‘Seeing’ Music in Colonial-era Algeria

Figure 1: A group of musicians pose for a postcard image in colonial-era Algeria

Postcards might not be the most obvious starting point for someone concerned with music. But I have recently been considering the role that postcards played in shaping understandings of ‘music’ (musical instruments, performances, musicians, and audiences) in Algeria during the period of French colonial rule (1830-1962). The images on the front of these cards presented people in Europe with a particular view of what musicians in Algeria looked like at the time, in ways that were often highly romanticised and served to reinforce existing stereotypes (see figure 1). But this was not the only role that they played: as I’ll discuss in this article, they also contributed to the control that the French colonial authorities maintained over public space in Algeria, and the ways in which this control aimed to break down the separation of the private and public contexts for musical performance.

In our digitally-connected world, the postcard might seem like an archaic and redundant form of communication, but in early-twentieth century France they provided an affordable and (relatively) fast means of corresponding with friends and family. Such was the popularity of the postcard that 123 million were printed in France in 1910 alone: more than three cards per citizen living in mainland France at the time (Yee, 2004: 3). And postcards were important in shaping the ways that the French citizens who received them understood music in Algeria, at a time when recordings and broadcasts of Algerian music were rare, and technologies like the phonograph were prohibitively expensive for most. We might even suggest that prior to the Second World War most people in France were more likely to ‘see’ Algerian musics and musicians (particularly as they were depicted on postcards) than they were to ‘hear’ them.

Figure 2: Three female ‘Musiciennes Arabes’ in Algeria, depicted on a postcard sent in 1905

Many of the postcards that portrayed Algerian musicians typified the type of exotic interest in North Africa that was popular among Europeans at the time. These were often posed photographs taken in professional photography studios, and the faces of the individuals on these cards stare back at us through the photographer’s lens (and through time), although we have no way of knowing who most of them were or what role music played in their lives (see figures 2 and 3). This way of representing Algerians and Algerian culture has been critiqued by a number of writers, including Malek Alloula who suggests in his book The Colonial Harem that ‘the postcard is ubiquitous. It can be found not only at the scene of the crime it perpetuates but at a far remove as well...It straddles two spaces: the one it represents and the one it will reach’ (1986: 4). Alloula is arguing here that postcard imagery ensured that the ‘crime’ of colonialism was not restricted to North Africa but extended to Europe. And there is certainly little doubt that these postcards played an important role in connecting Algeria to France, and shaping the ways that those who received these cards understood music and musicianship in colonial Algeria.