This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Music In Algeria

22 May 2021

It's a peculiarity with French military bands.
Whenever they posed for a photo
a pyramid of brass plumbing
was placed in front of the band.
In this case it's a balanced arrangement
of a flute, clarinet, trombones,
a couple of horns, a bass drum
and a baritone saxophone.

The officers wear French uniforms
but the bandsmen are dressed differently
with short embroidered jackets,
soft caps, and baggy white trousers
that give them a very exotic look.

Which is not surprising
considering that they are not in France,
but in a very exotic place in North Africa,
the ancient city of Constantine, Algeria.

In this postcard dated 1916 we see Constantine from a great height above a canyon with a hazy view of plains and mountains beyond. Its buildings are tightly clustered on the edges of a rocky escarpment divided by a dramatic gorge. When I first saw this postcard scene I was instantly captivated by it's stunning landscape.

Some years ago I acquired a set of four novelty French postcards (not yet published on my blog) which were all sent in 1905 to a French soldier, a chef armurier – chief gunsmith with the 3rd regiment of Zouaves in Constantine, Algeria. It was a place I'd never heard of. Though I knew about Algeria's history as a French colony, this city's name was unfamiliar. After I acquired the postcard of the band of the 3rd Zouave regiment, I became curious to learn more about it. Constantine is located in Algeria's northeastern mountains near Tunisia, but inland, about 70 miles south of the Mediterranean. 

Map of French Algeria, 1934-55
Source: Wikimedia
Constantine is an ancient city founded by the Phoenicians, then later conquered by the Numidians, the Carthaginians, and the Romans. It was named after the emperor Constantine the Great, who rebuilt it in 313 AD. From the 8th to the early 19th century it was under Islamic rule as part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1837 Constantine was captured by the French army during its conquest of Algeria which had begun in 1830 during the Bourbon Restoration reign of France's King Charles X (1757–1836). By 1905 when my French soldier received his postcards from France, Constantine was a vibrant city in the vast French colonial empire in Africa.
Situated on a plateau above a deep ravine over the Rhumel River, Constantine is at an elevation of 2,100 ft (640m) overlooking wide fertile plains. The same scene as my 1916 postcard was photographed and colorized in 1899 (courtesy of Wikipedia). It looks like an identical image except that one thing is missing. Can you spot the difference?

Constantine, Algeria 1899
Source: Wikipedia

The band of the 3rd regiment of Zouaves posed for their photo in 1913, as noted in the postcard's caption. It's a very large ensemble of 61 bandsmen and two officers, standing, I presume, outside their barracks in Constantine. With a nice balance between brass and woodwinds, the band's music would easily be heard echoing far below on the plains.
In this next postcard looking upwards toward a mountain above the city, we can see the distant viewpoint used by the photographer for the first postcard of Constantine. This image was also taken in the 1910s and shows the El-Kantara Bridge which crosses over the gorge of the Rhumel River.

This iron arch bridge was built in 1863 on the site of several ancient bridges. In 1855-56 the French-born American photographer and Egyptologist, John Beasley Greene (1832–1856) took a photo of the Constantine's earlier stone bridge.

The iron bridge that replaced it was a marvelous example of 19th century French engineering. In this next image of the El-Kantara Bridge taken in 1899 we see the reverse view looking down into the gorge.

Constantine, Algeria
El-Kantara Bridge, 1899
Source: Wikimedia

In the early 20th century the El-Kantara Bridge's structure was replaced with a stronger concrete span that preserved the iron arch's design. Now a century later in 2021 it has changed very little except that the horse-drawn wagons are replaced with vans and automobiles.

* * *



This next postcard from Constantine shows the band of the Tirailleaurs (La Nouba). There is no postmark but the quality of the printing is better that the other French postcards so I think it dates from the 1930s or even 1940s. The Tirailleaurs were a light infantry unit made up of indigenous men recruited from France's overseas colonies. The 25 bandsmen here, like the previous Zouave regimental band, wear a distinctive uniform of short jacket, baggy trousers, and fez cap. The group is a more typical size for a military band, and being French, they display all their instruments in the foreground.

One the left side of the first postcard of Constantine, a number of large buildings dominate the skyline. This is the military barracks and hospital which are pictured in this next postcard. It was sent by a soldier in 1911 who drew arrows to show his friend the location of his rooms. Ironically, today's smartphone technology adds GPS coordinates onto images that give a precise position, but it lacks the personal touch of a handwritten X.

The colorful uniforms of Zouaves and Tirailleur became a popular military fad in the 1830s. Inspired by the exploits and bravery of the first French Zouaves, many infantry units in other countries, including the United States, adopted the splashy Zouave uniform fashion. This next postcard photo shows a French soldier from the 3rd regiment of Zouaves in Constantine posing proudly for his portrait. The postmark is unclear but I believe it dates from 1910-1918. Many Zouave soldiers served with distinction during the Great War of 1914-18 and later again in World War II. Their heroism is still honored today in France.

After WWII, France struggled to maintain its colonial empire, but by the 1960's most of France's many possessions achieved independence, and Algeria won its home rule in 1962. However old military traditions last a long time, and today the French Army still has a mechanized infantry unit called the 1st Tirailleur Regiment. And of course, it has a band which is known as La Nouba. Here is the Nouba du 1er Régiment de Tirailleur performing  on 11 April 2018 dressed in the colorful Zouave uniforms. Notice how the petite piccolo in front manages to hold her music. Extra points if you can identify this popular French folk song.

* * *

* * *

The answer to my question about the missing element in the first scenes of Constantine is the slender line of a bridge that crosses the dramatic gorge in the 1916 postcard, but is missing in the 1899 image. This is the magnificent Sidi M'Cid Bridge, a 520 ft (164m) long suspension bridge across the Rhumel River that was first opened to traffic in April 1912 . In this next postcard photo taken from the river's cataracts below we get a breathtaking perspective of its great height of 574 ft (175m) which made it the highest bridge in the world until it was surpassed by the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado in 1929. Today that height doesn't even make the Wikipedia list of tallest bridges, which now starts at 660 ft (200m) and continues on up with 87 impressive bridges, with over half built in China. Yet the honor for the current tallest bridge is the Millau Viaduct in southern France at 1,104 ft (336m) tall. 

Below the Sidi M'Cid Bridge is a prehistoric rock formation which the Rhumel River created. This image, also from Wikimedia, shows a modern view of the gorge with both the man-made and natural bridge crossings. 

Constantine, Algeria
Sidi M'Cid Bridge
Source: Wikipedia

My last postcard of Constantine shows the city's main plaza with an Arab market next to several imposing French colonial buildings. The one on the right was a hotel which was converted into a theatre in 1914, and still functions today as Constantine's main cultural center.

Constantine. – Place Nemours et le Marché Arabe. LL.

We passed through here on our way down. The city is big and handsome.
Cold in winter because it stands high among the Aures mountains.
It is the Aures that divide the fertile plains of northern Africa from
the desert. Constantine is a whole day's train ride from
Biskra so you can tell from that
how far in the desert we are.
                                              E –

The postcard was sent to Philadelphia from Biskra, Algeria, about 150 miles southwest of Constantine, which has a nickname "The Door of the Desert" for its location on the Sahara Desert.  The postmark is too faint to read a date, but I think it is from around 1908 to 1910.

Finally I offer a dramatic modern Google 360° view
of the Sidi M'Cid Bridge, taken from near the military hospital.

* * *

* * *

The full history of the French empire and Constantine, Algeria is a long, complicated, and ultimately tragic story. The world still suffers today from the consequences of European imperialism forced on the people of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron described France's colonization of Algeria as a "crime against humanity...It's truly barbarous and it's part of a past that we need to confront by apologizing to those against whom we committed these acts." It will be many generations before the world resolves this dark legacy of colonial subjugation.
Yet the beauty of Constantine is what attracted me to this place. It's one of the rewards for investigating the history behind the photos and postcards in my collection. It allows me to wander through exotic cultures and fascinating history.




This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is on a world tour.


Kathy said...

I am still chucking at the French folk song!! It was a 2nd great grandfather in the US Civil War and preparing a Sepia Saturday post that gave me my first introduction to the Zouaves and I am delighted to learn more. The French had an interesting way of posing with instruments. I’ll be on the lookout for that in the future.

La Nightingail said...

As always, a most enjoyable and enlightening journey. The band in the video was good - loved the syncopation in the number they were playing. But the discordant ending was a little rough on the ears? Whew. :)

Susan said...

The pyramid of the instruments is an interesting custom. Your posts always fascinate.

Molly's Canopy said...

You are this week's winner for most fascinating post related to the prompt! I am familiar with the Zouave uniform from the units that fought with the Union in the U.S. Civil War, but did not realize they had bands -- or a tradition of an instrument pyramid. Constantine is indeed beautiful, and those bridges stunning as they traverse such deep ravines.


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