El Gusto: Tribeca Review

Algiers-set doc discovers a little-known musical form and a forgotten history of Jewish/Muslim harmony.

NEW YORK — Taking the Buena Vista Social Club formula to rewarding new territory, Safinez Bousbia's vibrant El Gusto offers not just music and the pleasure of reuniting long-separated friends but a novel angle on Muslim/Jewish relations. Capable of delivering a musical thrill even to viewers uninterested in its social/historical themes, the doc is arthouse-worthy and will send many viewers off to their nearest world-music-savvy record store.

After a chance encounter with an aged furniture maker in Algiers, director Safinez Bousbia discovered chaabi music, a vibrant, cross-pollinated form that flourished in the Casbah but is little known to most Westerners. Upon learning that the man had been part of a celebrated chaabi orchestra in the 50s, Bousbia set out to find as many of his old bandmates as she could in Algeria and France -- some of them nearing their 100th birthdays, most having been unable to make a living from music for decades.

A few of these men take Bousbia on memory-lane tours, twisting through a romantically decayed labyrinth of alleys to see the old hotspots where they once played for their master, "the father of chaabi," El Anka. The cinematography here is uncommonly strong, capturing the neglected neighborhood's flavor while speakers recall a more lively time.

Their heyday was interrupted by Algeria's struggle for independence from France. Starting in the fifties, these Jews and Muslims who shared musical roots and enjoyed each other's company were separated by outside forces; many of El Anka's Jewish students were forced to flee to France, where they encountered a new kind of prejudice.

After years of hunting down interviewees (and some interim reunions in Algiers, not shown here, where Jewish participation was impossible) Bousbia brings the men together for a joyous concert so well received it leads to a larger tour and talk of a chaabi revival. It couldn't come soon enough for one of the group's singers, a physically hobbled but excitable character who insists he isn't interested in anybody who's going to wait until he's dead to pay homage to his art.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, Viewpoints

Production Company: Quidam Productions

Director-Screenwriter: Safinez Bousbia

Producers: Safinez Bousbia, Heidi Egger

Director of photography: Nuria Roldos

Music: Orchestre El Gusto

Editors: Françoise Bonnot, Julien Villacampa

Sales: Winnie Lau, Fortissimo Films

No rating, 89 minutes