A beam of hot, North African sun was brought to the a rainy WOMAD festival site this afternoon. Thirty year-old Algerian singer and guitarist Nazim Ziryab took to the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage with his band of international musicians, giving an energetic performance that warmed up the damp WOMAD crowd. We caught up with him backstage afterwards, where he talked with great affection of his culture and his music and his new life in the UK
You’ve been in the UK over 3 years now. Tell us a bit about your background and how you first got into music.
I was born in the old Kasbah, a popular area in Algiers. I started playing when I was young. My mother is an artist, and my uncle is an actor in Algeria. I got into music when my father put a CD in my hands, a CD of western classical music, and I discovered traditional music through classical music. It’s true, because I didn’t like the music of my own country. Young people listen to music that they watch on TV. And then I noticed that there were very many similarities with western music, especially the blues. This is how I discovered the music from my country.
Since you’ve been in the UK do you feel even more strongly about your own tradition?
Yes of course. When you are far from your love you miss your lover. It nourishes your love and you love differently and more intensely. So for the music you try to express a message that says “I miss you all”, but this message can be understood by anyone, westerners, north Africans, Europeans. This is my philosophy of mixing music. I need to write a letter back home, but in a language that all can understand. Mixing rock with traditional is important because if you only do traditional music people will be really bored. You’ll feel like you’re really far away from them, so when you have something in common with your peers they’re more receptive.
I don’t sing in English. The band is London musicians from France and Italy. I like Mediterranean people because I am Mediterranean. They are from our culture, so it is easy for them. Then there are two British and one other Algerian, the percussionist, and you know percussion is really important in our music.
I would love to go to Algeria with this band. I might organize something with the BBC. The people there will be proud because I am travelling with their music. If they see a British person playing Algerian rhythms they will be really proud that someone on the other side of the sea knows something about their country. And for me the music is a way to bring people together. Maybe if my drummer walked in the street in Algiers, he would not make friends really quickly, but the fact that he plays their music it will make it easier for him to get in contact with people, so music really brings people together. It has no oral language but it’s something that we feel. It’s all about feel.
What do you sing about, and do you write your own songs?
They’re based on a type of traditional Arabic poetry. But you know, I think poetry needs to be updated with the actual current environment, so I use the rules of the poetry but inside I try to make it easy for people to understand. So three centuries ago you would say ‘I love you’ in a certain way, and nowadays you would say it in a different way, so I try to speak the language that the people can understand, but it’s still poetry, even though it’s rock music.
You had your music chosen to be played in the BBC ‘Introducing’ sessions for World on 3. How was that for you to get an opportunity like that?
I loaded my track on the website as thousands of people do. I did it without any expectation of getting anywhere – it’s really competitive and difficult, like you need to be there at the right time and know the right person. So I never thought that one day I would be here talking to a journalist. Coming from a poor area in Algiers I never dreamt I’d be playing at a festival like WOMAD. I didn’t even know what it was! You know, I was just playing in the streets with friends with no intention to be famous or doing it seriously. I came across the website by coincidence and uploaded my track and they liked it and called me, and the dream was born there. I hope this dream will never end!
I’ve recorded an album. I went back to Algeria when I was a student and I thought that it would be better to use Algerian musicians, but I finished the recording here with these musicians. So I recorded part of it in Algeria and part of it here. It’s an EP with four tracks. I’m hoping to get signed by a label and record a full album. The EP is called Kasbah London – the connection between two different places, south and west.
Tell us about your instruments. We saw you playing electric guitar, but there are pictures of you playing a mandole.
Yes, I play the mandole. But to me it’s more interesting to play traditional music on an electric guitar. For me I’m a guitarist, and I’m trying to make the guitar sound different from what it usually sounds like. It would be easy to bring a mandole player – it’s catchy, but for me it’s a challenge. I want to play a different music on my guitar. I love Jimi Hendrix, and this guy played the guitar like no one had played it before, he just brought something new to the electric guitar and I’m following that path. I’m not the first to do it, but that’s my choice. But when you listen there’s mandole in the music. My philosophy is when I’m back home I like to play it, but you can do both, but I prefer guitar – I love rock music and I love blues music.
The music is North African – many civilisations have passed through. We were Roman or Phoenician for centuries, there are Spanish and Berber influences. You know this area is really rich in terms of culture, and at the end it’s been Arabic since the Arab civilization came to North Africa, but we were also ruled by the French for one hundred and thirty-two years, so I couldn’t say I do one hundred percent Arabic music. I love Arabic music but I love Spanish, western and Malian music. So what I do is try to use these resources and do my own music. The blues have also influenced me. There’s a documentary ‘From Mali to Mississippi’ [by Martin Scorsese], and he tries to say that the blues comes from Mali, from Tuareg music – like Tinariwen, who are playing tonight – to America. So I am in the same situation like when people went to America. They brought their culture and music with them – this is how the blue has been created. I am in the same concept, and Spanish music as Berber people came to Spain There is Ziryab, a guy that came from Iraq and came to Spain, bringing his music – he added a fifth pair of strings to the oud. The acoustic guitar was created based on that and flamenco came from it using one scale of the forty-eight Arabic scales. It sounds a bit Arabic, a bit exotic, and that’s what I like about music because it’s really rich and you can travel without flying!
We can build non-material bridges through culture and music. I’d love people to go from here and discover Algerian music. And see British playing with Algerian bands there.
What are people listening to in Algeria? Give us just one example.
There’s one band called Freeklane – they’re very good. Probably better than me!
Nazim laughs, but judging by his great performance here today Nazim Ziryab will go far, both in Europe and in his own homeland.