Category Archives: Interviews

Defending an identity: An interview with Algerian guitar legend Lotfi Attar

Founding member of the celebrated Algerian band Raïna Raï back in the 1980s, guitarist and composer Lotfi Attar has acquired a somewhat legendary status in Algerian music circles. A multifaceted artist, Attar has done much to revolutionize the folk genre known as raï, extending its musical vocabulary as well as its audience.

Moreover, Attar boasts a broader understanding of North African music and culture, bringing together elements from various regions and experimenting with different styles. Apart from a unique and innovative musician, he is also a man with a deep passion and love for his country and its culture.

I recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his music, his development as a guitarist, and his overall career so far (his answers have been translated from French):

When did you first get seriously involved with music?

My brother Kamel also played the guitar. I started playing in 1962 when I was 10 years old, and in 1969 I joined the group Les Aigles Noirs playing western pop music and performing at parties and weddings. This type of music, however, was not very popular in the smaller villages.

Who are the musicians who had the biggest influence on you?

First of all, The Shadows and their distinctive way of guitar playing, but also American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Brazilian bossa nova composer Sergio Mendes, The Beatles, Carlos Santana with his song Jingo… And then everything my older brothers would listen to. I particularly like the sound of the Gibson and Fender guitars as played by The Shadows or Jimi Hendrix. The first guitar I bought was a Fender Duo-Sonic Mustang.

Apart from guitar players like Hendrix and Santana, when I was a teenager I would also listen to classical composers such as Strauss or Beethoven, and even played some pieces by Mozart.

Algerian guitarist Lotfi Attar / Photo: Nadjib Bouznad

What do you consider the most important moments in you career so far?

First of all, the formation of Raïna Raï in 1980 and the release of the album Hagda (1983), which included the song Ya Zina [the group’s biggest success]. Then, the formation of Amarna in the mid-1980s. For the group’s first album I composed the music while Hamida [Lotfi’s wife] wrote the lyrics in the form of lyric poetry. The group’s vocalist was Djillali Rezkallah [better known as Djillali Amarna], a singer with a beautiful voice coming from a rural vocal culture. I tried to create harmonies to accompany the vocal melodies using instruments like bass guitar, drums, and saxophone [the work stands out for its habitual use of unison, and includes the hit song Khalouni Nabki].

In more recent years, I have developed the “Goumb-Guits” style, where I sing a melody and try to approximate the sound of the gumbri [traditional 3-stringed instrument, also known as sintir] with my guitar. The Tuareg people have their proper style, I only adjust and transform it. So in the Goumb-Guits style, we find a mix of modern instruments (drums, bass guitar, piano, electric guitar) and traditional percussion instruments (karkabous, kallouz, guellal).

What have been your latest projects?

I try to evolve in the domain of musical research and bring forth elements from other world cultures that are often not valued, like Asian music for instance, through the use of the guitar. As I said, I have developed the Goumb-Guits style, but I am not limited to that. I also try to play in other styles such as Orient-Guits, Andaluz-Guits, Alaoui-Guits, and Tergui-Guits. I would also like to work with a European pianist, as I am curious to see how he or she would adapt to my style.

How would you describe your way of playing?

I don’t know… It’s natural. I am defending an identity. I am trying to be different from other guitarists. I would say mostly “Algerian.”

In what ways has Algerian music influenced you?

The Algerian musical influence on my style can be seen in the use of traditional instruments such as the reed flute, the ghaita [North African double reed instrument also known as rhaita], and percussion instruments like the bendir, the gallal, and the karkabous. I have also been influenced by the west-Algerian rural folklore we call trab [the word means “soil”], the alaoui style in my rock playing, as well as the rhythm of saf [a women’s dance], the diwan [similar to gospel], and the tergui [Touareg music related to the blues].

I chose to stay in my native Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria in order to defend the Algerian identity and try to inspire the future generations. What is more, Algeria inspires me; I cannot see myself living in another place.


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Gil Shaham, Greece and an old Chinese legend

I recently had the chance to meet and talk with American violinist Gil Shaham in Barcelona, on the occasion of his performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in L’Auditori (you can read the full interview here).

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about Greece and the soloist’s only visit there so far, which he seemed to remember very vividly:

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Gil Shaham with his ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, backstage in L’Auditori

“I have never been in Athens, but I’ve been in Thessaloniki. I performed there around 10 years ago with a very good Greek orchestra. We played a piece called the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. I love this piece. It’s a sort of tone poem, and it tells a traditional story from the Chinese opera, very similar to Romeo and Juliet but in ancient Chinese style.

According to the story, the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is forced to marry a noble man and she agrees to do so only if the wedding procession passes by the grave of her true love, Liang Shanbo. As the traditional Chinese wedding procession goes by the grave of young Shanbo, the earth shakes and lightning strikes and the earth shallows her up, and she throws herself into the grave of Shanbo. And in the end they are both resurrected as butterflies.

The piece is a symphonic version of a traditional Chinese opera, and it was composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. It became extremely successful; it is the single most often performed symphonic work ever!”

It appears Shaham’s Greek visit was quite special, and he still has fond memories of it:

“So we played this piece in Thessaloniki. It was a very nice experience and and I have a beautiful memory of it. My whole family was with me, including my daughter who was just one year old at the time.”

We also talked about Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, for whom Shaham has a deep appreciation. The two artists also share some common experiences:

“We went to the same music school with Leonidas in New York. He was a little bit older. We live parallel lives so we never see each other, but then around 2 years ago we were in Munich at the same time and we had dinner together. That was very nice. I love his playing.”

Shaham, like Kavakos, has been one of the foremost violinists of his generation and it would be quite an occasion if their parallel routes also intersected in the concert hall – and it would be hard to think of a more fitting location for such a meeting to take place than Greece.

Films from the underground: A conversation with Jeffrey Babcock (pt.2)

-click here to read pt.1-

Jeffrey Babcok Photo: Mony Art http://www.monyart.com

Jeffrey Babcock
Photo: Mony Art http://www.monyart.com

The social factor and people getting together from different backgrounds is an important element in your screenings. But how is watching a movie different than reading a book or listening to a record, which can also be a very personal experience?

I feel the world is becoming too fragmented, we are becoming more and more isolated. People nowadays even have jobs that they can do from their computers staying at home. So everyone ends up staying in their little apartments with their home cinema or their flat-screen TV. And so we’re becoming more and more isolated, and desperately disconnected from each other.

So it really comes down to human interaction.

Everything I do, even cinemas and film, is not really just about film. I’m not a nerd in that sense. Films are only a step to reflect on our lives and what we are doing with our lives. If it doesn’t do that, then it becomes worthless to me. I’m not the kind of guy that downloads tons of movies just to have them all there. I think social interaction is necessary, more today than ever before, and that’s why cinema today is also necessary.

Watching a film together with other people makes it a living thing. You see a film with one audience and then with a different audience, and it can change incredibly according to how people react. I’ve shown movies that I’ve seen 25 times, and I’ll still be there with my audience watching the film. I would never abandon the audience and just go to the bar and grab a beer or something. I’m always there because it’s a live experience.

Do you also tend to watch the audience during a screening?

Yes, I do that sometimes. Like when you’re caught up in a movie and you suddenly step back and look at the audience, and you see all these beautiful faces transfixed on the screen…

Also, since many of my screenings are free, there’s a lot of people coming that normally would never go to watch a European art film. So then you get people that are used to acting in a certain way, because they’re used to going to Pathé to watch blockbusters and James Bond films, and they’re carrying over their behaviour from those cinemas because they don’t know any other way to relate to a movie. I see a lot of that going on but I regard it as a necessary evil, and it’s a good thing in a way. Because these people are the ones who need most to see such films, and otherwise they would never watch them.

If for example I’m showing a classic 1955 Italian film, there will be people who’ve never seen anything like it before and they will be surprised. And of course you’re likely to get some strange reactions, because they’re not used to respecting a movie, they’re only used to spectacles and blockbusters and treating movies like trash. My hope is that if these people come to the screenings frequently enough, they will then start to behave more respectfully. So I want them to come, so that there is diversity in the audience. I could choose to show film noir only, and then I would get a hardcore fan group and there would always be the same people, so the whole thing would be dead. So this is one way to keep things alive.

I always try to keep the movies at a very low price or for free. In my newsletter I also mention sometimes that if someone can’t afford to pay, they can come find me before the film and I’ll get them a ticket. I cannot necessarily let people in for free, because the places where we charge ticket also have to pay rent, so I don’t want to take money away from the cinemas either. Therefore I cannot just say “come in for free”, but I can pay for their ticket instead. I think people should be free to experiment, and with my cinema you never know what you’re going to get yourself into. So you should not be paying an expensive ticket like you do for Pathé and all the big cinemas.

And looking at the ticket prices in most cinemas, it seems that going to the movies is becoming a kind of luxury.

Yes, and the end result of this is that if someone wants to watch a movie and cannot afford to go see it on the big screen, they will download it and watch it at home by themselves. Once again, this is pushing people back into their private experiences, whereas what I’m trying to do is open people up into the social experience. And of course not everyone in Amsterdam can fit in my screenings, but there could be fifty small cinemas throughout the city doing the same thing, offering an incredible diversity of choice and being dirt cheap too.

At the same time, distributors currently couldn’t care less if a film is commercial or uncommercial; they will always ask the same standard price, which has led to a ridiculous situation. I see Amsterdam as an international city, and I think we should have an international cinema. It doesn’t have to be a big organization; anyone can basically turn any bar or space into a cinema and start their own initiative.

Is there a specific film or director of particular importance to you personally?

Not really. I mean, in general I am so open and I love diversity so much that I can’t get locked on to certain films or directors. The first movie I remember seeing is ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ with Charles Laughton. I remember seeing this as a kid and I wasn’t supposed to stay up that late, so I sneaked out my bedroom door and I was watching this and it was fantastic: Esmeralda, Quasimodo, him on the top of the Notre Dame… And this reminds me that it can be a special experience when you have to struggle a bit or overcome some kind of obstacle in order to watch a film. It is the same thing, in a way, with some of my cinemas; not all of them are necessarily very comfortable.

And then there was Godard’s ‘Weekend’, a film he made in 1967. It’s a film I watched as a teenager when I was going to high school in a small town. On the weekends, and sometimes even during the week, we would go to the capital city (Madison, Wisconsin) and there were these students in a campus showing all these European films – because in America you don’t get to see European films. It was there that I saw my first Antonioni, my first Truffaut and John Cassavetes… So I was learning about cinema and when I would go back to my high school I would try and talk to other kids about it, but they only knew ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or ‘Star Wars’, there was such a divide going on…

So I also watched Godard’s ‘Weekend’ during that period and I was a young kid. And I was so pissed off after that movie, I was thinking “how could that fucker do that?”, you know, “how could anybody be so arrogant?” I was really upset about this film. But then, exactly because I was so upset about it, it got stuck in the back of my mind, I didn’t forget about it. And this changed slowly, and I started appreciating the movie and understanding where the film was coming from. So regardless of whether someone really hates or likes a film, I think it’s very important when it invokes a strong reaction. Because the kind of neutral mentality “seen the movie, had my pop corn, now go home” never has the possibility of changing a person’s life.

Are you thinking of including more titles by female directors in the future?

I think the ratio of female directors to male directors is good, in relationship to what’s available. Because how many films by female filmmakers are available? It’s a very difficult thing. I’m a real pusher of people like Lina Wertmüller for instance. Nobody else shows her films anymore, and I’m the only one that keeps pushing people to see her films. So I had a screening of ‘Love and Anarchy’ (1973) one month ago, and people were totally amazed.

What is your favourite cinema in Amsterdam?

My favourite cinema? I don’t know. I love the cinemas where I’m having my screenings because they’re all so unique and special. But I’m also supportive of places like Kriterion or Studio K. Kriterion was started from people who were in the underground resistance in World War II. And then it transformed into a student-run cinema. So the people involved can only work there as students, and they get money from a gas station on a highway outside Amsterdam. That means they can afford to do uncommercial things and take risks, and they’re willing to do that.

Films from the underground: A conversation with Jeffrey Babcock (pt.1)

American cultural activist and alternative film curator Jeffrey Babcock is one of the most fascinating individuals I have met during my stay in Amsterdam. For several years now, he has been the programmer of several underground cinema venues throughout the city. I recently had the chance to sit with him and discuss about films, technology, human interaction and the role of cinema in shaping one’s life and way of thinking.

Jeffrey Babcok Photo: Mony Art / www.monyart.com

Jeffrey Babcock at Filmhuis Cavia
Photo: Mony Art http://www.monyart.com

What follows is our full conversation, which took place at Filmhuis Cavia on May 16th, 2013. I thought it was worth sharing and I hope more people may find something interesting and thought-provoking in it.

You started doing screenings in 2006, which is also around the time when I first arrived in Amsterdam. However I only found out about it some years later.

JB: Yeah, a lot of people have said that: “If I’d just known!” But it’s always a matter of chance; it’s always a matter of friends telling friends, that’s how the audience is growing. I think people finding out about it through word of mouth, and so in a way creating a culture, is much better and more magical than any sort of marketing campaign. I think only bad products need to be advertised anyway. If something is really good, people just tell each other and then it grows naturally.

How do you go around preparing the audience for the movies you choose to show?

JB: There is a weekly newsletter with descriptions for all the films, and I also do a live introduction on the actual evening of every screening. The selection of movies I’m showing is so diverse and so wide that nobody can be expected to like all of it, so I’m trying to give people an indication of what it is they’re going to be involved with. In this way they’ve been warned, at least they know what to expect.

From all the screenings you’ve done over the last years, are there some you would choose to highlight?

JB: Not really, I think they’re all special. Because it’s all about special films, films not being distributed and not shown in cinemas, and people don’t know about them for the most part. But it’s also about the locations, so it’s a combination of these two things every evening.

Sometimes you also invite directors or artists to your screenings.

JB: Yes, it is something nice when I am able to invite these people. About three years ago I had John Sinclair, who is well known through John Lennon, who actually wrote a song about him back in the 1970s. He lives in Amsterdam so I contacted him one day, thought maybe he would be interested. And it was fantastic, he came to the screening and we had a film about him [‘20 to Life: Life and Times of John Sinclair’, 2007, directed by Steve Gebhardt]. Or, for example, one month ago I had Martha Colburn, who is one of the biggest animators in the US, and we had a Q&A and showed some of her short films before the feature film.

You often couple a feature film with a short film in your screenings, right?

JB: Yeah, because you know, short films don’t have a place in the cinemas today. When I was young, 30-40 years ago, they would still show short films before the feature film. But then it changed into commercials, because big companies got involved. There is a whole history of short films and I want people to be able to see that instead of commercials.

You also show recent films, not only old ‘cult classics’. What are your criteria for choosing a title?

JB: I believe in diversity. I don’t believe in being a ‘retro’ programmer, or a horror-film programmer, or a film noir programmer, or a programmer of any specific kind of genre. The same applies to time periods. I feel like showing films from the 1920s, but then last week I also showed a film that’s just 6 months old and it was a European premiere [‘Video Diary of a Lost Girl’, 2012, directed by Lindsay Denniberg].

A lot of things are not available anymore, so it’s hard work finding those films that I’m interested in. So I make a selection of films that it’s possible to show and out of that selection I start programming with as much diversity as possible. So I wouldn’t have too many B&W films or films from the 1970s in a row. Also, if it’s a really great film and is not shown anywhere in the city, I’d sometimes show it again every 2 or 3 years. But in general I’m not so interested in big films that people know already, I feel more like highlighting all these unknown gems.

Are there any films you’d like to show but haven’t been able to get hold of? 

JB: Sure. There are lots of films through cinema history that are just not available. Really a lot, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, which is a period I’ve lived through and there are many titles you can’t find. The only people that know about those films are the people that were alive and in the right age to be experiencing them in alternative cinemas back then. So now it’s all gone.

There are similar issues with more recent films as well. For example, there are films that are really popular in France but virtually unknown outside of it. Same thing in Bulgaria, Hungary, etc. I have a very international audience coming to my screenings, so I always ask: “Are there any films that people really love in your country that nobody else knows about?” And then I try to see if I can find these films and screen them with English subtitles.

What possibilities/threats do you see for cinema with the advent of digital technology?

JB: There are a lot of negative things happening in cinema that have to do with technology. At the same time there are also some positive aspects to the new digital formats, like for example the possibility for anyone to create subtitles and add them onto a film. So film fans that want other people to know about some movie will make subtitles for it and put it online in downloadable form so that it is available for everyone to use.

I think real film, i.e. celluloid, is more beautiful than digital translations of film like DVD or Blu-ray. But then everything is being shifted to digital anyway. So you can’t live in the past, but you can be critical of the present. When everything changed to digital a couple of years ago, it entailed the potential for incredible freedom. It should have meant that, with the help of the internet, any cinema in the world could show any film they would like to directly from the filmmaker, without any interference of businessmen or distributors. But this didn’t happen. Because distributors got in between and said “we want the same old structure”, so they lobbied and forced the situation to stay the same, whereas we could have absolute freedom.

Official channels and institutions also play a role here.  

JB: Sure. Take for example the EYE, Amsterdam’s new film museum. They do maybe 5% of what they should do, but the other 95% is going in a totally wrong direction.  There was also some bad programming when the Film Museum was still based in Vondelpark, but now it’s gotten far worse. They should just be more progressive, you know. They’ll never show a movie unless it has won awards etc., so they’re just fitting in what’s already popular. Instead, they should be taking lesser-known gems that are forgotten or marginalised and bring those into the spotlight. And they are in the position to do that.

So why do you think this is not happening?

JB: Approximately twenty years ago, there was this guy called Eric de Kuyper [Deputy Director of the Dutch Film Museum between 1988-1992] who transformed the Film Museum from a stuffy, dusty archive to a great film museum. He remoulded everything and had an incredibly diverse programming all day long. But by law he was only allowed to stay in charge for 4 years. The next one was worse, then the next one was worse, and it has been going down ever since. I think there’s probably some creative people buried within the system there, but their voice is not as strong as the management’s.

-click here to read pt.2-