This is my city and I came back again
I found myself where I was born.
The jam session was stirring, though it took place in the proper bourgeois living room of Khaled el Naggiar, a 55-year-old cultural activist here. Two or three young men played acoustic guitar while one kept beat on the bundeer, a thin drum resembling a tambourine. One, sometimes two, sang—always in the Tamazight language, sometimes originals, sometimes covers such as “My City” (1975) by Zuwarah’s Ismail Jafaz, sometimes favorites from the well-known Algerian Amazigh group Idir (“horizon”), and sometimes musical settings of the poems of the late Libyan Amazigh poet Said Sifaw al Mahrouq (1946-1994), a local cultural icon.
The sound was both familiar—Amazigh music uses half tones, like European classical music, rather than Arab music’s quarter tones—and hard to pin down. There are suggestions of Spanish and Cuban music, which makes sense given Libya’s proximity to the former Muslim kingdoms of Al Andalus and to Niger, Mali, Sudan, and other points of origin for Afro-American music. The bundeer, of course, is African.
And while this music sounds as though it were the fruit of a long tradition, it is not. The guitar arrived in Zuwarah only in the 1970s, as part of a North African Amazigh cultural awakening—“Berber” is the term outsiders use—and all of Zuwarah’s young players are self-taught. While Amazigh have always sung at weddings, the first modern song written in the Tamazight language dates only to 1975, when “My City” was sung. When he heard “My City,” the poet Mahrouq wrote “Amousnaw” and gave it to his disciple Naggiar to sing. Neither song was recorded at the time.
“If I had recorded it, I would have been in jail,” Naggiar tells me.
Zuwarah’s music has never been performed in public, except at weddings, and the performers have never earned any money for it. Even now, when songs are played on one of Libya’s new radio or television stations (Zuwarah now has a radio station of its own), the performers don’t get royalties. The young men are either unaware of the financial rewards of striking it big in the music business, or have no belief they can do it. For them, music is a hobby appropriate to this stage in their lives.
“Our young men play by age groups, until they get married,” explains Naggiar, who makes his living as a commercial pilot. He is just now writing his first song after decades away from performing. He estimates that 40 or 50 young Zuwarah men are now pursuing the guitar. Women don’t play, perhaps because jam sessions occur in private homes, often late at night. When I left at 2:30 the other morning, the young men were heading to another house to work on new songs all night.
The core group is two guitarists, 20-year-old Haj Ibrahim Ftees and 18-year-old Badr Al deen F’ees, and Allah Abudeeb, a tall 17-year-old who plays bundeer. F’ees did most of the singing, although Naggiar performed one song in a rich baritone of professional quality and expressiveness. Naggiar’s son Youliasin, 19, a former revolutionary fighter, sometimes drops in on guitar. He also puts out one of Zuwarah’s first newspapers. After a couple of hours a few more young men came by and sat in.
There were just 15,000 weeloul—inhabitants of Zuwarah—around the time of Libya’s independence, and there may be 45,000 today. Yet Zuwarah has a distinctive local culture, dialect, and music. This is unusual even in Libya, which in many ways resembles 15th-century Italy: a group of loosely allied city-states, whose citizens’ first loyalty is to their locality. There are other Amazigh towns, such as Jadu and Nalut in the Nafusa Mountains, but Zuwarah’s culture is the most distinctive.
“We are like an island,” Naggiar says. Zuwarah is the only coastal Amazigh city from the Egyptian border to Djerba in Tunisia, and then it’s a big jump to Algeria. Before the Algerian revival of Amazigh culture in the 1970s, he explains, “We were really isolated. We didn’t know millions of people were speaking our language in Morocco and Algeria.” Morocco is about two-thirds Amazigh and, with a king who is Amazigh through his mother, has been the most friendly to the culture and language of the North African nations. Algeria may be one-third Amazigh and has the most organized and political Amazigh, with one group seeking regional autonomy for the Kabylia region.
Zuwarah’s guitar culture isn’t an updating of a previous devotion to the oud, an Arab instrument; in fact, the first instrument played by Naggiar, who brought the guitar to Zuwarah, was an oud lent him by a sympathetic Egyptian music teacher who recognized his gifts. He bought his first guitar in Tripoli while on a road trip and began teaching himself to play in the car.
Historically, four major instruments have been used by the Zuwarah Amazigh, three of them varieties of drums made of stretched animal skin, and one, the zakera, resembling a bagpipe, made from the skin of a goat. Today, Zuwarah musicians only use one of the four, the bundeer. Like other drums, it isn’t considered haram—that is, religiously forbidden by Salafi extremists—but the guitar is definitely haram. Naggiar explains that even carrying a guitar case around town used to be thought bizarre. When I asked the young musicians about playing in a café, they looked as though I’d suggested a concert on a loading dock. There is simply no local tradition of playing music in public spaces.
Under Qaddafi, the public expression of Amazigh culture was prohibited. For this reason, and because of the place of music in the Amazigh cultural revival in Algeria, Zuwarah’s music is “counted as politics,” says Naggiar. During the Qaddafi regime, even performing Tamazight songs in public outside Libya was risky: A 24-year-old Zuwarah guitarist, Bunduq Bunduq, had his passport confiscated when he returned from a trip to Morocco, where he had sung a Tamazight song in public. Bunduq, incidentally, is the only young Zuwarah man musing about giving a musical career a shot.
Zuwarah is an insular town in an insular country, and it’s hard to say how far these young guitarists will take their talents. They speak vaguely of writing songs in English to reach people outside Libya. (No one in Zuwarah is very keen on Arabic, the language of their conquerors and oppressors.) For now, the guitar music of Zuwarah remains a secret.
Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.