The songs I would like to present belong to the Algerian group Ideflawen which means “the snows” in Amazigh language. The band became a symbol of North African protest songs in the late 1970s. From 1977, it is composed by the singer and activist Ali Ideflawen (his real name is Ali Ait Ferhat), the lyricist Lhacène Ziani, and the great guitarist Ajou Zahir. Through its political commitment, Ideflawen was supporting the movement for the recognition of Amazigh culture and identity, human rights and democracy in Algeria. Among the most popular songs of their repertoire Berouaguia and Ǧğet-iyi avrid ad εeddiɣ (Let Me Go My Way) are characterized as much by their strong political statement as by their musical aesthetic.
The first one, Berouaguia, refers to an Algerian prison infamous for holding opponents of the regime. Its lyrics tell of the ordeals of political prisoners in jail during the Tafsut Imaziɣen (Berber Spring) of 1980. This designation covers a set of demonstrations as well as social and cultural claims. It began in March 1980 in the Kabyle region and Algiers and gave rise to riots. It is also the first popular movement of dissent against the authorities since the country’s independence in 1962. Politically, the Berber Spring is the first large-scale popular movement of opposition. Historically, these events will inspire the revolts of the cities of Constantine in 1986 and Algiers in 1988. Through this tribute, Ideflawen members stand in solidarity with their friends, intellectuals, activists and artists, imprisoned there.
Prisoner with fleas in Berrouaguia
I ate the black bread there in Berrouauia
The one I left crying as the years went by
Fearing that she might forget me
I am tormented o damn God.
Berrouaguia was written in 1981 by the Kabyle poet and playwright Mohya (1950-2004). It was inspired by the song Merde à Vauban (Damn Vauban) by French singer Léo Ferré (1916-1993), who himself adapted the text of Pierre Seghers (1906-1987), a poet and resistance fighter during the nazi occupation of France:
Convict in the prison of Vauban in the Ile de Ré
I eat black bread and white walls
In the Ile de Ré
In the city, my cute girl is waiting for me
But in twenty years
For her I will no longer be anyone
The prison of Berrouaguia was originally created by the French colonial authorities in 1914 in Medea province (90 km southwest of the capital Algiers). In this penitentiary, Indigenous prisoners were subjected to forced labor in the surrounding colonial farms. Today, Ideflawen’s eponymous song can be interpreted as a powerful anti-carceral denunciation. This theme is doubly powerful: in Amazigh culture, prisons do not exist. The worst punishment that the community can pronounce is exile. One could deplore that the retrograde structure resulting from colonial modernity that is prison is perpetuated in the post-colonial era…
The second one that I would like to briefly present here was also written in the context of the Berber Spring and bears a quite explicit title: Ǧğet-iyi avrid ad εeddiɣ (Let Me Go My Way). This masterpiece, recognizable by its incredible chorus, has become an anthem to people’s struggle and a tribute to the victims of arbitrariness since the 1980s:
I only sing about the power of struggle
You found nothing in what I brought but my empty hands
You found nothing in what I sought but light for the eyes
Leave me a path to pass through, what are you afraid of.
Its captivating melody was taken up in 2019 and 2020 during the Algerian Hirak, in particular following the arrests of demonstrators and in response to the police. Through its timeless and meaningful lyrics, this song has become emblematic for all generations of pro-democracy activists, and has managed to spread all over the country. At the same time, it shows how an Amazigh language, far from being sectarian or ethnocentric, can be the native language to all those who recognize themselves in the universal fight for freedom and dignity. Finally, it proves that the Hirak, as a “citizen Revolution” was not born ex nihilo but, rather, comes from a political and poetical filiation, anchored in Algerian living memories. ■