Seddik Zebiri defines himself as a “music activist”, but even if he doesn’t agree, we reckon that the best way to think about him is as a ‘teacher or ‘mentor’. He’s a seasoned and experienced music “actor” who belongs to the old guard having started playing music in the ‘60s; but at the same time, he is still a pioneer and a trailblazer for young musicians.
His sound is closely related to his Algerian roots, but it is also forward-looking, open to every kind of influence and fusion. Since his first steps in music, taken in the Parisian scene of the ‘60s, when he was in his twenties, the cultural scenario has deeply changed. But, as he likes to affirm, he is “ always the same: for me music is always the same thing, there is no difference between the one which I played during the ‘70s, the ‘80s or the one I’m playing today ”.
He talked in full flow with us before his gig at Ritzy in Brixton, part of the 12th edition of the London African Music Festival. And we quickly understood, we were face-to-face not only with a remarkable musician with an intriguing story to tell, but also with a sincere and frank person. He inevitably started by recalling his early years: “ when I was 19, I decided to move to France. I wasn’t seeking a job or any other particular thing. It was only because I was a volunteer in the army, but I didn’t like it at all, so I thought that the best way to escape from troubles was to leave, to get out: to go away. I also wrote a song called “Road to Nowhere”, which explains my situation at that time ”
Actually, as he told us, it was about music as well… “ I also decided to move because of curiosity. Since I grew up in a village where everybody was a musician in his own way, I was already thinking about my music, and how to develop it. However, my musicianship was too elemental at the time. Where I come from in Algeria everybody knows how to play the drum or how to sing, but in a basic and straightforward way. Hence I thought that France could have boosted my skills. I wanted to learn something I didn’t know before, also because I still think that the best way to learn something new is to go to different places and search for it ”. Unfortunately, the results weren’t the ones that Seddik expected: “ to be honest, I didn’t find anything special there, except troubles. I found racism, ignorance, few jobs to do and ugly accommodations. I quickly found out that it was extremely hard to get a profession without a proper education. And, since I’ve never been to school, it was really hard to know where to start from ”.
Also musically, Paris was no bed of roses: “ there weren’t many clubs around during that period. All the clubs were places to listen to ballades, mousettes or music like Italian tarantella. And I wasn’t interested at all in those styles”.But, one day, like a revelation… “ I was walking with a friend and I ended up in Saint Michael, in a road called Rue de la Huchette, which is still very popular because all the old jazz musicians played there: artists like Sidney Bechet and Dave Brubeck.
That night, I ended up listening to Brubeck: I heard him playing “Take 5”. I heard the saxophone and the piano from the road and I immediately recognised him. That sound attracted me so much, that it was like a mystery tune for me. So I decided to get into the club… Try to imagine, I was coming from Algeria, where I never heard that kind of music before. So I got the tune, but all the rest was really complicated for me, something like from another world. Since then I decided to go on and play more music ”.
But France wasn’t the place to be for Zebiri: “ it was so difficult to find and meet other musicians. Latin Americans and also the Africans had their own little clubs with reserved access. Then, even if you were African, but if you had white skin, they were scared of you, and you were scared to go there too, because you didn’t know what was going to happen. Until 1975, I carried on living in France, then on the 4 th of December I decided that I had enough of Paris”.And he opted to move to London, where his life and his career finally changed for the better.
“ When I arrived in London, I went straight away to Swiss Cottage, and immediately got in touch with a lot of musicians who were coming from Africa: Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. I used to participate in the drumming workshop they were organizing every Sunday. I had the darbouka with me, so I decided to try. In that way I started to meet new people and play with them ”.
Music gradually became something more than a passion for him. “ Since then I started more serious projects, like the one with Sphinx or Zila Band. I also met quite interesting people like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Abdullah Ibrahim and Chris McGregor ”. All these new friendships also influenced his style, helping Seddik Zebiri to develop a more elaborate approach: “ those artist were playing different styles from mine; but I finally came to terms with them. I learnt to think in a faster way, to act quickly and finally I learnt how to follow those new rhythms and how to play them too. I realised that the best way to work with those sounds was to mix them up with my music” .
That became his rule and his vision. He started to see music a continuous mixture of genres, instruments and traditions. “ When you listen to my music you can initially define it as traditional, Algerian or Berber, but is has also some classic Middle Eastern elements. Then, when you listen further you can also identify other ingredients coming from rock, reggae, Latin or funk ”. His music, like his band (Seeds of Creation) is a reflection of his wandering soul: “all the band members come from different parts of the world. I have played with a Japanese bass player, a British drummer of Jamaican origin, a Jamaican keyboard player, an Indian lead guitarist, another bass player from St. Lucia, and a saxophonist from Nigeria”. He has an infallible recipe for blending diverse tastes together: “ I think that it is just like when you meet new people. You like them, you invite them to your place to have some food, and then… why do you have to bring them just around a table? After eating food I discover their sociology, their behaviour: this is the base. To listen to them, to learn from them and to contribute with them: this is the idea behind the Seeds of Creation band ”.
The Seeds of Creation indeed embodies Seddik’s principles, but they are really far from his own creation: “ I’m not the kind of person who writes the music and then says to his musicians: you have to play this, you have to play that. I write the songs and the music, I also come up with the original idea. But then, I say to my guys to decide how to carry on, how to develop the concept. They can add, remove and change: I start making decisions only when nobody comes out with any ideas . Our music is the outcome of a collective process. In addition, I’m always clear and straightforward with them: I love to tell them when I like something, but I have also no problem to tell them when someone or something is not working well ”.
To work in this way, he needs a great open-mindedness: one of Zebiri’s talents. “ To be able to learn from different people I have to open my heart, to reconcile myself to them. I don’t have to be paranoiac or fearful to offer, to suggest nor to take in”. Another talent is simplicity: “ I don’t define myself as a master. A master musician is someone who can display everything musically, I’m very happy that people call me in this way, but I’m a master only in what I know ”.
That’s how he leads, every Sunday, a jam session at the Silver Bullet in Finsbury Park in London: “ a jam session is like giving people a scenario where to play and something to play. Doing that, I decided to open my heart and to expose myself. The concept behind the jam sessions is simple: since I’ve some musical ideas that I haven’t already developed, if you have the ability to contribute, you can do it. What I’m learning there is psychology: I’m not only dealing with musicians, but with people. I’m dealing with their skills, their brain and their sensitivity too ”.
Also the audience is a quite important component of his shows: “ for the audience is like if we display a show: for them is like to be at the cinema or at the theatre. To present music in this way, it becomes like watching a movie or a performance. And that gives a lot of credits to the musicians and to me.
I think that the only thing that can make me proud is the respect that people give to me. I don’t really care about the rest: about money or popularity, but the respect of the audience and the musicians I play with ”.
This can be considered as the basis of Seddik Zebiri’s approach. He’s a musician who, after 50 years, is still thrilled by the music he plays like on the first day he put his hands on an instrument: “ the music I’ve learned from the ‘60 is always with me, every song I write, it comes from there. That music is like some seeds: you throw them, they merge with the land. Then, even if you burn it, they are always going to sprout, there is always a seed which will grow ”.
To consider him to be just a musician, is too simplistic. He is much more: a music militant, and a genuine soul and that is reflected in the music he plays. “ I define myself as a music activist. I hate politics because with politics you don’t go anywhere, but with music you go everywhere you want: you can reach people with it. So I think that I’m like a chopper: I don’t give a shit about what everybody else thinks, because the truth is always the truth. In my opinion, if you run away from the truth, you’d better go to your grave”.