Woodstock of the Sahara

Happy New Year from Washington DC! Adam and I are capping off a little road trip that took us down to Montgomery, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee. For the both of us, but especially for Adam, taking time away from our normal routines can feel quite discombobulating. So right now, I’m sipping a chai tea latte in one of Washington DC’s most iconic coffee houses, listening to my energizing classical playlist and finally wrapping up a blog post I’ve worked on in spurts for the past two months. And it feels good! I really got into my routine of going to Princeton University’s library nearly everyday and sitting down to write or work on my design business. The past month has been rather nonstop. Nonstop fun and friend and family visits, but also the stress of moving to a new place very few days, trying to not overeat and drink while still having a good time, and also there’s been some flu cases tucked in there because wintertime and travel = getting sick. Adam and I went to Michigan for Christmas, which was snowy and cozy and we brought our two nieces back with us so we could show them Princeton and New York City (a first for both of them). It was after that visit that we took off and headed south. More on that at a later date.

So…. speaking of heading south, I’ve been wanting to write about one of our very best weeks of our entire three years in Algeria. The OneBeat Sahara concert in the desert, aka Woodstock of Algeria. It happened back in March 2022, but I haven’t really known quite how to capture this magical, once-in-a-lifetime week of togetherness and celebrating African/desert music until now. I still don’t quite know how to express it, but I shall try.

So Adam, in his job at cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy Algiers, had been planning the OneBeat Sahara musical residency for basically our entire three years in Algeria. OneBeat is a U.S. Department of State musical program/concept, is run by the NYC-based Found Sound Nation, and it normally brings musicians from all over the world to America for residencies. To bring musicians to Algeria was the dream of Chakib Bouzeria, an Algerian musician who was part of the band Ifrikya Spirit, who’d gone to the U.S. for the OneBeat program a few years before.

Chakib wanted to bring African musicians, and musicians that represented Black music in America to the Algerian desert, knowing that the elemental nature and the specific silence of the duned expanse would inspire other musicians just as it had him. When Chakib met Adam – a guy who never thinks small and doesn’t let the promise of a long and arduous process deflate his excitement for something – he found a willing partner to at least try to do something that had never been done before: Bringing two dozen musicians to Algeria for a musical/cultural exchange and for a blowout concert in the middle of the desert, in the shadows of ancient cave drawings. And another performance, this one in a grand opera house, back in the capital city of Algiers. The logistics — security, amenities, transportation, visas for performers, technical aspects, lodging – cannot be understated. It was a lift! But it was incredible. Shortly after they started planning the whole thing, we learned that Chakib was receiving treatment for lung cancer.

We didn’t get many visitors to Algiers, mostly because of COVID. But we spread the word to our friends that if ever they were going to visit Algeria, it should be during OneBeat Sahara. Who else gets the chance to see a concert in the middle of the Algerian Sahara? Four adventurous American friends took us up on the offer: Jenny and Carrie, two of my best friends from high school; Sarah, our Foreign Service friend who was living in Paris at the time; and Miell, whose Princeton condo we’d move into just a few months later.

Jenny, Miell, Sarah, Carrie, and myself at El Djanina restaurant on the night they all arrived in Algiers.

By the time of their arrival, Adam was already down in Taghit, which is the same desert town where we had the dinner party of our lifetimes shortly after we arrived in Algeria. Adam, along with 23 musicians from America, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, some folks from our public affairs section at the U.S. Embassy, and the administrators of the program, Found Sound Nation, were all spending their days getting to know each other, making music or facilitating the making of music, and generally being inspired by the peaceful expanse and velvety sand of the Sahara. Back in Algiers, I was having a lot of fun showing friends around the city that I’d come to know and love. Algiers doesn’t exactly have a lot of “must sees” for tourists, so I sort of just showed the girls the nicest parts about my life in Algiers: The strip of shops where I bought groceries; a few restaurants I like (Bejing, a Sichuan restaurant located in a Chinese family’s home, and El Djanina, the prettiest traditional restaurant in Algiers) and Centre Ville, the downtown area with crumbling and beautiful French colonial buildings and arcades overlooking the sea. And our wonderful masseuse came to our house and gave everyone massages in our boho lounge. And then after the desert concert, our friends still had one day before departing – Carrie and Jenny to Morocco to continue their vacation, Sarah back to Paris, and Miell back to Princeton. I drove the group to nearby Tipaza, which started off a little hairy because when I turned left into the Embassy parking lot to meet our government-mandated police escorts, a motorcyclist tried to pass me from behind and drove into my Honda as I turned. He and his passenger were fine but he did spend some time arguing that it wasn’t his fault and it was a rather stressful way to start what is always a stressful motorcycle cop escorted drive to Tipaza. But our day was a blast, walking around the gorgeous Roman ruins on the Mediterranean Sea, eating at the wonderful fish restaurant Le Dauphin, shopping for rugs, and wondering into what surely must have been a brothel to drink tiny beers whilst making everyone very uncomfortable.

But the desert part: So there is just one airline operating flights throughout Algeria and there were pretty limited flights to the where the concert would be. Algeria is totally the type of place where you could just ask the national airline to add another flight, but they said no. So, Adam decided to charter a full-size commercial flight to the desert. Luckily, we found a travel agent go-between, because fronting more than 30 grand would have been more than a little scary. But point is: Adam chartered a plane! We both really wanted friends and colleagues and people we knew in Algeria to experience OneBeat Sahara. And while the Algerian government was a great partner in planning the whole thing, Algeria is not a place that advertises itself very well. (We once saw our favorite Algerian band, Imarhan, perform in the massive Algiers Opera House to just a few rows of crowd). Contrast that with neighboring Morocco, which hosts an annual gnaoua music festival that draws performers and guests from all over Africa.) All of us embassy folks working on this concert would alternate between that “what if no one comes to my party” anxiety and “omg what if EVERYONE IN ALGERIA comes to my party?” We just didn’t know how many people would show up.

After our charter flight landed in the town of Bechar, our planeful loaded onto a bus and drove the hour to Taghit. Stopped for some pretty photos en route.

We arrived to our hotel and it wasn’t the first time I’d been welcomed to my Algerian lodging by desert performers. This welcome included some Tuareg dancing, shooting, lots of drums. It definitely set the scene and the brand new hotel is the nicest I stayed at in Algeria.

That first night was pretty rocking. Lots of music and fun, smoking hookah, even fireworks poolside in the cold desert air.

The following day, us girls put on our desert finest and walked down a desert road to get explore the town of Taghit a bit. Jenny, my friend from high school, was dressed in hot pink pants which maybe were a nod to our high school days when she’d rock a Barbie pink pleather pants and matching halter top (it was the early 2000s). Jenny’s always been extremely adventurous and I still laugh that her mom once surmised that I was a bad influence on her daughter and the reason we’d lied to our parents about staying at each other’s houses but really stayed at a party. Anywho, two dudes drove up in a hot rodded dune buggy, Jenny said “I want to drive in that” and just like that the driver kicked out his passenger, Jenny hopped in, her hot pink pants a flash in noonday sun, and off they zoomed down a desert highway. The four of us girls stood there for a moment, hoping we’d see our friend again. I thought of how her mom would be like “That Emily, I always knew she was a bad influence!” if Jenny disappeared in the Sahara Desert. Lucky for us, we were reunited a little while later in town.

Later that night, we all attended a concert in the town square, sort of a preview of the big show, but with some more local artists. It was a blast dancing with my friends and seeing this country through their eyes, but I was a little concerned that there were some sound issues and also the crowd was nearly all men and boys. I worried that it wouldn’t be culturally appropriate for women and girls to attend a big concert.

The following day, Saturday March 5, was the big day! I joined Adam to go to the concert sight in the morning to see how everything was progressing. It was a perfect blue sky desert day, the stage setup was impressive and backgrounded by rocks with ancient carvings so primitive they look like a child just etched them, like the stick figure lion with a bushy tail. Vendors were setting up the stalls, guys with hoses were spraying down the sand so it wouldn’t blow in people’s faces, some camels dressed up for rides and photos. By afternoon, the crowd began to grow, in no small part because several buses of high school students were dropped off. Then, families, and to my great relief, plenty of girls and women. Finally the concert kicked off by a speech from our new U.S. Ambassador to Algeria, but no one was there to hear a speech, except for me a little bit as I’d written the speech!

As the music started — music that the musicians created during the previous week — I was overwhelmed by a few feelings First, that feeling of “I’m but a tiny grain of sand” that the desert always gives me. Also a feeling of deep community because my beloved Public Affairs section at the U.S. Embassy worked so hard to make this concert happen and I could look around in the crowd and see almost all of them there – energizer bunny/TV star Rosa, who’d taken a few quiet moments alone atop the rocks earlier in the day to just marvel at the setup; one colleague who parlayed what he’d learned from working on oil fields to jerry rig a system to get a tractor unstuck from the sand the day before; Nadia, being the mother she always is and overseeing dozens of excited young volunteers in matching t-shirts who’d been bussed in from an American cultural center in a nearby town to witness something I’m fairly sure hasn’t ever happened in their town. I was watching Adam, who’d been planning this for so long. So many hours working on this, his unflagging optimism even on the very stressful weeks leading up to this event. How he must have felt seeing all these human beings baring their souls and talents in the Sahara desert, looking out into a country we had come to know and love and all these lovely folks, most of whom were from the Algerian desert, some of whom had flown or driven from other Algerian cities to be a part of this.

Photo by Alexia Webster

Watch this Music Time in Africa report below to see some of Adam’s reflections on what the OneBeat Sahara program meant to him. (He’s at at the 1:32 mark).

The shining moment of the concert for me was the nighttime performance of Black Assets and Dominica Fossati from the U.S. and Hind Boukella of Algeria. I watched with rapt awe as these three female musicians sang and chanted, danced and strutted. I knew I was witnessing something special: three women powerfully commanding a stage for a mixed audience in a Muslim country in a way that most of those watching had never before seen. I loved it. (And so did this little girl).

Another powerful thing on display at this concert: There’s an ongoing political conflict between Algeria and Morocco, countries that share a border but have no open border crossing. There were two exuberant Moroccan performers there and seeing the warm enthusiasm with which the crowd reacted to them just proved the shared culture and brotherly love Moroccans and Algerians have for each other that no dispute between governments can shake. (I was reminded of when we drove our car from Morocco to Algeria, via a Spanish ferry, and had thus had Moroccan license plates for a short time in Algiers. We got a lot of honks and thumbs up and “welcomes!” from Algerian drivers, which is not what you might expect if you listened to the politicians).

The following morning, I accompanied the Ambassador and a few colleagues to Bechar to visit the American Corner, one of several American cultural centers in Algeria that I oversaw as part of my job. We capped off a fun visit and Q&A with an engaged crowd with a really delicious meal in a traditional restaurant. Then it was to the airport for the flight back to Algiers.

After our friends departed Algeria, the whole thing wasn’t over yet. The OneBeat musicians were preparing for their Algiers show and the workweek was in full swing. One night Adam said he wanted to have all the musicians over to our house for cocktails and snacks. My first inclination was holy god I’m so tired. But he convinced me it could be something to remember and indeed, it was. Sleep be damned I guess. (Although I have to admit, I did go to bed while some of the party guests were still raging.)

And a few days after that, it was the OneBeat Sahara concert at the Algiers opera house. It was a great show. Less thrilling than the desert performance but a good opportunity for folks living in the capital, including a lot of government officials, to see such an impressive musical collaboration. I’ll never forget seeing all the musicians bowed to Chakib, the visionary, the musician, the giving spirit, frail in body and supporting himself with a cane, but with a look on his face that said “This is what I wanted.” Chakib passed away shortly after. Not only is his memory a blessing, but the entire experience of OneBeat, and all the music created there, is his legacy.

This gorgeous photo is by Alexia Webster.

To the Sahara desert, to friends who travel to Algeria for a promise of a unique experience, to cultural diplomacy, to music being a unifying force, to seeing a vision realized. To Chakib.

Emily

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