The Ahellil of Gourara


The Ahellil is a poetic and musical genre emblematic of the Zenete population of Gourara during their collective ceremonies. This region in southwest Algeria includes around one hundred oases populated by over 50,000 inhabitants of Berber, Arab and Sudanese origin. The Ahellil, which is specific to the Berber-speaking part of Gourara, is regularly performed at religious festivities and pilgrimages as well as secular celebrations, such as weddings and community events. The Ahellil is closely linked to the Zenete way of life and its oasis agriculture, and symbolizes the cohesion of the community living in a harsh environment.  The Ahellil vehicles the values and the history of the Zenete population in a language that is at risk of disappearing.

Representing a mixture of poetry, chants, music and dance, this polyphonic musical genre is performed by a bengri (flute) player, a singer and a chorus of up to hundred people standing shoulder to shoulder surrounding the singer, who stands in the centre of the circle. The slowly move around him while clapping their hands. An Ahellil performance generally consists of a series of chants in an order decided by the instrumentalist or singer. The performance, which sometimes lasts the whole night, follows an age-old pattern. The first part that is open to all, the lemserreh, encompasses short, well-known chants that are sung until the late night. After that, the most experienced performers remain for the aougrout that is performed until the morning begins. The tra finishes with daybreak and involves only the real experts. This threefold structure is also reflected in the performance of a chant starting with a prelude, where the instrumentalist sets the pitch for the chorus. The chorus members then accompany the singer and pick up certain verses of the poem. During the final part, the chorus leads the chant from whisper to crescendo into a powerful, harmonious whole.

This tradition is threatened with disappearance because its transmission to the younger generations is no longer assured. The threat is heightened because of the dwindling number of occasions on which it is performed, the lack of availability for traditional festivities, which necessitate lengthy preparation, the migration of young people to the cities of the north and the attraction for them of more contemporary forms of music. In addition, the widespread availability of recordings of the Ahellil adds to the fragility of the practice, since people prefer to listen rather than actively participate.