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Cheriet, Hamid

By:
Jeremy Rich
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Cheriet, Hamid

(1949–),

musician, was born in the town of Aït Lahcène in the Haute-Kabylie region of Algeria in 1949. His parents belonged to the Kabyle (Amazigh) ethnic community. He attended Catholic primary and secondary schools run by French Jesuit missionaries, and after completing his secondary education, trained to become a geologist. Since Algeria contained a great deal of oil and natural gas, Cheriet’s training allowed him to enter the lucrative oil industry. However, his real passion was music.

While many other Algerian adolescents listened to Western rock music in the 1960s, Cheriet had learned to play traditional Kabyle melodies on his acoustic guitar. After independence from France in 1962, the authoritarian governments of Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumedienne had promoted the Arabic language and Arab culture. Many Kabyles felt threatened and humiliated by these state programs, as the Kabyle language and cultural achievements were generally neglected. In 1973 Cheriet made one of his first efforts in his lifelong struggle to promote Kabyle culture. He visited the government-run Radio Alger station in 1973 and sang “A Vava Inouva.” This song, sung in Kabyle, evoked memories of children preparing to go to sleep as they listened to their grandmother telling stories of long ago. Cheriet, using the stage name Idir, had originally written it with Mohamed Benhamadouche for the female singer Nouara, but decided to perform it himself. The song became an enormous hit among Kabyle people in Algeria, and soon in Morocco and France. Folk and world music performers covered the song, and eventually it was performed by other musicians in Arabic, French, and Greek. Cheriet had to complete his obligatory military service in 1974–1975. Once he had finished, he returned to the studio and released the album A Vava Inouva in 1976 and the French record label Pathé Marconi put out the record. Many Kabyles seeking the right to express pride in their cultural heritage turned to Cheriet’s music. Even though Algerian leader Houari Boumedienne refused to shift the preference for Arabic over Kabyle in the 1970s, the president still attended one of Cheriet’s concerts in 1977. Two years later Cheriet put out another album, Ay Arrac Negh. This celebration of Kabyle identity also drew many fans among Cheriet’s people.

Cheriet decided to permanently relocate to France in 1975, joining other Kabyle who were emigrating from their homeland. Although he regularly played concerts in Morocco and France, he refused to perform in Algeria for over three decades. When Cheriet tried to tour the Kabylie region in the 1980s, the government cancelled the tour, most likely to dissuade Kabyle nationalists unhappy with the Algerian regime. Though the government later tried to convince Cheriet to play concerts sponsored by the state, he refused, claiming he would have lost his individual freedom to express his ideas. Though he played concerts throughout the 1980s, he did not release an album of new material until 1993, Les Chasseurs de Lumières. After this record, Cheriet became more active again. As the Algerian civil war entered into one of its most violent phases in 1995, Cheriet performed with Algerian star musician Khaled in a concert calling for peace between the government and Islamist rebels. After Kabyle music star Matoub Lounes was murdered in 1998, Cheriet joined other musicians in a memorial concert.

In 1999 stars such as Manu Chao put together a tribute album for Cheriet, Identités. Cheriet retained his popularity among Kabyle in Algeria despite living for decades in France. When a reporter asked Cheriet how he could continue to write songs that seemed to come straight from a Kabyle village, he answered: “It is because I have a Kabyle village in my head. I have country that is moving a little more away from me and I am moving away a little more from it, but I still have something unchangeable [in me] that maintains links that cannot be destroyed. The mountain, the oaks, the centuries-old olive trees, the colors, the countryside, the sounds, the feeling, the vibrations, the language, [and] the people…” (Djaad, 2013). He made a series of collaborative albums in the first decade of the twenty-first century, including the live album Entre scènes et terres (2005), La France des couleurs (2005), and Idir (2013). In 2013 Cheriet surprised some longtime fans by appearing more conciliatory toward the Algerian government in some interviews, though he did not play in Algeria. Cheriet’s continued promotion of Kabyle culture throughout his career led him to become one of the great Kabyle cultural activists of his generation.

Bibliography

  • Hamid Cheriet official website. www.idir-officiel.fr.
  • Djaad, Karim. “Idir: ‘L’Algérie n’est plus un État de droit, mais elle progresse.’” Jeune Afrique, 28 January 2013. www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/JA2716p110-111.xml0.
  • Goodman, Jane. Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
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