Idir gained fans in Algeria and beyond with poignant songs evoking his Berber heritage. — AFP/VNA Photo
PARIS — Algerian singer Idir, a leading cultural ambassador of his native Kabylie and its Berber language, died in Paris on Saturday, aged 70, his family announced.
Idir, who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, was hospitalised on Friday.
"We regret to announce the death of our father (of us all), Idir," a message posted on his official Facebook account said. His family declined to comment further.
Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune called him "an icon of Algerian art".
"With his passing, Algeria has lost one of its monuments," Tebboune said on Twitter.
France's former president Francois Hollande also paid homage to Idir, saying he "entranced entire generations with the rhythms of his dulcet, rich and moving melodies".
UNESCO praised Idir as an "eminent ambassador of the Kabylie and Berber cultures".
Idir, whose real name was Hamid Cheriet, was born on October 25, 1949, in Ait Lahcene, near the Kabylie capital of Tizi Ouzou in northern Algeria.
He studied to be a geologist, but in 1973 was tapped as a surprise last-minute replacement for the Kabylie diva Nouara on Radio Algiers to sing A Vava Inouva, a lullaby set to acoustic guitar that is an ode to the rich oral traditions of Berber mountain villages.
The song became hugely popular in Algeria and beyond, but Idir was unaware of its success, having been drafted for mandatory military service soon after the recording.
In a 2013 interview, Idir said he "came at the right time, with the right songs" that evoked the rhythms of daily life he had heard since a baby.
He travelled to Paris to record his first album, also titled A Vava Inouva, in 1975.
But after a series of tours and another album, he decided to abandon the music industry, until 1991, when the release of a compilation album relaunched his career.
Installed in France, he became an impassioned advocate of his native Kabylie, while also defending multiculturalism and immigration as they became key issues in his adopted country's 2007 presidential race.
French football legend Zinedine Zidane, whose family hails from Kabylie, wrote of Idir on Instagram: "You marked my childhood... I will never forget our meeting".
Algerian writer Kamel Daoud joined the praise, tweeting, "He knew how to turn our roots into such a beautiful harvest, soothing and generous."
After a 38-year absence, Idir returned to Algeria in January 2018 for a Berber new year concert in the capital.
The following year, he defended the popular uprisings that led to the resignation of longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
"I loved everything about these protests: the intelligence of these youths, their humour, their determination to remain peaceful," Idir said in April 2019.
"I admit that these moments were like a breath of fresh air. And since I have pulmonary fibrosis, I know what I'm talking about." — AFP