Whereas artists such as Tinariwen (from Mali) and Mdou Moctar (from Niger) shred their electric guitars in the name of a Tuareg rock-and-roll rebellion, singer Sofiane Saidi built his career around the sound of Algerian rai, a form of folk music born in Oran. “Rai is about liberty and self-expression,” Saidi says. “To sing about what is going on in the world is another way of engaging.”
In search of a more expansive sound that would bridge rai with jungle, trip-hop and funk, Saidi teamed up in 2015 with Mazalda, a group of French musicians, for the album “El Ndjoum.” Saidi says the group knew from the beginning what they wanted to express: “The idea that it [the music] could speak to many people from different cultures and different countries,” Saidi says.
The story behind “Bourkan” (“Volcano”), the standout track from “El Ndjoum,” illustrates the reach of this cultural crossover. Fascinated by Otis Redding, Saidi (who sings in Algerian Arabic) used Google Translate to gain further insight into what soul music tried to convey. The result of his experiment is an opulent love song in which unanimous voices speak about tenderness and adoration. Ultimately, the musicians of Mazalda join to honor Saidi’s personal take on rai, fulfilling his vision. And they do so by employing synths and a big brass section that gives the tracks an air of natural psychedelia.
Whether the listener is at an after-party in Europe or a pop festival in the United States, Sofiane Saidi and Mazalda achieve no smaller feat: to make us feel like citizens of a boundless, more compassionate world.
Show: Jan. 13 at 6 p.m. at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. Free.