The Linguist

The Linguist 55,5

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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18 The Linguist Vol/55 No/5 2016 A singer who waxes lyrical, mid concert, about the need to protect declining languages is a rare thing. But with her sensuous fusion of north African styles, funk, jazz and European pop, Iness Mezel is far from the ordinary. At an intimate gig in London's East End to promote her fourth album, Strong, she spoke passionately about the beauty and freedom of singing in different languages. The trilingual record centres on ancient beliefs, nature and spirituality, with songs in French, English and Tamazight. "So many interesting languages, like Tamazight, are slowly put aside and oppressed," she tells me later from her Paris home. "You imagine slowly, generation after generation, the oxygen being taken from the language by the predominance of Arabic. We have a responsibility to speak the language, sing the language – do something." Born in Paris to an Algerian father and French-Italian mother, Mezel first learnt the Berber language aged 8, when she went to live in Algeria with her father and his family for two years. Temporarily separated from her mother and sister, the experience had a profound influence on her sense of identity and way of seeing the world. "I realised suddenly that I was from these different cultures," she says. "It was the sound of the weddings, the colours, smells and tastes, and all these little things – the day-to-day life – that made it different. All this was very new and I was young enough to grab everything." Her curiosity about life, and emerging sense of her global identity, only developed with age. After the family reunited in France, Mezel learnt piano, but spent as much time working on her own compositions as practising the exercises set by her teacher. ("Creativity is part of my nature," she says.) She went on to study at the Conservatoire, also finding time to train to be a translator and get a law degree, before launching a career as a singer. It wasn't long before she began to explore Berber music and language in her music. "I started to feel like I couldn't sing only in French – it wouldn't make sense to me. I thought, 'Who am I, what do I want to say, how do I want to say it?'" she recalls. "I had heard such beautiful things, like my grandmother singing in Berber, that I decided to play with the language, and slowly I decided how to incorporate it in my music and make it mine." However, singing in Berber was no easy matter. Although she had left Algeria fluent in both Tamazight and colloquial Arabic, she had since spoken only French, plus the English she learnt at school. To reacquaint herself with the language she visited her grandmother and worked with a family friend. "It was very interesting to get back to the language but with an adult point of view," she muses. As she sees Tamazight as an important part of her identity, I wonder how she feels about SING IT STRONG "Because I'm not fluent I put images together in interesting ways… it makes the language present, alive, evolving" FEATURES her lack of fluency in the language. It was a concern, she admits, but the poet Lounis Aït Menguellet helped her to see the situation differently. "He was very supportive, telling me, because I'm not fluent, it means I put images together in interesting ways. I can freely put words together and find a phrase, a melody, which is quite different from what exists. He told me it makes the language present, alive, evolving," she explains. "I have another perspective. I choose words for their sounds, and it's great working with the polyrhythm of the words and sentences." Creativity and the non-native speaker The lack of fluency, as well as the constraints of the language itself, may limit what Mezel can do in Tamazight, but she has embraced the challenge of making music in the language. Although she is still more comfortable writing in French, she finds writing in Berber empowering, as she has to adopt a whole new approach to the writing process. And working in an unfamiliar tongue is something she has enjoyed since the early days of her career. Working with musicians from all over the world, she experimented with global styles and languages as she developed her musical direction. "I decided to try singing African languages, Caribbean languages, because I had friends from different places and I tried different things with them. It was just interesting to understand what music is." The new album mixes flowing vocals on the dreamy 'Silent Waters' and pared down 'Eau fil de l'eau' with pop ballads such as 'Precious Souls' and upbeat numbers including 'Izha Wuliw'. It's a refreshingly French-Algerian singer Iness Mezel tells Miranda Moore why she is passionate about writing in other languages

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