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 1957). 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.)
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.)