World music matters - Lemma brings women artists from the Algerian desert to the stage

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Franco-Algerian singer Souad Asla grew up in Béchar in south west Algeria listening to, and loving, the region's traditional repertoires. While women have played a role in passing on that musical culture, they rarely perform in public. Asla has changed that. In 2015 she formed Lemma the first all-female ensemble from the Saoura to tour internationally. "Women have always been part of the musical heritage of the desert. Women have sung, danced and played percussion for centuries. But behind closed doors." Saoud Asla has brought these women out of the shadows and onto the prestigious Institut du monde Arabe in Paris to perform at the Arabofolies festival where we chat before the soundcheck. Lemma (meaning union or gathering in Arabic) goes back to 2015 when Asla set out to try and preserve and promote the rich musical heritage of her native Béchar. "I brought these women together to play and above all preserve the vast and rich oral heritage from this region because it’s dying out," she explains. Musical genres, both religious and profane, like malhun, gnawi, zeffani, hadra are traditionally performed at weddings and funerals but are also shared between women at informal gatherings where they meet to "discuss and support one another". Asla brought together nine women, aged 20 to 79, all from the region of Béchar where she was born. With the exception of Hasna El Becharia, the now famous gumbri player and vocalist, the other singers and percussionists were unaccustommed to the limelight. "I had to go and convince their husbands, their brothers," she explains. "I set up residencies over there, kidnapped them and locked them up in a house in the desert for 10 days." The women had music running through their veins but were unused to arrangements or using headphones. "They’ve worked very hard, and they’ve become a lot more professional," Asla says proudly. The women sing, dance and play percussion. "Before going on stage, the women pray and put on their veils but they’re brightly coloured and shimmering," says Asla, They dress up, put on make up, they’re beautiful, they’re happy with themselves. That’s the Islam I grew up with." The ensemble defends that tolerant, open Islam on stage. "Our message is obvious when you see us performing in public: freedom of expression, freedom for women, a real place for women in music around the world, whether in Algeria or here in France. "Because even here, it’s difficult to get our music heard. As a Maghrebi woman, I don’t know what’s happening, but doors are closing. You can’t imagine how hard it’s been to get this group off the ground. Thankfully I’ve found a tour manager to promote the project but it’s been five years battling on my own and it’s been difficult." The tour shows it was worth all the effort. And the singer, who left Algeria for France 27 years ago to be able to perform in public, also takes satisfaction in having founded a kind of second family. "There’s a musical and spiritual kinship between us all. I feel like they’re my aunts, mother, sisters. You could say I brought my family over here. It was a bit selfish in a way. I did the project for myself, but it's taking off and I'm happy. Lemma play at the Festival des Musiques d'Ici et Ailleurs in Chalons-en-Champagne 30 June, 2019. Follow Lemma on facebook and check out other tour dates.

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