Publication upcoming: The role of music in France’s colonization of Algeria (late 1840s – early 1850s)

For her upcoming article for European Review of History, CALLIOPE-member Karen Lauwers is investigating nineteenth-century French constructions and appropriations of Algerian soundscapes.

Her contribution will show how French officers’ treatment of Algerian jihad leader Bou-Maza as the original Mohamed Ben Abdallah – and their subsequent depiction of other leaders as bleak impersonators – misconstrued the influence of Sufi mysticism on Algerian resistance. The following quotation is a literal translation of how Eugène de Martinval, ex-underofficer of the colonial expeditionary forces in Algeria, described Bou-Maza’s response to a concert of the Milanollo sisters in Marseille in 1847.

Harmonious sounds are striking his ears, soft and dreamy music is immersing him in an indefinable ecstasy. The look in his eyes is becoming less savage. As the new Saul, he is moved by these enchanting accents. His anger is turning into resignation. He is feeling unknown ideas igniting in him. Bou-Maza is no more. The lion has changed. Right now, he is happy and he is enjoying his happiness. He is immersing himself in waves of melody, only lifting his head to breathe and so as not to lose his breath; he is sad, he is cheerful. It is the bow of the little Milanollos that is bringing him life, wellbeing, and calm.

Let us oppose music to the blue devils that will come tease Bou-Maza, and Bou-Maza will be cured.

Provided that in the midst of a plaintive romance the fallen poor sod does not suddenly hear the detonation of a gun, provided that the neighing of a horse does not destroy the entire effect of a cavatina.

Oh! then, the music would be powerless, and Bou-Maza would become, if only for a few minutes, the king of the deserts and mountains again.

After a few years of leading a resistance movement (1845-47) against French domination in Algeria, the man who called himself Mohamed Ben Abdallah and was nicknamed Bou-Maza by native Algerians (referring to his mythical goat), capitulated and was brought to Paris. Halfway the trip, however, the French Minister of War seemed to have changed his mind about wanting to receive Bou-Maza in the capital, which caused the latter to throw a cursing fit in front of the French officers who were escorting him. What made him surprisingly calm, according to Martinval’s story, at least, was the enchanting violin play of the young Milanollo sisters. Enraged one moment, Bou-Maza was enraptured the next by the harmonious sounds of their soft and dreamy music, similar to the way biblical King Saul was moved by David’s harp play. Still, the inner peace these melodies were believed to create was fragile, because other sounds – ones that would revive Bou-Maza’s memories of his past insurgency – could instantly reawaken his warrior-identity.

To be effective as a cure, so it seemed, the acoustic advantages had to be consolidated by a change of environment. As such, the former resistance leader was escorted to Paris after all, where “the deserts and mountains” became “united in a twenty square foot living room,” and he “was reduced to riding an armchair à la Voltaire.” With his strange verb choice (équiter), Martinval made the contrast more glaring with Bou-Maza’s warrior-years, when he rode a “Pegasus-like” horse with alleged miraculous qualities. In the mountains and deserts of Algeria, Bou-Maza used to be a courageous conqueror (like “Attila,” “Caesar,” and “almost Napoleon,” though “less rational”), whereas at the Parisian salons, he became known as a “dilettante pur sang.” His love for (Italian) music appears to have caught Hector Berlioz’ attention, since the French composer planned on creating a “Bedouin symphony” about Bou-Maza and his rival in resistance, Abd’el-Kader. Rumor had it that the composition would be accompanied by sounds of “gunfire, yelling, and horse pawning,” to obtain “the greatest effect.”[i] While Berlioz’ idea did not come to fruition, Ernest Reyer’s quadrille of ballroom dances from 1851 ended up telling the legend of Bou-Maza in a way that was similarly stereotypical to Martinval’s depiction of the Algerian leader’s savagery.[ii]

Instead of spreading harmful news in Algeria by word of mouth – “par la voie arabe” as French officials active in Algeria called it around that time[iii] – Bou-Maza was expected to put his oral tradition to use in the more innocent context of the Parisian salons to which he was invited as an exotic attraction. “We hated Bou-Maza, our enemy,” but “we will love Bou-Maza, our prisoner,” Martinval concluded, even though the former insurgent was not a prisoner in the literal sense of the word. The French government granted him a pension and appointed him an apartment in the capital, where, like a real “badaud,” he frequented both houses of the French parliament, visited Madeleine and the Bourse, joined in lansquenet card games, and attended the balls of the Jardins Mabille, the Château-Rouge and the Grande-Chaumière. In sum, he was in fact a prisoner in a very specific soundscape (sonic landscape), shaped by the French high society’s salons and balls, which were supposed to civilize this alleged “savage hero.”[iv] Although seemingly anecdotal at first sight, Martinval’s biographical note is revealing of how French colonial authorities perceived native Algerian expressions of leadership and linked such interpretations to specific spaces and their acoustic qualities.


[i] E. de Martinval, Bou-Maza, scheriff des Ouled-Yonnes, prisonnier des Français. Notice biographique et intéressante (Paris: Imprimerie de E. Bautruche, 1847), 18–21.

[ii] Ernest Reyer, Bou-Maza. Quadrille composé sur des motifs arabes (pour piano) (Paris: Maison A. Meissonnier-Heugel, 1851), as analyzed in detail by historical musicologist Kristy Barbacane, in “On Colonial Textuality and Difference: Musical Encounters with French Colonialism in Nineteenth-Century Algeria” (unpublished PhD-thesis, New York, Columbia University, 2012), 72–80.

[iii] “Rapport de la 1re quinzaine de septembre 1847, Cercle de Saïda,” Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Gouvernement Général de l’Algérie (ANOM GGA), file 25J 2.

[iv] I derived the concept of “soundscape” from R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape. Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Vermont: Destiny Books, 1977), 8–12. The other phrasings are from de Martinval, Bou-Maza, 21–23.