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‘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.

Figure 3: A Jewish musician (or musician israélite) playing the kamancha (upright fiddle)

But perhaps postcards did more than simply represent a European exotic vision of what music in Algeria might look like? In a number of the cards from this period that I have found, the kiosque à musique (or bandstand) features prominently. These were European structures that had been brought to Algeria and constructed in the middle of parks and public squares throughout the country. Some of them looked distinctly European, such as those in Cherchel and Annaba (which was known as Bône during the colonial period), and they were commonly adorned with French flags and coats of arms (see figures 4 and 5). As we can see in a postcard of the popular Promenade de l’Etang park in central Wahran (Oran to the French), sent to a Madame Rigole in 1906, these kiosques staged performances of Western classical music that were popular with French settler society and French soldiers stationed in North Africa (see figure 6). By depicting these structures on postcards, photographers normalised their existence within Algerian public space, showing how Western high-art traditions could dominate the urban landscape and soundscape of the country.

Figure 4: The bandstand in Cherchell, on the northern Algerian coastline, adorned with French tricolour flags

Figure 5: People walking next to the bandstand in Annaba (which was called Bône by the French)

Figure 6: A concert in the Promenade de l’Etang park in Oran (western Algeria), on a postcard sent in 1906, with an audience including French soldiers

However, other kiosques appear more North African in style, such as the bandstand of Blida (see figure 7). We might look at this postcard today and assume that this structure was built by Algerians. But in fact it was also European, and had been commissioned by the French mayor of the city Victor Bérard, designed by the municipal architect Dourel, and constructed by the Spozio company in 1910. This was part of a wider project by Europeans to design architecture that looked North African as part of an ongoing interest in the ‘Moorish’ buildings of southern Spain, and this became the official French government architectural style at the time (Benjamin, 2005: 189). Herman Lebovics has written about a ‘stylized synthesis of Algerian architecture’, in which ‘not only are French rulers able to create native cultural traditions when they must, but they can invent characteristic architecture’ (1992: 81). This can, of course, make discerning what is North African and what is European on these postcards quite difficult, blurring the lines between the two, and trying to understand exactly who is representing who in such images is a major part of my current research.

Figure 7: The bandstand in Blida in central Algeria, which (despite appearances) was designed and constructed by Europeans

Whether a kiosque à musique looked European or North African, it arguably served the same fundamental function: it made the physical presence of French rule in Algeria tangible and concrete. However it was not only a visual statement of colonialism, but also a stage upon which Western classical musicians and French military bands could perform. As such, it also shaped the soundscape of Algeria, ensuring that European musical traditions dominated public urban space in cities and towns across Algeria.

At the same time, these structures also placed music into a public sphere controlled by the French authorities. While much Algerian music was typically performed in more private contexts (such as homes or local cafes), the presence of the bandstand attempted to make public performance on a stage the norm. This served to further control the lives of normal Algerians, and Zeynep Çelik has written that ‘for Algerians under the occupation, the domestic realm carried a special meaning as the private realm where they found refuge from colonial interventions that they confronted in public life’ (2004: 618). The renowned Jewish Algerian composer and musician Edmond Yafil founded his Andalusi group El Moutribia in 1912, and they would became perhaps the first Algerian ensemble to perform regularly in public squares throughout the country (Glasser, 2016). In the process, they helped to shift musical performance into more public contexts and align them with the sorts of performance of Western music that were taking place on bandstands in Algerian towns and cities.

While we may not be able to ‘hear’ these postcards, we can use them to help us understand how music and sound was an important part of the European colonial project in North Africa. If the physical and sonic control of Algerian public space was not enough, photographers enshrined these kisoques in their images and postcard publishers ensured that they reached the eyes of citizens in mainland France. As Zeynep Çelik argues, Algerian public space was ‘thus mediated by photographs for the metropolitan imagination, contributing to the development of a collective consciousness about the power of the French empire’ (2004: 619-620).

So what might initially look like an innocent image of a bandstand, printed onto a flimsy piece of cardboard a century ago, is in fact a historical object that enables us to better understand the ways in which music played an important role in shaping and controlling public space in Algeria during the period of French colonial rule, and also reflected this back to normal citizens in mainland France.

Stephen Wilford



Alloula, Malek. 1986. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Benjamin, Roger. 2005. ‘Andalusia in the Time of the Moors: Regret and Colonial Presence in Paris, 1900’, in Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones and Mary Roberts (eds.), Edges of Empire: Orientalism and Visual Culture, Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 181-205

Çelik, Zeynep. 2004. ‘Framing the Colony: Houses of Algeria Photographed’, Art History, 27(4): 616-626

Glasser, Jonathan. 2016. The Lost Paradise: Andalusi Music in Urban North Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lebovics, Herman. 1992. True France: The Wars Over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Yee, Jennifer. 2004. ‘Recycling the “Colonial Harem’?: Women in French Postcards from Indochina’, French Cultural Studies, 15(1): 5-19



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