In Algeria, heavy metal bangs up against tradition

Constantine (Algeria) (AFP) - They came from all over conservative Algeria, clad in black leather, studded bracelets and even the traditional Muslim veil to revel in a rare heavy metal concert.

Organised earlier this month in the eastern city of Constantine -- designated this year's Capital of Arab Culture by the Arab League and UN cultural agency UNESCO -- the two-day Fest 213 brought together metal fans from across this North African country.

Headbanging and mosh pits may seem incongruous in Algeria, where the government prefers to promote traditional music and events that bolster its Arab-Muslim identity.

But the country has had a solid core of metal fans for more than two decades and -- despite occasional media charges of "devil worship" -- the music is attracting a new generation of followers.

"This is really unprecedented," a young woman from Constantine going by the name "Sadness Spirit" told AFP at Fest 213, which shares its name with Algeria's international dialling code.

Dressed in black leather, with face piercings and dyed-red hair, she was waiting for a concert to begin, accompanied by a friend with her own piercings but also wearing a Muslim veil.

Nearby stood a group of young men dressed in black T-shirts, their arms tattooed and their hair slicked back with gel.

"Outside of concerts we don't dress this way or act this way to avoid trouble," said "Sadness Spirit".

The festival featured five bands, including Franco-Algerian acts like Acyl and Arkan, but also homegrown outfits like Traxx, Fingerprints and Numidas.

A far cry from the country's Rai pop music, Algerian metal first emerged in the 1990s, a decade marked by a devastating war between the government and Islamists.

- 'Metalhead and Muslim' -

With authorities preoccupied with battling extremism -- the war eventually claimed 200,000 lives -- an underground metal scene flourished largely unnoticed by the country at large.

More recently it has come under fire, with conservatives accusing the music of corrupting Algeria's youth.

El Biled, a conservative television channel, launched a virulent attack last summer against metal fans, accusing them of being "devil worshippers".

It broadcast a documentary featuring fans speaking of black magic, with images of skulls flashing in the background.

The documentary prompted a backlash from metal afficionados on social media, with one Facebook page urging supporters to adopt the slogan "I'm a metalhead and a Muslim".

Artists have also accused the government of using its control over concert venues to limit their performances, blocking some bands and telling others to change their lyrics.

Malik Chaoui, an Algerian cultural activist, said the government too often promotes "cultural policies that aim to control thought" and needs to accept more diversity.

For now, followers of alternative music are doing what they can outside the mainstream, using social media for promotion and finding independent associations willing to help organise events.

In Algiers, a group of young people have set up a group dubbed Mayhem to help promote musicians who play rock, metal and blues.

It has already arranged for performances on the terrace of the capital's Museum of Fine Arts.

"Officials consider these movements as too Westernised and not profitable, but in fact a metal concert brings in a lot of people," said 21-year-old Mayhem member Zakaria Brahami.