Berber's Shining Star

By Sopova, Jasmina | UNESCO Courier, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Berber's Shining Star


Sopova, Jasmina, UNESCO Courier


Jasmina [*] Sopova

Algerian singer Idir, an icon of Berber culture, uses his talent and guitar to fight for recognition of his mother tongue

'Txilek elli yi n taburt a vava invba / ccencen tizebgatin im a yelli ghriba" ("Please, father Inouba, open the door / Oh Ghriba girl, jingle your bracelets").

This refrain from a Kabyle song, "A Vava Inouva," rang out around the world in the early 1970s. Only 10 million or so Berbers, scattered over the Sahara and North Africa, could understand the words, but the song became an international hit.

Its young Algerian author, Hamid Cheriet, took the stage name of Idir ("he shall live" in Kabyle). "At a time when many epidemics were raging, new-born babies were called Idir to ward off bad luck," he says. "I chose it as a tribute to my culture, which I felt was threatened."

The Berber people, who mostly live in the mountains of Morocco and Algeria, speak Shawiya, Shilha, Kabyle, Mzab, Rifain, Tacheihit, Tuareg, Targi and Tarifit--all dialects of Tamazight, their native tongue, which is only recognized as a national language in Niger and Mali. In other places, Berber culture is ignored or even banned.

"They give me an Algerian passport, but I have to get permission to speak my own language," says Idir who, like the great Martinican poet Aime Cesaire, speaks up for "those who have no voice."

It never occurred to him to write in French, the language of the colonizer in which he did all his schooling, right up to a Ph.D in geology. Nor would he write in Arabic, which was taught as a second language in Algeria at the time.

"If I hadn't left my village, I'd never have spoken a word of Arabic," he says. "French and Arabic would allow me to get my message over to a wider audience, but I wouldn't know how to go about it or what to say."

Kabyle is a language of feelings and storytelling that flows naturally in poetry. It is also the language Idir has chosen to use. "To sing in Kabyle is a militant act, a way of expressing my rebellion, to say that I exist," he says. "If I'd had another profession, I would have found other ways to express the same demands."

Three languages for Algeria

The young Hamid Cheriet stumbled on singing by accident. He was born in 1955 in Ait Lahcene, a remote mountain village in Kabylia. When he was nine, he went with his parents, sister and two brothers to Algiers. He attended a school run by Jesuits, where "being Kabyle meant you were part of some kind of dirty rebellion."

His natural sciences teacher taught him to strum a guitar. The future geologist started writing songs when he was 16 and warmed to the Kabyle singers. In 1973, he was asked to stand in at the last minute for the famous singer Nouara, who was unable to sing live on the Kabyle radio station in Algiers the lullaby he had written for her. …

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