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Osama bin Laden’s Jam? Enrico Macias

An al-Qaida compound contained a 1,500-cassette audio library containing sermons, intimate conversations, and music. There’s no N.W.A. or Streisand, but there is an Algerian-Jewish songwriter.

Jonathan Zalman
August 20, 2015
Photo collage, Tablet MagazineYouTube
Photo collage, Tablet MagazineYouTube

In 2003, an Afghan family wandered into an abandoned al-Qaida compound near Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, where they found 1,500 cassettes. They took the tapes to a local shop and sold them. “With the Taliban now gone, there was money to be made producing previously banned pop music, and these were ripe for wiping and filling with the hit songs of the day,” reported Richard Fenton-Smith of the BBC. The haul, it turns out, was al-Qaida’s audio library.

A CNN cameraman soon found out about the stash and got the tapes, which eventually made their way to the Afghan Media Project at Williams College in Massachusetts, and into the hands of Flagg Miller, now a professor of Religious Studies at the UC Davis.

“It was totally overwhelming,” Miller said of the experience of going through the audio, which dates from the 1960s through 2001.

[Osama Bin Laden] is first heard in a tape from 1987—a recording of a battle between Afghan-Arab mujahideen and Soviet Spetsnaz commandos. Bin Laden had left his home in Saudi Arabia, where he had been brought up in luxury, to make a name for himself fighting Afghanistan’s infidel invaders.

“Bin Laden wanted to create an image of an effective militant—no easy job, because he was known as a bit of a dandy, who wore designer desert boots,” says Miller.

“But he was very sophisticated at self-marketing, and the audio tapes in this collection are very much part of that story—the myth-making.”

The majority of the tapes are propaganda-driven speeches and sermons intended to proselytize his followers, as well as Islamic anthems.

But there was also music, most notably that of Enrico Macias, a French Pied-Noir born to an Algerian-Jewish family in Constantine in 1938. (Macias’s given name is Gaston Ghrenassia). With his guitar and enchanting voice, Macias has toured the world from the 1960s to the present, including a visit with Anwar Sadat in the 70’s, and a concert to 20,000 people at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids.

Miller has now documented his experience of listening to every single tape in a new book, entitled The Audacious Acestic.

Here is a compilation of Macias’s live music from concerts in Paris and Amsterdam:

And his hit, “Zingarella:”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.