening series of two-hemistich strophes (1:10), alternating with instrumental responses from the ensemble of banjo, mandole, violin, and darbuka.

Example 2: “al-Maknasiyya,” performed by Amar Ezzahi

Kif ma yankad qalbi min shfayat n-nas?
Kif ma nahzan ya wa’adi ‘ala-l-mrasam?
Kif ba’d khruji min watni nrum al-ajnas?
Hawz butiba fih adrakt al-ghnayam
Shmus basri al-ashraf at-tibin al-infas
Hjarthum wu-fraqhum ‘ala-l-qalb shatam

How could my heart not be saddened when they rejoice over my misfortune?
Could I leave this place, oh my God, without feeling afflicted?
After being from my country, how could I still mingle with these men?
It is in Hawz Boutiba where I made my fortune
There, where the noble men with pure hearts were my light
I abandoned them, a separation which injures my heart