BIOGRAPHY by Benoit Mouchart
Areski Belkacem is a percussionist, guitarist, singer and actor, but above all he is a gifted composer of melodies whose immersion in an eclectic musical atmosphere dates from childhood. He grew up in Versailles, where his parents, who hailed from Kabylie, Algeria, would frequently receive the best Algerian musicians in their restaurant. As a teenager he would often go and listen to Edith Piaf, the Beatles or Jacques Brel rehearsing in the Cyrano cinema for their concerts at Olympia, the famed Paris venue. Before he was called up, he would scour the basement clubs of Saint-Germain to take part in jam sessions.
After his military service he went on the road in France, offering his services as a polyvalent musician in various rock and jazz clubs. When he played the drums in those places, his fellow musicians often asked him: «Why so much swing? We’ll finish at the same time in any case». But Areski Belkacem is no slave to tempo. He has lived for and through music ever since the day when, waiting for a bus to go to his dreary job as an industrial designer, he had a sudden flash that his life was elsewhere.
In 1969 he recorded the album Higelin & Areski with renowned French singer-songwriter Jacques Higelin. His voice features in the track Remember, for which he composed the music. While recording the song, Areski Belkacem met Brigitte Fontaine, an avant-garde singer and performer who would become his lifelong partner. The same year he, Brigitte Fontaine and Jacques Higelin created a partly improvised show, Niok, which ran for months at the Théâtre du Lucernaire in Paris. He also accompanied Brigitte Fontaine and the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Comme à la Radio, which was soon recorded as an eponymous album, and it won the Académie Charles-Cros prize as soon as it came out. Over the intervening decades Comme à la Radio has remained one of very few French albums to be unanimously qualified outside France as monuments of musical history – together with Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, arranged by composer Jean-Claude Vannier. This is particularly so in Britain, the United States and Japan.
In 1970 Areski Belkacem recorded his first solo album, Un Beau Matin, with the Saravah label, and he also played the lead role in Ça Va, Ça Vient, a full-length film by Pierre Barouh. At that time he also took part as both actor and musician in Peter Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research. During the 1970s he and Brigitte Fontaine were a singular artistic duo who had no qualms about mixing theatre and singing. A precursor of the lo-fi current, the Areski-Fontaine duo rejected technological artifices and opulent orchestrations in favour of a more emotional interpretation, close to the raw energy and fragile exposure of improvisation, but also to popular music. Hints of the influence of African music and traditional French ballads are to be found in many of their records: L’Incendie, Le Bonheur and Vous et Nous.
During the 1980s Areski Belkacem mainly worked in theatre, appearing with Brigitte Fontaine in Acte 2, a play she wrote. Then, in 1990, he released the album French Corazon which marked his return as a musician. He has remained Brigitte Fontaine’s main composer ever since.
In parallel with his work in the French ballad tradition, Areski Belkacem also composes film music with his son, Ali Belkacem, including notably for Jeunesse Dorée and A Mort la Mort, as well as for plays, including Une Liaison Transatlantique. Every year since 2005 he has written the music for Concerts de Dessin, a show presented annually at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. It is based on an idea from cartoonist Zep and Benoit Mouchart, the Festival’s director, in which an original comic strip is created live on a large screen to a musical accompaniment. Areski Belkacem has also worked with a diverse variety of musicians, including Sonic Youth, Antoine Duhamel, Matthieu Chedid (M), Georges Moustaki, Jean-Claude Vannier and Turzi, among others. A few years ago he returned to study at the Schola Cantorum music school in Paris to perfect his musical knowledge.