Saturday, July 26, 2008

Battle of Algiers Soundtrack

I've been a big fan of the film The Battle of Algiers ever since I first saw it in winter 1968-69. For the last few years I've been in the habit of screening it for my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class in the summer, for the unit on violence. Unlike other movies I show in this class, I'm always keen to watch this one again. One of the things about the film that I've become more and more interested in is the amazing soundtrack. (Unfortunately, and despite all the continued interest in The Battle of Algiers and in the soundtrack composer, Ennio Morricone, the recording is no longer in print.)

Two things in particular intrigue me, in part because I seek more information. The first has to do with the famous "milk bar" scene, the site of one of the three terrorist bombings, carried out by women militants of the FLN who are dressed up to look French. It's the milk bar that gets to me in particular, in part because I used to go to similar milk bars in Beirut when I was a teenager, in 1964 and after. Not that long after the bombings in Algiers (which took place in 1956). And not that different a setting. (Lebanon is a former colony of France, and if Lebanon wasn't a colony in the sixties, it was certainly a neo-colony).

In the milk bar the young French colons are dancing to the song, "Hasta Mañana." I've hunted around for the version that plays on screen, and can't track it down. There are lots of versions of the song available, but I can't find the one. (You can watch the segment on youtube here--the song starts about 10 seconds in.)

[See the comments, which informed me that the song in question is "Rebecca," by The Chakachas.]

The other bit of the soundtrack that I've thought a lot about is the use of gnawa music, and in particular the thunderous sound produced by the playing of qraqeb, metal castanets, backed by the pounding of the tabl, a large frame drum hit by wooden sticks. You hear these sounds at two key moments, first, when the three women are preparing to plant their bombs in the European quarter of Algiers, as they take off their veils and cut and dye their hair and put on European clothing. Knowing that the women are preparing to plant bombs, the intensity of the percussive track serves to rachet up your tension. (Watch the segment here, about 1:20 minutes in.)

The other key moment where you hear the Gnawa qraqeb and tabl is at the end of the film, when demonstrations break out in Algiers in 1962. Right at the end, when you hear the sounds of the demonstrators yelling and in particular the sounds of women ululating, the percussion starts up and the camera focuses in particular on two Algerian women who are waving flags and confronting the police. It is significant, of course, that the film ends with shots of militant women. (In the supplementary material that comes with the 2004 Criterion DVD release, the director Pontecorvo states that this was a comment on the fact that whereas women played an important role in the Algerian war of independence, by the time he shot the film in Algiers, only 2-3 years after the end of the war, women were already being marginalized.) As the narrator comes on, states that Algeria finally won its independence, and as the credits begin to roll, the Gnawa percussion merges with a piano, playing classical-style chords. You can watch this segment on youtube--go here and start watching about 4 minutes into the clip.

According to what I learned from the supplementary material on the DVD, what is being played in both instances is a traditional Algerian song, "Baba Salem." Gnawa Diffusion recorded a song called "Baba Salem," which you can here. I don't know what relation the Gnawa Diffusion song has to what we see and hear in the film. And here is a "Baba Salem" from contemporary Algeria. Since I know very little about Gnawa in Algeria, I know nothing about the meaning of the song. (But I will try to find out.)


John Curran said...

I have an answer for you on the Latin dance club song from The Battle of Algiers!

The name of the song is: "Rebecca" (in some releases, the title is alternately spelled "Rebekka")

The artist is: The Chakachas (also known as "Les Chakachas" and "Los Chakachas"

There are two versions of "Rebecca" by this artist. The first, which was exactly what you hear featured in the film, was released in 1959 by RCA (2:32 minutes in length)(RCA EPA 9101). The Chakachas released another version, in 1977. They sound very similar; the 1977 (non-movie) version is a bit cleaner recording, and a minute longer at 3:30.

I was able to find the 1977 available for free download here:
It's also available for pay on iTunes.

A little bit more information on both the 1959 and 1977 recordings of "Rebecca" by The Chakachas is available at AMC records' website, presumably the company that currently owns the rights to the songs:

I haven't yet found a recording of the 1959 version of "Rebecca" that was featured in the film. I will keep looking...

Once you hear the 1977 recording, though, you'll be sure I've found the right song and artist -- the same one featured in the movie.

Ljay said...

Thank u verymuch.i have been searching for this song quite a long time

Mike Allison said...

I was also watching BoA this morning (thanks Netflix for having it streamed). I was also reminded of the song and fascinated by it as I listened and watched.

I found the version John Curran listed as free, certainly correct group. I also found a version posted on YouTube as the 2 min 31 second version, here:

I believe this is the film version. possibly uploaded from the video, who knows? The pacing on the shorter version is a bit faster as you can hear when listening to them together.

The 77 version is much better aesthetically speaking, perhaps, but the original is much more true to the era, sounding a bit more up beat and monaural.

Thanks for posting this, at least now I have a couple of copies to listen to and pass along to the uninitiated.

Ah'la wa sah'lan


Ted Swedenburg said...

thanks, Mike. and, belatedly, John as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike and John (well done both of you), just downloaded from iTunes Rebecca! It is a great song from the Milk Bar scene in that most incredible of films. You both rock!

CF said...

I used to rewind this movie over and over just to hear this song. That's how awesome it is.