Various Artists

Algeria: The Diwan of Biskra (Le Diwân de Biskra)

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If you were expecting a review of rai music, go away. The diwân is a word of Arabic origin. It means, simply, a compilation or anthology of poems. The Biskra is a place of fellowship, a place where ritual can take place among community members. In this case, it is a place where the fellowship can come together to share the poems and songs on this recording. It is important to note that the entire diwân de Biskra is not on this recording because the rest is inaudible: rituals of dance, theater, medicine, art, etc. On this awesome Ocora recording only the poetry and the music are preserved in the original languages, Arabic and Hjemi. Hjemi is no longer used, it is a dead language and the last known evidence of its recorded use in a diwân is here. The diwân is performed at the request, and in front of, a feminine public. And there are two types of diwân, one called a diurnal and a nocturnal. They call for different instrumentation and serve different purposes. The diwân represented here is the nocturnal and includes a song with the castanets and drums, and a lute that is absent from the diurnal. The ceremony is a lineage of poetry, passed from one generation to the next, and the entire lineage from ancient to the present is sung at the Biskra. To call this folk music primitive is to miss the point of it entirely. This still possesses, even with the passage of one of its languages, the element that links Algeria not only to its own history, but also to the history of Africa at large and to the lineage of its community in particular. With one leader chanting and a chorus of male voices responding either with a refrain line from the poem or with a new line urging the chanter deeper into the historical poetry, the ceremony goes for hours at a time, becoming more exuberant and full of its own largesse as the time passes. The rhythms, although contrasting, are like a clock, a polyrhythmic time machine that offers color, texture, and nuance as different instruments enter and leave the fray all according to a preordained plan. All of it offers story in the form of poetry: as moral tale, history, and allegory for a larger cultural good. Western culture no longer has the means by which to share its true heritage in either a moral or instructional manner that benefits all -- performer, spectator, or distant traveler, hearing these joyous sounds on the breeze, miles into the wilderness.

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