Algeria's Hasna el Becharia

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LISA MULLINS: Finally, in Algeria, music has traditionally been the domain of men. But women there with talent and ambition have emerged to perform music on their own terms. The World's Marco Werman tells us about one such woman and the younger musician she inspired.

MARCO WERMAN: You can tell from Hasna el Becharia's voice that you don't want to mess with her. Her last name means she hails from the city of Bechar. Becharia plays guitar, acoustic and electric, the oud, and a boxy North African predecessor to the banjo, an instrument called the gumbri. In Algiers, the Algerian capital, even today, it's challenging for a woman who wants to make music. And outside Algiers when Hasna el Becharia was in her teens, you almost never heard of young female musicians. When she was 15, Hasna el Becharia took the risk. She wanted to play guitar. But she didn't own one. So she rented her cousin's for a penny a day.


WERMAN: Hasna el Becharia explains that her mother didn't mind her playing the guitar. But her father didn't like it at all. So, when he was home, she'd hide the guitar. And when he went out, she'd sneak up to the roof and practice. Every day. Which was fine, until one day her father came home unexpectedly.


WERMAN: Becharia says her father beat her. She recalls that he told her �playing guitar, making music, it's not for women, it's not for girls, it's for men.� Hasna el Becharia says it was really hard for her to hear that.


WERMAN: Becharia extended her hands, vibrating them, to show me how even the sight of a guitar makes her tremble in a good way. This track was recorded just outside Bechar. It's called �Smaa Smaa,� and it's the title track to Hasna el Becharia's second recording. The song was inspired by the people in Bechar who gossiped and spread malicious rumors about her when she was first making music. After all, if a woman made music in those years, it meant she was a floozy. Singer Souad Asla is a generation behind Hasna el Becharia. But she fully understands the meaning of �Smaa Smaa� because as a female musician, also from Bechar, Souad Asla faced, to a lesser degree, the same rumor mill.


WERMAN: She says, it means �listen, listen, there's something to listen to.� It's a song she says about the importance of listening. Because in everything people say, there's good and there's bad. The songs of Hasna el Becharia range from trance-like rhythms with morals, like this one, to rocking precursors to the blues. It wasn't just the music though that impressed Souad Asla when she was a girl in Bechar. When she was quite young, she saw Hasna el Becharia perform at a wedding in their town. It was a kind of bachelorette party, and Souad Asla says she saw the sudden power of music.


WERMAN: Souad Asla remembers the party happened on a large terrace, crowded with women. And there was Hasna el Becharia, she recalls, singing and playing guitar, accompanied by five women instrumentalists. And the second they began playing, she says, all the women, all of them loosened up. Souad Asla uses the word dechainees, or unchained, to describe the effect the music had on the women. With no men around, says Souad Asla, there were no limits. Hasna el Becharia and Souad Asla now perform regularly together. This is their a capella version of �Smaa Smaa.� The gossip that the song addresses still exists. But less so than say 20 years ago. Hasna el Becharia broke down the social limits for women in Bechar musically. And Souad Asla is now taking the next step. Breaking down the stylistic limits of the desert blues she learned from Hasna el Becharia. For The World, I'm Marco Werman.

MULLINS: Check out Hasna el Becharia performing live on Algerian TV. It's at our website, From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Lisa Mullins. Thanks for listening.

MALE SPEAKER: The World is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH, Boston. Supported in part by Nan and Bill Harris, committed to supporting objective, unbiased reporting on national and international issues. The Skoll Foundation, supporting social entrepreneurs around the world, uncommon heroes dedicated to the common good. The WGBH fund for environmental reporting whose donors include the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting a cooperative approach to solving our critical environmental problems while we still can. And the Candida Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet. PRI, Public Radio International.