By Andrew Gilbert
Growing up in Algeria’s mountainous Kabylia region, Moh Alileche taught himself to play a homemade version of the country’s national instrument, the mondol, constructed out of a rectangular one-gallon Mobil oil can and a piece of wood serving as a neck strung with a single string.
On Friday, Alileche performs at Ashkenaz playing a full-fledged mondol, which produces a rich, resonant, twangy sound with its large lute-like body and 10 silk strings. While he’s come a long way from his hometown 60 miles north of Algiers, his music retains the distinctive rhythms and cadences of the songs he played as a teenager for weddings and village celebrations.
Singing in Tamazight, the indigenous language of the Amazigh (or “free people,” better known in the West as Berbers), Alileche performs his arrangements of traditional songs and originals, which alternate between achingly nostalgic descriptions of Kabylia and laments for his people’s continuing oppression (his CDs contain English translations of all his lyrics).
While Berbers make up about a third of Algeria’s population, and are a significant minority across North Africa, their language and culture has been under siege for generations. Caught between an Arab nationalist government that has sought to impose an artificial homogeneity and a radical Islamic movement that rejects many traditional elements of Amazigh culture, Algeria’s Berbers have fought a lonely battle for cultural autonomy.
Since moving to California in 1990, the Berkeley-based Alileche has become the most visible Berber musician in the US, performing around the region and releasing four acclaimed albums on his Flag of Freedom label, most recently 2009’s “In Memory Of A Hero.” The music is ravishing, marked by swirling rhythms and haunting minor chords.
“It’s a great culture,” Alileche says. “One of the oldest languages in the world, but unfortunately there’s little known about that.”
Alileche’s band features flutist Kevin Cloud, violinist Briana Watters violist Michelle Levy, hand percussionist John Waller, Algerian banjo player Omar Mokhtari, and Tim Abdellah Fuson on bendir (frame drum).
Fuson, an ethnomusicologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Morocco’s Gnawa culture, also leads The Dunes, a rocking North African groove combo that shares the double bill with Alileche, who will be joined by members of Danse Maghreb, a female troupe that performs Berber dances in traditional garb.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.