Idir: Ambassador of the Imazighen Song

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Hamid "Idir" Cheriet (Photo: Vincent Lignier)

By: Said Khatibi

Published Thursday, August 25, 2011

Before Sheb Mami and Sheb Khaled there was Idir, who in a short time became one of the most prominent faces of renewal in Imazighen. Chance led him to this art, which began a journey that has lasted three decades — a journey of love, freedom, exile, and identity.

There were many reasons for Idir to go to the Algerian desert in the seventies. There, he worked as an engineer in the oilfields. However, it was chance and talent alone that influenced the fate of this man and took him from his country’s faraway tribal villages to the forefront of the international arena. Thus, in a short space of time, he became one of the most famous Algerian singers abroad and one of the most prominent faces of modern Imazighen music.

In an artistic voyage that has lasted over three decades, Idir (born Hamid Cheriet) has released only a small number of albums, yet each had a significant impact upon release. They bestowed upon their singer and writer a fame which went beyond borders, according him the title of 'cultural ambassador of the Imazighens' and the 'wise man of Algerian song.' “I do not believe that the number of albums I have released is small. Frankly, I believe that if I did not have anything to say, then it was better to remain silent.” He adds, “I did not choose the path of music, it was pure chance that took me that way.”

He was born and raised in the Ait l-Hasan village in a rural area of Algeria. In 1969, he arrived as a child in the capital, Algiers, to attend secondary school. There, he began to play the guitar and to compose some tunes, when he found himself in front of an audience without any warning. His secondary school happened to be situated close to the radio building. He recalls this early time, “Once, there was a young female singer who had been invited to sing on a radio program. But on the day of the recording, she was ill and could not come.

“The producer who used to see me sitting on the pavement playing my guitar asked me to help. I agreed, but on condition that my identity would not be revealed. It was then that I quickly chose the pseudonym Idir.” Idir played the song, entitled “Let Sleep Fall”, on the radio, a song he would play later on one of his first albums. The surprise came when huge numbers of listeners kept asking for the song to be repeated over and over. This gave its singer a boost and the energy he needed to begin his artistic journey. At that time, no one knew that behind the name Idir, there was a very young man still in secondary school. This included his family, who did not discover his alternate persona for several months. “My mother wanted me to become a doctor or a surgeon because singing was an undesirable profession.” Because of the traditional social outlook that characterized the villages, it was difficult until the eighties to convince others to pursue art or music as a career. This particularly applied to women, as most traditional Imazighen female singers had to adopt pseudonyms and conceal their family names.

In 1975, Idir arrived in Paris at a time when the City of Light was witnessing a resurgence of the left and a remarkable opennessss towards the 'other.' There he signed his first deal with the production company Pathe Marconi. A year later, in 1976, he produced his first album under the title A Vava Inouva. It achieved a success unexpected by either the singer or the producer. The title song of the album became a hit. It was taken from a popular Imazighen legend, where the singer narrates an exchange between a father and his daughter named Ghariba:

Please Papa Inouva open the door,
O daughter Ghariba, let just shake your bracelets
I am scared of the beast of the forest, Papa Inouva
I also fear him, my daughter Ghariba,
The old man wraps himself with his hooded cloak to keep warm
While the son roams the land trying to find his daily bread.

This song has deep meaning in Imazighen culture and today has traveled to over 70 countries and has been translated into 15 languages. However, just as he stood on the verge of fame, Idir was called to perform his compulsory military service for two years. This was after he had graduated from university as a geologist.

After the success of his first attempts at singing, some believed that Idir would dedicate himself to singing and songwriting. But the singer of "Those who Search for the Light," carried on treat music as if it was just a hobby, despite the success of many of his releases, such as the "Sindo" (meaning ‘milk churner’), which became very popular. It is a song about certain social customs in the tribal area. As well as the song Zwit Rwit (meaning ‘I told the oil’).

In 1979, he released his second album under the title To My Children, followed in 1993 by the album Those who Search for Light, where he dealt with his favorite topics: love, freedom, exile, belonging, and identity. For his album In Identities, released in 1999, he brought together two music groups Vanawa Division and Zubda to the recording. The release of his 2007 album, France in Color, preceded the debates on identity and integration in France and brought together many ethnic and artistic groups in the country. Many French and immigrant Arab singers collaborated on the project, including artists Sinik, Grand Corps Malade, Kanza Farah, and Zhao. Idir identifies himself “in the category of world music, even though some artists try to get out of this designation.”

Idir is one of the few personalities whom there is consensus opinion among the Algerian people, as his dignity and his respect for the art have secured him the love and admiration of all. He insists on taking the path of commitment and declares: “We have to define what we mean by commitment. Some understand the word in its sarcastic meaning, but I believe that commitment is present at every moment and in every place.”

Idir’s commitment has manifested itself in more than thirty years spent in defense of the Imazighen culture and its right to exist. However, he also insists on discussing current and pressing issues such as identity and exile and his relationship with the homeland of his youth. Recently, he took part in a large anti-racism concert in Paris close to the Eiffel Tower. As the singer’s fame and music continue to spread globally, his fans at home await his return to Algeria for an encore performance. His last concert in Algeria took place nearly ten years ago, commemorating Algeria’s recognition of the Imazighen language as an official language.

1949 – Born in the village of Ait l-Hasan in the tribal area (east of Algiers).

1976 – Releases A Vava Inouva.

1979 – Releases To My Children.

2007 – Releases France in Colors.

2011 – Participates in an anti-racism concert in France.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Hi there are some mistake
the name of the groups he sang with in Identité album are Zebda and Gnawa diffusion. You forgot to mention Manu chao.

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