Djur Djura by David Byrne

“I work on my music like a painter with a palette of colors which is the reflection of my emotions. Each album is a different color.”

BOMB 47 Spring 1994
047 Spring 1994
Djura 01 Body

Djur Djura. Photo by Steven Delcourt. Courtesy of Luaka Bop.

Djur Djura is the name of a mountain in Algeria. It is also the stage name of a woman who has released a number of records of her powerful and beautiful songs in France, where she presently lives. Of her two books, the first, The Veil Of Silence was a best-seller. In the opening pages of this autobiography, the pregnant Djura is brutally attacked by her own brother and sister-in-law for breaking out of the traditional roles reserved for a Berber woman.

Through her songs, writings, and experimental films, she has emerged as a poetic and articulate spokesperson for the liberation of women from their prescribed roles in traditional society. Her story is harrowing and beautiful, as is her music, a collection of which, Djur Djura: Voice of Silence was released on Luaka Bop records. I sent her these questions by mail, and within a couple of weeks received this incredible response. Needless to say, I was very moved.

Questions for Djura, January 3, 1994

David Byrne I am not alone in seeing the conflict between religious fundamentalism and Modern Western values as one of the primary concerns in all our futures. I see tremendous trouble ahead. The urge to return to stable, time-honored beliefs and to religious values that are sure and basic, has become a contemporary condition. The need to reject the Godless, Soulless West for something “true” and “real” is in many ways natural and sensible. How does the rising influence of Islam throughout the world affect the traditions and culture of the Berbers?

Djur Djura First of all, in the heart of the Muslim Third World, the rise of fundamentalism is a real concern. It freezes the entire social, political and even economic evolution. The sad case of Algeria speaks eloquently of this. Of course, the responsibility for this falls also on the West, whose development models have failed resoundingly in these countries. Also, the crisis and its repercussions on the international market, with the drop in oil prices, the inflation in the price of equipment, etc., greatly impoverishes these countries in the almost non-existent scope of their economies and their fragile governmental structures, already struggling with evolving demographics. Unemployment touches all social classes of the population, particularly the young (in Algeria, 70% of the population is under 20 years old). All of this youth, touched by inescapable unemployment, live in total despair and social misery and thus become a natural target for those who (unselfishly) sell them hope in the name of God. When you have been deprived of everything, how is it possible not to believe in those who bring hope to where you live? The FIS (Front Islamique de Salut, or Islamic Health Front) has thus profited from the crisis, from the disarray of the people, and in particular that of the youth. Triumphing in the elections, and in its new glory, it has revealed itself to be more intolerant, more totalitarian, and in a determined and retrograde combat has definitively turned its back on the democracy which one had believed to have been born.

But I think that all this will probably not create problems for the interests of the Western states. The example of Iran clearly demonstrates this.

My sense is that in the future, all types of international terrorism will be ruled out. I think it is inconceivable that these countries would declare war on the West. This is shown by the debacle of Iraq. I want to believe, and I desire, that the efforts of the Palestinians and the Israelis will bring peace and serenity to this part of the world, which was the cradle of the three monotheistic religions.

Today the terrorism of religious fundamentalism is asserted within some Muslim countries. It is no longer at the service of an international cause, even if it remains very critical of Western values. The future lies in the cooperation between the West and the Muslim world. This cooperation will no doubt have periods of fluctuation, but it will be pursued in any case because one cannot stop the course of history and progress.

DB Your situation within your own family, as depicted in your book, The Veil of Silence, could be seen as this situation in microcosm. They turned on you when you found a new way to live in the contemporary world. In your music, we hear a resolution—the meeting of two cultures and philosophies. Have you managed to resolve this within your own life? (I don’t mean in your family, maybe that is impossible.) And on a larger scale, how do peoples find a meeting place between their traditions and the omnipresence of Western goods and culture? How does one select between the traditional values that are deep, beautiful, and full of humanity, and those that are repressive?

DD As for myself, as you have well perceived in my books, in my songs and also in my films, my culture is double. My native language is double. I cannot make a choice between one and the other. There is no boundary between this one and that one. This is why I have made reference to a great French writer of Algerian origin who said: “France is the spirit of my soul; Algeria is the soul of my spirit.” (Jean Amrouche) The shift from one culture to the other is natural, as are the rejections at the hands of the one or the other which disturb me in my personal evolution. I do not wish to renounce either my Berber identity or my French reality. Algeria for me is the native land, that of fragrances, of colors, of songs, of babies’ cries, of the high voices of women, of village festivals, of walks through fields as though lost in a trance, going to the river to drink cool water—the whole universe of my grandmother, Setsi Fatima, that luminous being who sowed within me the seeds of perseverance and an unshakable faith in the beauty of things. She always told me, “My daughter, we are only here (on Earth) to transmit.” In reality, she transmitted to me the positive values of this culture. As for France, it is the second birth, the awakening to life, to art, to music, the blooming in the liberty of creation. This is why I refuse to make the choice that people sometimes want to impose on me. I feel I am from everywhere, but does that mean I am from nowhere? How many times have I felt too Algerian for the French, too French for the Algerians! Sometimes I feel like a child in exile, a cultural nomad, a wanderer in Identity. Most of all, when they banally present an image of the “integrated” immigrant as an aseptic image, a being stripped of his culture. An image which is easier to accept, more reassuring, more assimilable. But the immigrant is not “biodegradable” in the atmosphere in which he lives.

For me, my two cultures are a given. They are my riches and I savor like candy the sweetness of my two languages, the fragrance of my two cultures, the flavor of our two cuisines, the beauty of this cross-breeding. This mix of the two cultures is sometimes painful, as when I am “unveiled” in The Veil of Silence, and sometimes happy, with the birth of my two children with a French father, or with all of the mail I receive from my readers, all these women who feel comforted in their solitary struggle.

I do not believe that there can be a resolution between good and evil. Also, our planet is not compartmentalized, and in our times more than ever, ideas, goods, and people circulate. Humiliation and injustice are alone responsible for all forms of revolt.

As for how to safeguard “one’s humanity,” this question has been posed in the past by all civilizations, and will be posed again in the future. It is an eternal beginning again. The only way is to keep one’s ethics, to remain genuine with oneself and with others, and not to allow oneself to be seduced by the artificial or to sell one’s soul to the devil.

The rise of fundamentalism has nothing to do with the Islam of the honest people who live it in their daily lives. “One must not blame God for the doings of men,” says the popular wisdom. The wave of violence in which we live today is rejected by the majority of Muslims who look to religion for a better way to be, rather than for repression.

DB Where does one draw the line between what is deeply spiritual and meaningful in a culture and that which has been imposed by economic events and political “leaders”? How does one know what is spurious, what has been created out of expedience, and what is “true” and “real”? How does one not, “throw out the baby with the bath water,” as we say?

DD The problem of the countries of the Muslim world, and of the Third World in general, is that most of the time the values of the West have enriched a minority at the expense of the majority. This creates dissent and problems in the heart of these societies, which cannot be regulated by whatever governmental authority, without a genuine and rapid economic expansion in which the poor and the left-out would find their place.

DB Does music, your music, communicate where conversation, dialogue, and text alone cannot?

DD Music for me is the carrier of a whole aesthetic. It can be self-sufficient, as in the several instrumental pieces I have composed which have no vocal accompaniment, or, on the other hand, it can be sung a cappella, taking advantage of the human voice.

DB How do you imagine that people here in the United States perceive your work?

DD It is difficult for me to judge the reactions of the American people to the singers and artists from Africa or Europe. But I know how to answer you in another way—I appreciate some American artists even without really understanding the language, for their authenticity, for the universality which is expressed in their music. I think that music is a universal language, a heart language. I have particularly appreciated your work, as well as your collaborations with Brian Eno. I have been a faithful admirer of yours since I was at the University.

DB What is your working process when you create and record a piece of music? Does the text come first? Do all the musicians collaborate? Is it the result of improvisation, or is every note written out ahead of time?

DD There are no rules in my way of composing music. At times, it is the words which inspire the music, and sometimes the reverse, where I first write the text and then I create the music which I feel. Generally, before going to the recording studio, I like for the work to be prepared in advance. The scores are written, as is the musical base. But what I like above all is for each musician to bring his own sensibility. It is in this way that sometimes one gets extraordinary surprises. In the kind of music I make, it would be a pity not to allow a talented musician to express himself. Actually, this is also a conception of music—arrangements at the beginning, and a choice in the quality of the musicians.

DB Do you feel a kinship with other musicians and filmmakers, either artistically or philosophically? Who are they?

DD My musical tastes run from lullabies which my grandmother sang to me, to the greats of classical music such as Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Bela Bartok, etc….passing through Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, The Beatles, Laurie Anderson—of course I cannot mention everyone I like, nor the folk music from all over the world, which has a common denominator.

DB Some of the melodies in your recordings are reminiscent of “folk” music. Songs you may have sung as a child or might have heard sung in the village. Am I imagining this? Have you combined these elements with contemporary and “classical” forms? Was this a conscious decision? (When one hears it one feels that the two have been blended seamlessly, that they could never have been apart.)

DD My music and my texts are not only an aesthetic research, they are also a great preoccupation which lives within me: the condition of women and the message of peace in the world. It is this outlook on humanity which creates the color and the climate of my songs, and if there is a mixture of “classical” and contemporary, it is because I also am a mixture of tradition and modernity.

I work on my music like a painter with a palette of colors which is the reflection of my emotions. Each album is a different color. I try to maintain what is deep within me, that is to say, the heritage of my cultural origins, while making music of today which resembles me. It does not bother me to mix modern instruments with instruments from a tradition where polyphony does not exist, and only the art of unison is recognized.

DB Is Paris changing? Is Paris becoming more accepting of the peoples from former colonies who have gravitated to the capital? Have the people, the Berbers for instance, changed after moving to Paris?

DD Paris is a great capital which changes like a human being, according to the internal and external influences which it undergoes. The crisis, the rise of all kinds of fundamentalism are phenomena which reveal many demons. But fortunately not in everybody, and hope still remains.

For me, artists are part of the world heritage and it is because of this that there are no boundaries in Art. On the contrary, it permits a natural encounter between people who have the same sensibility, the same notion of human values. Art is nourished by all inspirations, whether they come from Africa, America, Asia, or Europe. Artists ought not necessarily conform to social structures, to habits or to ideologies which are from closed universes and which distance them from one another, suffocating each in his hermetic sphere.

At the heart of a world in convulsion where each one desperately hangs on to his chains, be they religious, cultural or social, the societies will see tomorrow the appearance of a new being, a being which will have renounced none of its deep self, but which will be open to the Love of others.


Translated by Steve Sacks.

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Sangare 01 Body
Mohsen Namjoo by Shirin Neshat
Namjoo 01

As a young musician, Mohsen Namjoo first captivated Iranians’ attention with his magnificent album Toranj from 2007.

Chroniques de L’Algérie Amère Algérie 1985–2002 by Anouar Benmalek

Other countries that went through hell in the 1990s—Rwanda, Bosnia—have had truth commissions and war crimes tribunals. Algeria has had amnesties, press censorship, and propaganda.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf by Liza Béar
Makhmalbaf  07 Body

Originally published in

BOMB 47, Spring 1994

Featuring interviews with Pedro Almodovar, Lily Taylor, Suzan-Lori Parks, Gregory Crane, Saint Clair Cemin, Paul Beatty, Martha Rosler, Djur Djura, Nancy Spero, Richard Foreman, Robert Barry, and Edmund White.

Read the issue
047 Spring 1994