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Jewish, Muslim musicians reunite for Algerian orchestra concert

Published: Updated:

A popular style of music traditionally performed by Jewish and Muslim musicians was brought to London's Barbican Center by the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers on Monday.

Some of the elderly members of the 25-piece Algerian orchestra used to perform together in a music class in the 1940s, when Jews and Muslims shared a peaceful existence.

“There were no differences between Jewish and Muslim people. We’d play at parties and weddings, and everyone got along really well. There was no animosity. There were Jewish guests and Muslim guests and there were no problem at the time,” said El Gusto member Lucien Cherki at the pre-concert talk on Monday night.

When Algeria shook off more than a century of French colonial rule in 1962, about one million ‘pieds noirs’ – French nationals born in Algeria whose ancestors were European settlers – and North African Jews, emigrated to France after a traumatic and bloody war for independence, including the Jewish members of the orchestra.

The group’s tale became the subject of a 2012 documentary entitled “El Gusto” by Algerian-Irish director Safinez Bousbia, who tracked down and reunited the surviving members of the original Chaabi music class.

“We were not expecting it, really, that someone would find them [the lost members]. We were not even expecting to meet each other again after so long,” said the white-haired oud player Rachid Berkani.

Concertgoers said they were attracted by the orchestra’s positive message.

“Because I like the idea of two communities coming together after a very lengthy break and celebrating something that goes beyond politics, religion, ethnicity and actually celebrates their origins. That excited me. I read about it, I didn't know about them, and I thought I want to hear them,” said Philippe Sands.

Oussama Mezoui bought a ticket to the concert after watching Bousbia's film and finding out that his uncle, singer and mandolin player Adbelkader Cehrcham, is part of El Gusto.

“I had no idea he was one of those actually involved in the project, so the minute I saw it [information about London concert] of course I kind of booked my ticket, and I’m here to surprise him. He doesn’t know I’m here,” he said.

Although Chaabi was rooted in Algeria, it is an important part of Jewish musical heritage, said Gil Karpas.

“It’s one of the threads in the musical seam of the Jewish story, you know. Jews lived [in Algeria]. They contributed, they brought their own liturgical, musical styles and also their own folk styles into that, and they were part of the creative engine that contributed to the music that we're about to see,” said Karpas from the Jewish Music Institute at the University of London.

El Gusto Orchestra performed in Amsterdam prior to London, and will travel to Morocco, France and the United States among other countries for their tour.