Features June 24, 2024
Iness Mezel - A French-Algerian Musician Blends Tamazight with Rock

Born Fatiha Messaoudi to a French-Italian mother and Kabyle-Algerian father in the suburbs of Paris, Iness Mezel brilliantly blends western contemporary with classic Kabyle elements to produce her passionate ballads of identity and nature.

Mezel grew up between the Kabylie mountain ranges and cosmopolitan Paris, an experience that let her appreciate intricacies and nuances in both North African music and rhythm and western classical and contemporary genres. Her five studio albums feature blends of Amazigh lyrics and melodies and funk, soul, and jazz inspired by popular music icons like Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder. She explained to Andy Morgan in an interview following the release of her 2011 album Beyond the Trance (Wrasse Records) that “Algeria has left an imprint on me like a tattoo.” During summers with her Algerian grandmother in her father’s native village, she witnessed the incredible strength and independence of Tamazighin women. In an interview published by RFI Musique, she describes scenes “full of color, nights listening to women sing an atmosphere of celebration.”

Such scenes are translated into her music, which bursts with passion, self-determination and confidence. Although many of Mezel’s songs are sung in French, Beyond The Trance, in particular, emphasizes Amazigh culture as essential to her complex identity, not something foreign to be explored. She explained her move into UK music production from France as a way to introduce North African and Amazigh culture as innovation rather than an exotic commodity, as it was often seen in France.

In England, Mezel worked with Justin Adams, a producer experienced with Amazight music, notably through his work with the Tuareg rock band Tinariwen. Adams helped Mezel to craft an authentic representation of her own exploration and experimentation mixing rock, funk, and jazz with North African traditions. She developed a deep understanding of the different components that unite to make a complete record, from rhythm and beats to lyrics and melodies. During her studies at French conservatory, she grew to appreciate the art of western classical music, and from her weekends playing with a local brass band as a teen, she honed an appreciation for Euro-contemporary sound. Those adolescent years were filled with music discovery and appreciation as a young Mezel was naturally drawn to funk, rock and sub-Saharan music, particularly the sabar drumming of Senegalese artist Doudou N’Diaye Rose. Weekends listening to local bands taught her that “music was like a lifebuoy” and led to the formation of her first group: a duo with her sister. Together they learned the technicalities of musical experimentation, chopping and mixing their favorite songs, from Christopher Cross and Donald Fagen. These skills would later shine on Mezel’s five recorded albums.

After working professionally as a stand-in singer for African, jazz, and cover bands, Iness Mezel found the bars and clubs she performed at were connection hives, filled with diverse crowds. She connected with Claude Cesaire, who formally taught her chord progressions and melodies of jazz standards. As Mezel rose on French-Amazigh stages, Djur Djura, a popular Algerian-Kabyle, sister-formed band, took notice and invited her to join them. This collaboration launched Mezel into major concert halls and festivals and into the international Amazigh music scene.

Mezel’s collaboration with Djur Djura traditionally-infused, globally mesmerizing music opened doors for her, including the opportunity to expand her reach and work with legends like Idir, a major Amazigh artist featured on Afropop’s Amazigh Riising series. Possibly the greatest connection of all was the relationship she formed with Nora Abdoun-Boyer. In fact, it was Abdoun-Boyer’s father, Boussad, who gave her the artist name Iness Mezel, a Tamazight phrase that translates “tell him never to despair.”

Mezel’s first studio album Berber Singing Goes World (Silex, 1997) received praise from critics and was rereleased as Wedfel (Naïve) in 1999 with additional bonus tracks. Mezel was clearly developing her own voice, blooming as an artist. She describes her second album Len (Nocturne, 2003) as the “first real Iness Mezel album.” In its nine tracks, Mezel presents a personal, confident voice and a fusion of Kabyle traditional with funk and Europop. She takes this experimental fusion further on Beyond the Trance, which became and remains her most well-known recording. Eight years in gestation, the album marks what Mezel calls her “reclamation of confidence.” It is a dynamic collection encompassing her entire identity; from the high ranges of the Kabylie ranges to the forests of France. She has called it an “African-blues'' album that leans into tradition, with banjo, gimbri and guitar, a symbolic talisman of the Imazighen struggle, while also incorporating the heavy sound of rock music. It’s at once an ode to heritage, freedom, womanhood and independent thinking.

Such complex and personal themes are difficult to express in a singular language, so in a unique process, Mezel first writes out her ideas in French, then works on a Kabylie translation that becomes the basis of the lyrics she performs and records. Singing in French is a vulnerable experience for Mezel; “I feel completely naked” she explains, but it is also a “way of expressing all aspects of my personality. It allows me to be more objective.” In her lyrical process, Mezel looks to Kabyle poets, including the traveler Si Mohand ou Mohand, whom she pays tribute to in one of my favorite songs, “Cheikh Mohand,” an upbeat desert blues ballad sung in the Tamazight tongue on Beyond the Trance.

Mezel’s 2015 release, [strong] (Nora Prod), is the latest culmination of her complex identity. “Of all my albums,” she says, “[strong], is the closest to who I am.” Like its predecessors, this album paints with a broad palette, but features more contemplative tones and serves as an homage to nature. Its dynamic North African rhythms and melodies empower Mezel’s authentic lyrics and inject the album with a spirit of optimism, what she cals “the determination of the human spirit.” Producer John Reynolds, of Björk and Sinead O’Connor fame, helped Mezel master her craft, while Nora Abdoun-Boyer, her lifelong friend, and renowned British musician Graham Kearns are backing instrumentalists on the album. The result is a deep, proud set of songs that reflects Mezel’s evolution as an artist. Beyond the discoveries of her earlier work, [strong] centers on themes of connectedness and nature while emphasizing feminine strength and the beauty of poetry. In her journey through nature, Mezel molds genre-bending stories of Amazigh tradition with her lyrical imagery and enchanting melodies. We await more.


INESS MEZEL – Beyond trance, beyond identity – Andy Morgan Writes – INTERVIEW

Iness Mezel Biography - Albums – LABEL PRODUCED


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