Algeria: Matoub Lounès and the struggle for Berber identity in Algeria

Guerilla of pop: Matoub Lounès and the struggle for Berber identity in Algeria
by Andy Morgan

Read about the legendary Berber singer Matoub Lounès who was assasinated on 25 June 1998. 

These 21 pages in A4-format is a chapter in the book ‘Shoot the Singer! Music Censorship Today’ (Freemuse/Zed Books, May 2004). Reproduced with kind permission from the author and Zed Books.

Read chapter (PDF)

Shoot the Singer! Read more..

Excerpt from the introduction of ‘Guerrilla of pop: Matoub Lounès and thestruggle for Berber identity in Algeria’

By Andy Morgan

‘Silence is death and yet if you speak you die. If you keep quiet you die. So then speak and die.’

Tahar Djaout

‘I want to speak and I don’t want to die.’
Matoub Lounès

A grave between an olive and a cherry tree

Death finally caught up with him on the lonely bend of a mountain road. The bullet-strafed car was still smoking and the pools of blood on the asphalt were still warm when the news broke. Telephones lines crackled and the Internet came alive. ‘They’ve killed him.’ ‘He was with his wife and two sistersin- law.’ ‘They were hit too.’ ‘It happened just after 1 p.m.’ ‘On the Tizi Ouzou road.’ ‘It was a false roadblock.’ ‘It was an ambush.’ ‘It was the GIA.’ ‘It was Chenoui’s men.’ ‘It was the government.’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘He’s gone.’ ‘Matoub has gone.’ Some even whispered, ‘It had to happen.’

Within hours angry mourners in their thousands had gathered around the Mohammed Nedir hospital in Tizi Ouzou, where Matoub Lounès’s bloodied remains were taken after the attack. Their shouts boomed like mixed-shot salvoes of anger, desperation and grief. ‘Government … Assassin!’ ‘Zéroual … Assassin!’ ‘Islamists … Assassins!’ ‘The generals … Assassins!’ Over the next few days youths took to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, Akbou, Sidi Aïch, Bejaia, Aïn el Hammam and Tizi Guénif and unleashed their rage on government buildings, party offices, banks and shops. The police and security forces retaliated nervously with water cannon, tear gas and bullets. Three protesters were killed. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia appealed feebly for calm. Kabylia was burning.

In Paris, thousands gathered in Place de la République, in front of an immense black-and-white portrait of Matoub. Actors, politicians, community leaders, writers and musicians took to the stage to say a few words or sing a song. The great Berber singer Idir denounced the new Arabization law which was due to be passed on 5 July, making Arabic the compulsory language of almost every official or semi-official transaction in Algeria. The crowd stood smouldering under the fluttering yellow, blue and green flags of Kabylia, arms raised to the skies, chanting his songs. ‘Matoub was the Bard of Kabylia. They wanted to shut him up so they killed him,’ said one mourner. ‘He sang for freedom, our freedom, Berber freedom,’ said another. ‘He was our Che Guevara,’ said a third.

The Berber Cultural Movement (MCB) called for a general strike and the response was overwhelming. Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylia, was enveloped in a sepulchral silence on Sunday, 28 June 1998, three days after Matoub’s murder. Boarded-up shops and businesses looked like mausoleums lining the paths of a huge cemetery. Many of the city’s inhabitants had left before dawn and made their way up the mountain to Taourirt Moussa, the village where Matoub was born. They stuffed themselves in cars or braved the 25 kilometres on foot. The roads were hopelessly jammed. This, for once, was a real roadblock.

In every hollow, on every ridge, down every street or path and on every rooftop around the Matoub villa, as far as the eye could see, a sea of mourners stood simmering under a hot and ripening sun. The presence of women, dressed defiantly in their colourful traditional dress or Western threads, all of them unveiled, surprised many. Traditionally, funerals in Algeria are all-male affairs.

The heat was intense, the atmosphere even more so, and many fainted. Militants from the various Berber political groups and local village defence associations policed the gathering. Their work was light because no one was in the mood for troublemaking. Placards bearing Matoub’s intense and anxious features were held aloft. Banners broke the silence and the sobs. ‘Remember and Revenge!’ ‘No Peace without Tamazight.’ ‘Arabo-Islamism, the shortest way to HELL.’ Eventually Matoub’s body was brought out, wrapped only in an Algerian flag, and laid tenderly in a grave just in front of his family home, between an olive and a cherry tree, facing the majestic Djurdjura Mountains which he had loved with such a passion. His mother Aldjia fired two shots in the air and his sister Malika made a short speech which ended, ‘The face of Lounès will be missed but his songs will dwell for ever in our hearts. Today is a day of great joy. We are celebrating the birth of Matoub Lounès.’

Read more in the pdf-file above…

Matoub Lounès was filmed by BBC shortly before he was assassinated in 1998

Related reading:

“I wish you a warm welcome to the Kufa Gallery and the presentation of the first Freemuse report on music censorship – the very first one which is dealing with Afghanistan – a country which I have followed ever since my stay there in 1972. At that time I was on a study tour to write about the media situation in the country. I spent some months with Kabul Times and Radio Kabul, enjoyed meeting with the old master musicians and listen to the recordings in the very unfashionable studios. Later in 1979 I worked for the UN in Islamabad dealing with the first Afghan refugees that had fled over the snowy mountains to the North Western Frontier Province.

Music was not part of their life; it was a fight for daily survival. In the early eighties I went back to report on the refugees, to meet with rebel leaders and report on the war for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, and still there was no time for music – but for jihad and surviving.

Since then not much music has been played in Afghanistan itself or in the camps. This is one of the reasons that Freemuse decided to put focus on Afghanistan – once so rich of musical culture.

But Afghanistan is not the only country where music censorship exists. Throughout history and in modern times there are many untold stories and the lack of research is striking. The only exception is the fairly well documented censorship on music during the Nazi period in Germany and in former Eastern Europe including former Soviet Union.

This was one of the reasons why The 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship was arranged in Copenhagen in 1998. On the very last day the participants agreed on a Declaration and I was given the mandate to investigate the possibilities of establishing a documentation centre in Copenhagen. The following months a Plan of Action and Charter for the organization took shape and this is the time when I turned to International PEN for guidance as we regard International PEN as a role model for our work. And today it is a pleasure to be here and present the Afghanistan report in collaboration with International PEN.

In October 1999 Freemuse was founded. Freemuse is an international organisation open to members. Last year Freemuse received core funding from the Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and additional funding from the Roskilde Foundation, Pet Shop Boys, Oasis and Roskilde Festival. The Freemuse office was established in August 2000 and since then we have:

  • established a website
  • edited and published a report book from the 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship
  • initiated four surveys of music censorship, this very first one on Afghanistan, the next will be on musical censorship of gypsies in Romania, written by the journalist Garth Cartwright, the third report is on Zimbabwe written by an American guitarist and writer, Banning Eyre. The last report this year will be on music censorship and its effects in South Africa. Furthermore we are expecting a shorter report on Morocco

Last month Freemuse arranged and hosted a seminar on the effects of music censorship in Johannesburg and one of the results of the seminar was that a Freemuse working group was established. The group consists of musicians, researchers, archivists and representatives of the music industry. This summer Freemuse will take part at Roskilde Festival like we did last year where we had a couple of bands who have experienced different forms of censorship, performing on stage for Freemuse, amongst them Fundamental who faced problems when their video for the song Dog Tribe was released here in England.

Now back to Afghanistan – and I welcome Dr. John Baily, Reader in Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, London, who has written the report ” Can you stop the birds singing?” – The censorship of music in Afghanistan.”

Thank you.

Marie Korpe

Director of Freemuse, organiser of the 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, former reporter to the Swedish Broadcasting. Co-editor of ‘Smashed Hits – The Book of Banned Music’, Index on Censorship 6/98.

  Marie Korpe - photo by Robert Corwin
Marie Korpe, Executive Director of Freemuse


Home / Resource / Algeria: Matoub Lounès and the struggle for Berber identity in Algeria