Al Hadr. The present time in the Arabic language. That is the title of the debut record of the French Algerian singer and songwriter Sabrina Bellaouel, and the mantra of it. The present time is an interesting frame. It is the momentary glimpse at an event, an abstract measure between past and future, yet it is all we know. The ambiguity of momentariness and continuity is reflected in the broad range and different styles that influence Sabrina Bellaouel’s record.
The artist describes the title, Al Hadr, as a “healing mantra” and explains that it came to her before the songs were done and provided a silver lining in the recording process. “As I was recording and getting the pieces together, I was experiencing “the present”. It is a feeling of liberation because what lies beneath this is that every path is possible, even those you cannot yet conceive. ‘Al Hadr’ is the revolution that I did not know I needed.”
Letting the Kids Play
From euphoric pop to techno-inspired rap and distorted electronica, the record lives off the various colors and textures that fascinate the singer. Drawing on her Algerian heritage, traditional Raï music meets French house culture in Sabrina Bellaouel’s hands. The multilingual record (English, French, Arabic) embodies a sense of playfulness that the artist actively endorses.
“The most important thing for me, when I make music, is to keep a kid’s spirit. I let my imagination run wild because I don’t fear external judgment.”
That childlike sense of wonder and amazement is something that the versatility of Al Hadr reflects. In the process, Sabrina Bellaouel describes that she actively tried to learn how to play again. Freeing herself from the strict framework of the capitalist music industry that aims to commercialize and capitalize off the creative individual, she discovers creativity in breaking boundaries and allowing her inner kid to play.
That playful approach to music is something inherent to Sabrina Bellaouel. She describes the way she grew up in a French-Algerian and Muslim household in Bagneux, southside of Paris, as formative for her personal taste: “Music was a way for my sisters and me to create choreographies and pretend we were pop stars. Later on, each of us was affirming their personal taste that helped to build strong individualities and a sense of character”.
Partly sung in her mother tongue Arabic, partly in French and English, the singer recounts the effect that Algerian music and culture have on her musical style. Curating a playlist with some of her influences for NBHAP, Sabrina describes Algerian music as a shapeshifter and credits her central location in Paris and her studies of ethnomusicology in London with broadening her horizon-
“Algerian music is a style that shapeshifts constantly. That is what makes it interesting and beautiful. The genre connects me to my ancestral lineage and there is a sense of nostalgia because I live abroad. It has fed my imagination and my aesthetic.”
Sprung From the Fountain
The connection to the Algerian roots and the topics on Al Hadr make it a deeply personal record. It turns that nostalgia, the search for a feeling of belonging, and the strangeness of simultaneous non-belonging into music, by skillfully combining Algerian-aesthetic with influences from the rising French trap and house music and culture. The opening track, a short electronic and spoken-word collage Ain El Fouara, is named after a fountain in Sétif and a sepia-tinted musical childhood photograph.
“My dad used to drive us to this fountain in the city center of Sétif back in the day. As a child, I remember my hands floating and sinking in that water. They say, if lovers drink from it, they will always be drawn back to it. It is like a promise of loyalty that I value a lot. This is where my love story begins.”
Sprung from the fountains, the record is a personal love story and a deeply honest and vulnerable expression of the various facets of Sabrina Bellaouel’s personal and creative identity. That vulnerability is how the artist manages to unlock emotions in the listener. Working with a set of collaborators from various genres like jazz musician Monomite, experimental DJ and writer Crystallmess, dance producer Basile3, and pop singer Bonnie Banane, vulnerability and openness are formative to the collaborative process.
“My songs are very personal and while I am making them, I am being super vulnerable. That is key to unlocking emotions that give you goosebumps. When working with collaborators, I need to find that common ground. It is very special. We gift each other part of human majesty. We experience growth because people are mirroring us.”
Representation and Identity
Knitting ties with other artists and exploring sounds and stories together, gives Al Hadr the depth of flavor that it has. But in that process, there are power dynamics at play that Sabrina Bellaouel is painfully aware of as a French-Algerian woman, producing and recording in the white, male-centered industry. The record explores the difficulties that she has to navigate on a daily basis on the single Trust. The song discusses the urge to be truly seen and listened to rather than being tokenized, sexualized, or victimized and uses the story of Aladdin’s Jasmine as a metaphor.
Sabrina describes that to her, Jasmine has always been the main character of the Disney story. “She is the one that was chosen to break a long scheme of masculine domination in the Arab world.” Using the story as a parable for the experience of the Arab woman producer in the white and male-dominated industry, is not a perfect way of empowerment, as Jasmine only earns freedom through marriage. Disney as a studio also has a long history of the stereotyped, discriminatory, or sexualized portrayal of figures, especially those read as BIPoC, queer, female, or Disabled.
“The analogy I saw with the music industry is that a lot of women have to fight against an industry that wants to create commodified concepts that already exist. Rather than creating a better and safer environment for artists to express their singularity.”
Al Hadr is a document of the complete creative expression of a producer and singer. A piece of true personal representation that does not adhere to the capitalist music market and finds freedom. Sabrina Bellaouel blends her background, her present, and her perspective into a diverse album that takes musical risks. In her world, in her present moment, in her Al Hadr, there is space for euphoria, nostalgia, religion, techno and self-love, playfulness and pop. There is space for doubt and questions, critique and hope. It is a record that lives off its ambiguity and celebrates it, not willing to compromise on any emotion.
“Representation gives choice and choice is freedom. We are getting there.”
Al Hadr is out now via InFiné Records. Catch Sabrina Bellaouel live in Berlin.
Every Monday, the NBHAP staff brings an exciting new artist to your attention alongside a 30-track-strong Introducing Playlist on Spotify. Feel invited to follow the playlist and give these talents a spin.
This time, we curated the playlist together with Sabrina Bellaouel. Along with tracks from her new album, this week’s update includes Adekunle Gold, The Growth Eteral, Lazuli, and more. Tune in below.