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Remembering Algerian singer Idir: a Berber Icon

Idir, the Algerian musician beloved for his distinctive voice and unrelenting dedication to keeping the Berber and Kabyle culture and identities alive, passed away this Saturday in Paris, from pulmonary disease. Let this be a moment of remembrance for the many millions across the globe who were deeply moved by his work over the decades, and serve as an introductory tribute for those who may not have known him, as he continues to live on through his boundless vibrations.

Beyond his winsome melodies, the power fueling this musical legend, born Hamid Cheriet, lied within his deep embrace of the indigenous North African culture and identity. A national treasure to his native Algeria, from his first to last moments in the limelight, honored his roots through conscious lyricism and traditional instrumentals, without disengaging from the idea of togetherness and appreciation of ‘the other.’

 

 

Thrusted into the entertainment industry in a far from conventional manner, his musical prowess began to gain recognition by his colleagues in a gas and oil field. Born in 1949 near the Kabylie capital of Tizi Ouzou, Hamid was on track to become a geologist when his life path took a sharp turn when his voice made its debut on a national radio station. Given the opportunity by chance, he was summoned as a last minute replacement for an established artist.

The first successes

The twist: his rendition transported listeners into an undiscovered dimension, but before that could be relayed to him, he was drafted for mandatory military service. Idir became a household name, almost overnight, without him knowing until his return.

Right off the bat, Idir refused to shy away from the rich and complex oral traditions of Berber culture, despite its often-disputed, minority status in his nation. His soothing vocals, acoustic strings and cultural pride reverberated within and beyond the borders of Algeria, raising him up as a symbol of much desired diversity in music.

 

 

Moving to France, in 1975, with not much else other than great enthusiasm to begin recording, his songs continued to charmingly yet unapologetically shine a light on his underrepresented and underappreciated Berber community, specifically the Kabyle subgroup hailing from the coastal mountainous regions of northern Algeria.

The following year, his debut album “A Vava Inouva” released to the public, centering its message around the daily life and culture of rural Algeria, narrated through a degree of separation, as if an old man were recounting the tales to this loved ones.

 

Beyond the berber pride: his advocacy for multiculturalism

Identities was the name Idir chose for his second, long-awaited album, birthed in 1999. This time around his voice is in great company, piecing together the world onto one CD. To emphasize unity within differences, this melting pot project features Manu Chao, Charles Aznavour, Maxime Le Forestier, Gnawa Diffusion, Zebda, Gilles Servat and Geoffrey Oryema, all heightened by the sounds of the Parisian Barbès Orchestra.

 

Consistent in his awakened, engaged spirit, in 2007, his album, an ode to minorities, “La France des couleurs” released in the midst of the French presidential election, one dominated by heated debates over immigration and identity.

Despite another substantial gap between projects, Idir returned to Algiers in January of 2018 to perform at the Berber New Year “Yennayer” following a 38-year absence. As carefully chosen appearance, his performance showed support for the popular uprisings leading to the resignation of longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

“I loved everything about these protests: the intelligence of the youth, their humour, their determination to remain peaceful,” Idir said in April 2019. “I admit that these moments were like a breath of fresh air. And since I have pulmonary fibrosis, I know what I’m talking about.”