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Any written dispatch on Souad Massi is apt to turn up the words "Algerian singer/songwriter" before the reader can grasp that cultural strings have little to do with her appeal. That's unfair, given the lengths to which the self-serious but lithe-voiced performer has gone to establish herself as a citizen of the world.
Born into a poor Muslim household in 1972, Massi spent her formative years in Bab el-Oued, a suburb of Algiers, as one of seven siblings. She absorbed a love of music from her piano-playing brother who, despite protestations from their father, convinced their less traditional-minded mother that the guitar lessons she yearned for were worth the investment. By 1992, with Algeria in a brutal civil war and a 7 p.m. curfew in place nationwide, Massi's dreams of mastering her instrument seemed dashed; attending lessons was all but impossible, especially given her sex and Muslim-unfriendly jeans-and-sneakers style.
But life as a semi-shut-in had its advantages for Massi. Instead of stifling her creative instincts, it magnified them. The artist, like many introspective prisoners, dug deep, and through careful attention to American cowboy movies — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, for example — Massi amassed a collection of favorite sounds. Soundtrack-derived country and folk songs delivered her to the radio dial, where she sought out American roots music. And strumming along eventually turned her proficient enough to join her first band, a flamenco outfit with which she quickly grew bored.
Abandoning that watered-down group would lead to a life-altering musical choice: Massi signed on to front Atakor, a heavy-rock band with political leanings. Her seven years with Atakor earned her a troublemaker's reputation in fundamentalist Algeria, where she quickly became the target of spitting and general scorn. And as the band called more attention to itself with what some considered inflammatory lyrics, danger encroached — Atakor's equipment was routinely snatched at false road blocks, and Massi, who had disguised herself by cutting off her hair and camouflaging her body with boys' clothes, nevertheless became the target of death threats after the release of a late-'90s Atakor cassette.
By 2000, Massi fled to Paris. Though she took part in that city's "Femmes d'Algerie" concert as a new arrival, she was contemplating a life outside music at the time; a quick-acting Island Records executive who extended a contract changed her mind. In 2001, Massi's solo debut, Raoui, was released on the U.K.'s Wrasse Records label. Like its follow-up, 2003's Deb, also on Wrasse, it concerned itself with the personal rather than the political. Melancholy ballads sung in Arabic, French, and English typically melted into rock, folk, flamenco, and classical backdrops. Those sensitive-minded reflections on love and loss, set to achingly pretty sounds that stray far from North Africa's traditional, pounding rai rhythms, also light up Mesk Elil (Wrasse), Massi's 2006 release. If Massi's personal transformation and her mastery of genre-jumbling is impressive, her voice is no less so on all three of her discs: the flavors of Merita Halili, Karla Bonoff, and Basia that float through are as universally appealing as the story of her struggle to secure artistic freedom.