After surviving the Algerian war of independence as a child, earning national distinction as an instrumentalist as a teenager, and leading the orchestra of the University of Annaba as a young man, Omar Mokhtari decided he wanted to see the world. He felt particularly drawn to Paris, which is where he was playing the music of his Berber people on the street when he happened to encounter the poet and pioneering feminist publisher Alta Gerrey (who prefers to go by one name).
Alta, who was running her Shameless Hussy Press out of her Berkeley garage at the time, walked by with a group of friends and paused to listen. “They heard me play and heard me sing,” Mokhtari recalls. “They said we’ve never heard Berber music in California. You should come and visit us. So I received an invitation from folks here in Berkeley, and when I arrived in 1979 I landed directly in a community of writers and artists. Alta was my first American friend. She introduced me to KPFA, and I came in and talked about our culture.”
Mokhtari has dedicated himself to sharing the sounds and food of the Amazigh (or Berber) people ever since, information that’s flowed across the West Coast and enriched the Bay Area music scene in incalculable ways. A disparate community of musical friends is rallying around him as he fights cancer, gratitude and love that manifests itself Tuesday at Freight & Salvage with The World For All: a Fundraiser for Omar Mokhtari. For those who can’t attend and want to contribute, there’s a GoFundMe campaign.
Organized by guitarist, percussionist and singer/songwriter David Wagner, the concerts features Andrew Carriere and the Zydeco Allstars, the old-time music of Suzy and Eric Thompson, the Middle Eastern fusion of Ali Paris and Briana Di Mara, flamenco guitarist Gopal Slavonic, celebratory Near Eastern dance music from Lars and In Charge with fiddler Lars Tergis, guitarist Chris Reid and Syrian-raised percussionist Faisal Zedan, and the ensemble Azidan, featuring musician who have studied Amazigh music with Mokhtari.
“Omar is a powerful spirit, a poet even if he doesn’t like to admit it, and a kind and gentle man.” Wagner says. “When the word went out about this benefit people were crawling out of the woodwork who wanted to play on this. He’s made a big mark in the Bay Area music scene. He’s a brilliant chef too and between his cooking and music is how he supported himself and got established enough to start teaching.”
Working with pianist/composer Chris Caswell, Mokhtari founded the Pacific Andaluse Conservatory of North African Music (PACNAM) in 1996, which became his focus for several years. But much of his teaching has taken place at various Northern California music camps and gatherings like Lark in The Morning and Sweet’s Mill. That’s the immersive environment in which Suzy and Eric Thompson first encountered Mokhtari back in the 1980s.
“All of the sudden it seemed like he’s always been there,” says Suzy, the Berkeley fiddler, vocalist and guitarist. She hasn’t performed with Mokhtari, but she’s heard him play countless times, “connected through this world music scene with roots at Sweet’s Mill and the Renaissance Faire, an interwoven group into Middle Eastern music and flamenco. He’s a great chef, and a gentle, soft-spoken person who’s not interested in blowing his own horn.”
Mokhtari isn’t given to celebrating himself, but he’s devoted to spreading information about the Amazigh culture and the indigenous people of North Africa. It was the Berbers who lead the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, and for the next 700 years Andaluse culture flourished across the Mediterranean.
“The Moorish and Andaluse music gave birth to the music of the European Renaissance, which gave birth to all of the rest. That’s what I teach, Andaluse music, the national music of North Africa, a Berber land from Morocco to Libya,” Mokhtari says, while noting there are other traditions and genres throughout the region. “I’ve been lucky and I worked hard. It took a lot of years but I met all the acoustic musicians and I go listen to all kinds of music. But playing, I always stick to the music I learned growing up in Algeria.”
He didn’t want to bring everything with him from home, however, and he’s particularly grateful to have landed in Berkeley. It was where he studied English at the Adult School and tried to shed the trauma of the brutal eight-year conflict that drove the French out of Algeria. Alta’s invitation and hospitality opened the door to a new life “and gave me a chance to forget the war,” Mokhtari says. “But wars are devasting. They’re always in us. They mark a person forever.”