Algerian band’s rock-and-reggae formula delights Americans [video]

Band members standing outside building (© Theresa Teague)
Algerian reggae, rock and rai band Democratoz outside the Kennedy Center in Washington. (© Theresa Teague)

When Democratoz, an Algerian band that mixes reggae and rock with the folk music called rai, played at the famed John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the largely American audience didn’t know the Arabic words, but the pulsating beats required no translation.

At the invitation of lead singer and songwriter Sadek Bouzinou, dozens streamed forward and cut loose in front of the stage. “Now I can see America, dancing all the time,” said the tall, dreadlocked musician, garbed in a long tunic.

Democratoz’ name, combining the word democracy with an off-color Arabic negative term, conveys the band’s lament that Algeria is not yet a full, free democracy.

Abderrahmen “Popey” Guettaba, who plays guitar and percussion, said afterward, “That makes us very happy, when we see our music affecting people who don’t understand our lyrics.”

The seven-member band, from Oran, was on a monthlong tour of the United States arranged by Center Stage, a U.S. State Department cultural initiative that connects international artists with American communities.

Oran, a cultural center, a university town and the second-largest city in Algeria, is the birthplace of rai. While the Arabic word translates as “opinion,” it is a form of music that mixes the century-old strains of Bedouin shepherds with pop sounds of the Mediterranean. Rai often captures the frustrations of the poor and oppressed.

Bouzinou, inspired by the legendary Bob Marley, has been singing reggae for a long time.

“People sometimes think they cannot do anything because all the doors are closed,” said Bouzinou. “But we are here to give hope to people. When they hear songs from Democratoz, they are happy and catch good energy.”

American audiences caught that energy in venues large and small. Democratoz played on the historic Boston Common and in New York’s Harlem and will close its tour at a reggae festival in California. It also jammed in small clubs and compared notes with fellow artists and students. Bouzinou encouraged fans to follow the group on Facebook.

Center Stage will bring in four music and theater ensembles from Algeria and Tanzania for tours in September and two from Pakistan in spring 2017. Next up at the Kennedy Center will be the Algerian theater group Istijmam, followed by Rajab Suleiman & Kithara from Zanzibar, Tanzania, playing taarab music, which mixes Arabic and Western instruments with Swahili lyrics.