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Peter Moore: African Revolutions

Freedom (Hourya) by Abadane

A mate of mine recently bought Just Outside Of Town by Mandrill on the strength of the cover alone. Although Mandrill were from New York, he was convinced the cover was shot in Nairobi. I thought it had more of a Jo'Burg vibe. In the end, we were both wrong. It was shot right in the centre of LA. But, most importantly, the music was as funky as the look of the freakily dressed dudes on the cover promised.

I'll put my hand up straight away and admit I'm a sucker for covers – especially something freaky and exotic from '70s and '80s Africa. I took one look at the guy wearing white boots on the cover of the Strut compilation, Nigeria 70, and I knew I'd love it.

That's why the re-emergence of vinyl and the abundance of African reissues is such a boon for people like me. Especially when labels like Analog Africa and Soundways take such loving care researching and compiling linear notes and designing the covers.

So it should be no surprise that I was drawn like a moth to a flame to the cover of Sublime Frequency's compilation, 1970’s Algerian Folk And Pop.

The cover features one of those brilliant types of photos that asks more questions than it answers. Who is this couple? Why are they holding on to each other so tightly? Are they afraid? Defiant? And where can I get a leather jacket like the one the guy is wearing?

I had figured that the couple were one of the acts featured on the compilation. Maybe Algeria's answer to Sonny and Cher. But a little digging revealed that it was more intriguing than that. It was a picture taken by Lazhar Mansouri, a local photographer in a small village near Aïn Beïda in Algeria.

Mansouri was no Annie Leibovitch or Rankin. He was just a guy who ran a tiny studio in the back of a barbershop in a nondescript town. Here, long before the advent of smartphones, the cost of a camera was prohibitive, so locals came to him when they had a special occasion or celebration to mark.

Between 1950 and 1980 Mansouri took over 100,000 portraits. When the negatives were uncovered they were immediately recognised as a rare and important record of the times. The images reflected all strata of society – families, youth, tribes and the military. And the simple props chosen were revelatory too, each hinting at vocational ambitions or the simple desire for a more affluent life. There was rarely a smile. Getting your portrait taken in Algeria during these decades was a moment to be taken seriously.

In my mind the couple on the cover are using the photo shoot to announce their relationship to a world that was perhaps not quite ready for their modern ways.

So too the music on 1970s Algerian Folk and Pop. The album also documents a key period of a nation in transition. Western musical influences are becoming more prevalent but they are underpinned by an undeniable Algerian sense of sadness. It is a time of tolerance but also one where the dark clouds of a brutal civil war are gathering. Mansouri's portrait perfectly reflects that. And the music within.

Just like I knew it would.

A selection of Mansouri’s work is on permanent display at the Westwood Gallery in New York. Peter Moore is the author of six travel books, including The Wrong Way Home, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted and The Full Montezuma. He is also the editor of The Vagabond Imperative, which you can find here.

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