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Poems From A Not Too Distant Shore

Mustapha Skandrani’s Istikhbars and Improvisations LP or CD. EM Records (EM1096), Japan. 2012.
also released as Musique Classique Algérienne – Stikhbar. Pathé Marconi (STX 202), France. 1965. –

Far from the cultural barrier we often imagine it to be, the Mediterranean is and remains a conductant to the life and practices teeming at its edges. Countless fishermen, sailors, merchants, criminals, pirates, soldiers, and refugees have charted the waters, bringing with them the trappings of their homeworlds. Movement, it seems, is more the rule than the exception in human history. Could water hold and replay sounds that verberate across it, so many mysteries of its deep past would be revealed. Whence came the Minoans, the Phoenicians, ad Basques? As Braudel and others have illuminated, the cultural range of the Mediterranean does not end at the demarcation of the date palm and the olive, and the depth of shared genes and culture between Africa and Europe does not begin with ephemera such as skin tone and religious practice.

Africa-to-Europe and Europe-to-Africa cultural transmission, while quite real, seem pointless and facile terms when talking about music, as pointless as trying to delineate a mosaic. Yes, the drum entered the Western European canon via Moors and Saracens and Turks, and yes, the electric guitar has now found its way to the Sahel, but how to chart the course of Arabo-Andalusian musical styles such as Al-Âla and Flamenco?—when the elements reflect and supersede phylogeographic erasures; and when the influences include structures as far south as Burkina Faso, as far east as Persia, and as far north as Britannia.

Most music of the North African littoral is rooted in a combination of indigenous and hybrid styles, each of which draw on these far-flung traditions. In Algeria, the two surviving primary styles of music are Melhun and Andalousi, the former of which is Bedouin poetry sung in vernacular—the discipline of the deep desert. Andalousi, or Arabo-Andalusian, is more a category of styles ranging from the al-Maalûf, Spanish court music, Flamenco, Jewish and Romany styles, and Chaâbi. Modern European styles have blended both cleanly and roughly with these in the hands of the practitioners of Saharan Rock, Moroccan heavy metal, and especially Raï—a kind of functional equivalent of American Blues. Baroque influences are, paradoxically, more limited because they are not practiced by a subculture of rebellion, but in the conservatories where the key word is conservatism.

In the mid-20th century, Mustapha Skandrani did something no other recorded musician had done before. He transformed traditional Algerian vocal pieces, called istikhbars, into modal poems and improvisations on that quintessentially European instrument, the piano. While his efforts earned him no fatwa or institutional condemnation, he certainly aroused the censure of Algiers’ musical purists. Their criticism was not so much of Skandrani’s playing, but of the piano itself, for the playing of discrete notes is, they said, totally incapable of capturing microtones—the minute degrees of gradation, constantly ascending and descending within a single note—in Arab vocal music. There is a fearless quality in Skandrani’s playing that seems to defy the derision he knew would come. The notes are deliberate and deliberately discrete from one another. There are no tone-clusters; nothing of Henry Cowell and nothing of Bartók. Godowsky playing Chopin’s études comes to mind. Rests build an anti-structure behind the notes. Yet somehow the rising and falling of the ancient voice can still be heard in earnest, not in parody.

Stikhbar Mezmoum

The istikhbar is by definition a prelude to a nuubaat, which is a suite of Andalusian court pieces (not necessarily all vocal) with deeper roots, allegedly, in forms brought to Spain from Baghdad in the ninth century AD by Ziryab, though this is dubious. The playing of the istikhbar independently of the nuubaat was not Skandrani’s innovation, and in fact they were and are often played independently, in abbreviated forms, and as instrumental rather than vocal pieces, as they were originally intended. Like the maqam (and the raga), the istikhbar is a modal framework, inside which performers can improvise vocals and rhythm. Skandrani’s istikhbars are tight, though not rigid, and, to my ears, mindful interpretations of the seven basic forms[1], followed by improvisations based on them. In this case, actually, he has subtracted one of the basic seven (djarka), and substituted three derivative forms[2], for a total of nine istikhbars. It is here, in the moments of transition between the istikhbar and its improvisation, you can feel Skandrani’s genius slip between languages, tempos, and centuries, as easily as one turns a corner.

This album, recorded in 1965 in Paris, sounds nothing like its times, in Europe or North Africa. Like Wolfgang Dauner’s jazz-rock excursions, the elements are eclipsed so totally that the very ideas dissolve in your concentration. And like Camus, who inhabited a style of political moralism and Augustinian detachment, the fearful symmetry of precise and drawn heat of devotional poetry and the tempering of cool, clear and uncoded scales, mutes but does not hamper what might otherwise scorch.

Few details are known of Skandrani’s personal and professional life, as no full biography has been written in spite of numerous French-and Arabic-language documents which must exist, and of the fact that any of his compatriots are still living. The Skandrani family is said to have moved from Tipaza to Algiers, where Mustapha was born on November 17, 1920. The origins of the family surname are obscure, but may have some relation to the Turkish town of Iskander, keeping in mind the northern coast of Algeria was Ottoman territory between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. From an early age, Mustapha eagerly took to a number of instruments, including the guitar, mandolin, kouitra, and piano, the last of which was a French colonial import and not a member of the Arab classical canon or of Chaâbi. His uncle, Habib Skandrani, also a musician, encouraged him and, along with Mustapha’s father, Sid-Ali, facilitated his formal musical education with master Andalusian musicians Ahmed Sebti and Mohamed Ben Teffahi, and later with hawzii master Sheikh El Hadj M’rizek, who also encouraged Mustapha to play the piano.

Stikhbar Sika

Mustapha’s public career began sometime in the late 1930s with a broadcast of his piano accompaniment to a radio drama featuring Rachid Ksentini and Marie Soussan. More radio broadcasts and performances, both in France and Algiers, followed, as did a high-profile tour in 1940 with Oum Kalthoum, Mahieddine Bachtarzi (“Le Caruso du désert”), and Driskar Mustapha Kateb, all of whom he accompanied in the following years. He also accompanied several other famous singers of by-gone years, including Dahmane Ben Achour, Hadj Mahfoud, El Hadj Menouar and Chaâbi master Hadj Mohammed El Anka. The live performances for which he was most feted included his accompaniment to Salim Halali at his famous 1945 gala performance at the Forum, and Lili Boniche, most notably at her gala performances in Oran and Casablanca. As well, Skandrani conducted for the Opéra d’Alger and l’Orchestre des sociétés réunies. It was through participation in the latter that its members came to forge a sound now referred to as the Andalusian School of Algiers, which must have had some influence on both Raï and the “pianoriental” sounds of Maurice El Médioni, among others.

Stikhbar Raml Maya

During the Second World War, he toured locally in sports clubs and at the Padovani, as arranged by Mahieddine Lak’hal. Increasing radio performances brought with them administrative duties, such as with Radio Alger’s urban and folk music ensembles, as well as Abderezzak Fakhardji’s Andalusian Ensemble. He continued to appear regularly on the radio through Algeria’s tumultuous independence, but from 1966 to 1981, he devoted himself to teaching at the Conservatoire d’Algiers, and in or around 1981 became its director. Thanks to his dedication to various directorships and education matters, and also perhaps to some kind of personal reluctance, fewer than 20 of Skandrani’s estimated 300 Chaâbi and classical compositions are known to have been recorded. This LP/CD contains most of them. Though it is possible some forgotten performance reels will someday be excavated from a basement or studio or private collection, Mustapha Skandrani’s oeuvre in greater part remains only in the memories of those who were listening.

It is befitting that an artist who lived through one of the uglier colonial disengagements of the twentieth century has produced a subtle and stable dissolution of style and tradition—European and Arabic—and in doing so folds the immense and unchartable waters of mutual debt owed between civilizations.

Mustapha Skandrani was born November 17, 1920 in Algiers’ Lower Casbah, and died there in October 2005. Istikhbars and Improvisations is available as a CD and limited edition LP (200 copies) in a screen-printed sleeve, from EM Records.


For more information on Arabo-Andalusian and other Algerian music al styles, refer to:

Mahmoud Guettat’s “La musique arabo-andalouse l’empreinte du Maghreb” Tome I. Paris: Éditions Fleurs Sociales.

Christian Poché’s “La Musique arabo-andalouse”. Paris / Arles: Cité de la musique / Actes Sud.

H.G. Farmer’s “Clues for the Arabian Influence on European Musical Theory” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1925).

Various Artists “1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground” LP or CD (Sublime Frequencies – SF045LP)

Various Artists “Algérie, anthologie de la musique arabo-andalouse” Vols. 1-6 CDs (Ocora: Radio France)

[1] Raml Maya, Moual, Sika, Araq, Mazmoum, Zidane, & Djarka.

[2] Sahli, Ghrib, & Kourdi.


  1. this is so exciting, and puts me right back where I come from. was raised in tunisia. my grandmother was born in oran, algeria but married a tunisian and had her own orchestra that she would take to Vienna to record classical arabic music from andalusia, i have her 78! put them on CD’s. it is in my blood. Thank you for introducing this work and contextualizing it in what was happening at the time. wonderful to see tunisia, algeria coming up in the cultural world!

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