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French Version

Gnawa Diffusion jumps-up Beirut's Music Hall

"This tune is a special f*** off to the U.S. Army," roars Amazigh Kateb into a microphone to the packed audience at Beirut's Music Hall. "It's called Bush jump up! Every time you jump and land imagine you are jumping on Bush's head."

As the upbeat Arabo-Ska fusion tune takes hold the mostly 20-something crowd jump and scream alongside the wiry Kateb, his anti-American sentiment hitting a raw nerve among what is primarily a Francophone-Lebanese audience.

Kateb, son of the late Kateb Yassine, arguably the most important writer and poet to come out of Algeria in the 20th century, was in town with his band Gnawa Diffusion as part of the French Cultural Institute's (CCF) concert series Cabaret du Monde/Generation Musiques.

Following on from Kateb's fellow French-Algerian rock star Rachid Taha, who performed as part of the same program in June and was equally outspoken against America's Middle East policy, the Cabaret du Monde/Generation Musiques series is almost becoming a round-about way for France to air its displeasure at U.S. policy in its former 'colonies.'

Okay, that might be stretching it a little, so we will have to wait for the next performers Thierry "Titi" Robin in August and Arno in September to see if there is a pattern forming here. Perhaps it is merely a reflection of European and Arab feeling manifesting itself in the most revolutionary of forms that is music.

Still, the eight-piece Gnawa Diffusion and Kateb, know exactly how they feel. And they put on a potent performance of "metissage" or "musical fusion," of the sort long produced by the mixed North-African immigrant community of France.

Based in Grenoble in the southeast of France, the group comes from a rich mix of musical and cultural backgrounds - French, Moroccan, Algerian - and they weave these influences into a vibrant patchwork of rap, ragga, jazz, reggae and rai.

Their name is a reference to the Gnawa, a tribe from Western Sudan who were deported to North Africa in the 16th century by the rulers of Fez and Algiers, and whose descendants now inhabit Morocco and Algeria. While the Gnawa were officially converted to Islam by their new masters, they continued to worship their own African gods in private.

The concert began with the group all playing the kerkaba, a sort of North African castanet but made out of beaten steel, building a chanting rhythm as Kateb strummed his guembri - a North African three-string bass guitar made of bamboo and animal skin stretched over a hollow wood body much like a djembe drum but tubular in shape.

Over the music Kateb sings in edgy powerful Arabic, ululating and stretching notes into primal keenings to the sky. It is an entrance to enjoy. For the next two hours, and two encores, the band's rock reggae and ska rhythms twisted up with oriental melodies and African high-life tunes courtesy of one of the guitarists playing an electric mandolin.

Singing in French or Arabic, Kateb brings a Jamaican ragga feel to his jump-up tunes, but it is his texts and his politics - like his father's - which have the most impact. Kateb is all about revolution and standing up for freedom and the poor. Wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with "C.C.C.P" signifying the former Soviet Union on the front and the hammer and sickle on the back, hair tied with an orange bandana, Kateb is not afraid to put his Marxist tendencies on show. Indeed the lyrics to one almost-country song, "Itchak el Baz" from Gnawa Diffusion's album "Souk System," include "it is the action that must be the first expression ... here we are to make a revolution," and features the mandolin player strumming a banjo. It is another anti-Bush tune with Kateb periodically singing "f***ing cowboy" to go with the banjo riff - which incidentally sounds much like the riff from John Boorman's disturbing film "Deliverance."

Unlike the much-talked about and worthy Live 8 series of global concerts to stamp out world poverty and push for debt relief for Africa held on Saturday, Kateb and Gnawa Diffusion, through their music, choice of instruments and words, have been pushing to get Africa on the world agenda since they formed in the early 1990s.

Indeed, Kateb's playing of the guembri itself is part of that push, for as a French Arab and for all intents and purposes a white person, in using a musical instrument emblematic to the black man of North Africa, he is making a statement of equality and even homage.

All of this was appreciated by the Music Hall audience on Sunday, who clapped and stamped for two encores before Gnawa Diffusion walked off stage.

Though the show lagged in the middle, it picked up with a guest appearance from Lebanese rapper Rayess Bek (Wael Kodeih) and again in the last half hour of heavy reggae funk and more of the repetitive chants accompanied by the kerkaba clicking in unison for minutes on end.

Energetic and appropriate, Gnawa Diffusion now continue their Mediterranean tour to spread their metissage message around the globe.

Beirut,07 19 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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