SIFF “Face The Music” Preview: El Gusto: The Good Mood

El Gusto: The Good Mood
Directed by Safinez Bousbia
(Ireland/Algeria/France/United Arab Emirates, 2011, 88 minutes)

Festival Screenings:
Friday, May 25, 1:30 p.m. at Pacific Place
Sunday, May 27, 6:30 p.m. at Pacific Place
Wednesday, May 30, 6:00 p.m. in Everett

Music and cities blend together so intrinsically. “If you were to scrape these walls,” a musician says as he walks in the Casbah of Algiers, “each grain of line would recite a poem by El Anka. That’s how much it runs in the blood.”

El Anka is the master of the mandolin who led “the children of the Chaabi.” You know how Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces kept repeating, “it’s a feeling, it’s a feeling, it’s a feeling,” as a lyric in a key track on last year’s Black Up album? That’s the essence of El Gusto: The Good Mood, a documentary about Muslim and Jewish musicians who co-existed in Algeria around 50 years ago, and kicked out the jams together out of a shared passion for music, a form of very passionate music called Chaabi (“for the people; for the streets”).

And these guys looked really bad-ass playing it in the Casbah in their shades and suits with big long mandolins and violins and piano and all kinds of different drumming instruments. The rhythms and humor and working class topics of the songs make it clear why it was in cultural defiance in North Africa at the time. Mordant imagery sung with melancholy in Arabic/Berber vocals, originally played in clandestine dens and usually to the intoxicated. And oddly enough, the subject matter is usually a warning against transgression -- Chaabi is kinda punk, in the way that Johnny Ramone played the hell out of his guitar but still hated hippies.

Those who play it say it exemplifies the history of Algiers, and even though over the decades it has become the first choice for weddings and other communal events -- that’s pretty surprising, considering how serious of an offense it was to play the genre in the country for so long. The State preferred classical, and when the men we see in this movie are reunited for an extraordinary tour, it had been 50 years since they composed, created, recorded, and performed live. They were very specifically divided and expatriated for playing this music, and for encouraging the following it had among the people.

A lot of music documentaries use the “reunion” theme as the main plot-line of resurrecting the story of a lost music, and to be honest, most of the time the bands don’t really sound like they needed to get back together. It’s an emotional thing for them, and of historical interest for music fans, but though Bad Brains are one of my very favorite groups I know they’re not really going to do more for me now. (I’m better off playing their first three albums in my room.) The musicians of El Gusto turn this completely around in the third act, by gussying up the people’s music with some crackling good performances of a music I would have taken for granted without knowing the story. They’re fit and as tight as they ever were, as if they don’t have the crippling illnesses in their limbs and weren’t starved and driven underground by politicians and soldiers.

Such experiences no doubt contributed to failing mental and physical health, but the music rejuvenates them throughout this very loving documentary, and they share their solidarity openly together and dream of the good times when they originally played it. El Anka kept up the good fight in the public eye while authorities battled with in-the-trenches players at bars and bordellos, and some even went over to the other side. But dark waters swirl under the bridge of brotherly love as talented young filmmaker Safinez Bousbia helps put them back together in an “adventure that begins with a mirror” in a small store in the Casbah. For everyone around the world, we can find our own struggles for creative expression and love in that mirror as well as in the passion of Chaabi music.

Read more reviews from the “Face the Music” series as part of the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival here.

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