Raï is a music that took shape in Algeria – more particularly in the western cities of Relizane, Sidi Bel Abbès and above all the seaport of Oran – whence it found its way all over North Africa and thence to the immigrant ghettos of France and the other European countries where North Africans have settled. The movement of new inhabitants to the cities of western Algeria began in colonial times. Then, following independence from France in the 1960s, Oran and its region attracted an inflow of population from the less developed interior. The French “pieds noirs” moved back to metropolitan France, the Jews left for France or Israel and the resulting vacuum filled up with a densely packed Arab/Berber population, a growing percentage of which was young. These migrants brought with them a cultural heritage, including music, that had evolved slowly, if at all, over many centuries. When such traditions meet the more sophisticated culture of a port city open towards European and other influences, then the resulting fusion can be very dynamic and exciting. Just as reggae travelled from Kingston, Jamaica, to Brixton, London, picking up new influences on the way, so raï has made its way to the high-rise wasteland suburbs of Paris, Lyon and Marseille – and sometimes back again to North Africa, carrying fresh ideas with it.
The music that the swelling population of Oran inherited was based on rural desert traditions that put the accent on songs of love, adventure or social comment, accompanied by simple flutes and, above all, by the rhythmic percussion that is such a characteristic of Berber/Arab music. In the colonial era, Oran developed a style of music, Wahrani (meaning Oranian music), that took these traditions and adapted them to newer instruments such as the oud (Arab lute), accordion, piano and so on. Musically, there were borrowings from France and Spain, just across the Mediterranean. Initially the singers were usually men, who traditionally often adopted the title “cheikh” (sheikh or lord); an interesting parallel with the numerous Caribbean singers who styled themselves Prince this or Lord that.
More recently, the younger performers of out-and-out raï dropped this conservative honorific in favor of the cooler “cheb,” meaning something like “young and handsome.” The unamplified and intimate music that reached the cities up to and during the 1960s found itself increasingly cheek by jowl with a modern world of electric guitars, of rock and soul music played in concert halls and ballrooms for the large and growing population of urban youth rather than at family gatherings and village feasts. From there the process continued into electronics and synthesizers, moving on to clubs and discotheques. It would no longer be enough to set up a microphone in front of an acoustic group: from now on the full panoply of the modern recording industry could be brought into use, even if the end result might be sold not as high fidelity CDs but as the hissing and crackling cassettes heard in cafes and bazaars, in buses and taxis.
Despite traditional male dominance, even before the rise of the modern electrified raï that predominates on this CD, female singers – “cheikhas” – had emerged and begun to play a part in developing the new musical style; never mind the fact that in a traditional and Islamic society female performers were generally considered immoral, or at least consigned to the margins of polite society, rather like actresses in 18th century Europe. At the same time, there was also a “respectable” women’s music, the meddahate, sung collectively by and for women at celebrations and festivities. This tradition also fed into the emerging new raï and particularly influenced the “chebas” or female equivalents of the chebs, as well as providing a source for the development of backing vocals.
Contemporary raï is heavily dependent on a pounding and relentless rhythm played on percussion that may now often combine the traditional drums of the Maghreb with a modern rock band’s drum kit, or even a drum machine. Similarly, the instrumentation may include folk instruments but will often put the emphasis on electric guitars and punchy brass.
The 12 tracks on this introductory CD cover a wide range of different sounds, some closer to older traditions and performed by cheikhs and cheikhas, while on other songs the chebs and chebas turn to more contemporary forms of musical and lyrical expression. There are no slow songs on this CD – raï is always dance music at heart, even when its lyrics express serious ideas. The word “raï” is variously translated as opinion, judgment, advice, objective, point of view, will or outlook. The lyrics are usually repetitive but have a meaning and reflect, in however debased a form, an ancient tradition of philosopher poets putting their ideas into verse. The more traditionally inclined musicians may continue to sing of noble themes, but their younger successors are just as likely to sing of problems of contemporary life in the ghetto. In any case, there are no purely instrumental pieces on this CD.
The order in which the songs are presented seems arbitrary. It begins with a song by Abdou, described in the booklet as the “Boy George of Algeria.” One of the paradoxes of raï is that many of its disaffected young fans must have voted for the Islamic fundamentalists in the 1991 elections – which were cancelled by the authoritarian secular regime once they saw the way things were going – but they listen happily to a music that has been condemned by strict Muslim elders for its sinful character. Nobody exemplifies this “sinfulness” better than Abdou, a transvestite male in make-up who, although he claims not to be gay (so would you in this repressive society!) defends gay rights and, naturally, has a following among those who are. His song “Ana Aachki Bahloul,” meaning “I Love Foolishness,” has pulsating rhythm, minimal instrumentation and a very repetitive vocal line that, appropriately for this singer, is derived from the meddahate style normally associated with women. Without the vocal it would sound very similar to the indigenous Berber percussion that one hears in remote corners of the Maghreb.
This is followed by Cheb Mami’s “Lazrag Saâni.” Mami is one of raï’s biggest stars and now lives in France, where he enjoys great success. He even sang a duet with Sting on the latter’s album “Brand New Day,” which raised his profile outside his own world. This song is an odd mixture: the female backing vocals and Mami’s own singing, as well as the violin solo, are very Middle Eastern in style; the throbbing percussion (even though it has the characteristic feel of raï) and the strident brass are much more Western. This same blend of influences can be heard in the third track, “N’Touma,” performed by the star of so-called techno-raï, Malik, who grew up in France and has embraced the latest recording techniques. His song has a sophisticated opening by a female chorus that alternates seamlessly between French chic and a more obviously Algerian vocal background, against which Malik sings his bluesy and repetitive lines. There is soul-derived brass, electric guitar and a funky sax solo that sounds as though it was inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”
The following singer, Cheb Zahouani, performs rough-hewn, almost shouted music with driving modernist percussion and wailing but more traditional wind instruments. His song, “Moul El Bar,” takes raï into decidedly untraditional lyrical territory, with a call to the barman to provide strong liquor to the lovelorn singer. Cheb Anouar, whose “Moulay Ibrahim” comes next has a traditional-sounding opening that uses an instrument reminiscent of a sitar. This adolescent singer with a high-pitched voice (the Michael Jackson of raï?) is backed by a chorus of deeper-toned men and by aggressive brass, oriental violin and the usual percussive rhythms. It climaxes in an exciting accelerando with prominent oud-picking. The album from which this song comes was produced by one of the biggest influences on the development of raï, Rachid Baba Ahmed. Sadly, Islamic militants gunned down this visionary producer in 1994.
The mood changes abruptly in track 6, featuring the legendary Cheikha Remitti, whom the accompanying booklet compares to Bessie Smith. Orphaned in infancy and having known great hardship, she became one of the first women to defy convention and was already a professional musician before World War II. She is still performing. Her song “Guendouzi Mama” obviously comes from an older school of music. It includes raw, mesmeric chanting in a very masculine voice and is musically simple, relying on rhythmic percussion and traditional wind instruments to demonstrate the sources of what one hears elsewhere on the CD. In stark contrast, Bellemou Messaoud, whose song “Nediha Gaouria” follows Remitti’s track, is a good example of one of the musicians who took the tradition by the scruff of the neck and pushed it in a more pop-oriented direction. Bellemou adopted a fuller range of percussion, mixing native and Western drums and in his singing, a mixture of Maghreb and crooner styles, he displays what the booklet rightly calls Spanish influence. I hear Afro-Cuban sounds in his trumpet-playing. All in all, this kind of raï is more readily accessible for an unaccustomed public.
Cheba Nouria’s “Consulat” is a cover of a song by the enormously successful Cheb Hasni. Nouria’s version of this tale of a lovesick Algerian trying to get a visa to follow his lover to France bears traces of a strong reggae influence on the percussion side, although this is balanced by a trilling Sahara flute. Skipping a track, we find Hasni himself singing “Menghirek Entia Fi Dounia” (“The World Without You”). His music is sometimes described as romantic raï and he favors a larger orchestra than most of the artists featured on this disc. The percussion is subtler and more shifting than the monotonous pulsation of most raï music and the range of instruments allows for greater variation in texture, although some might claim that this music is too sanitized by comparison with mainstream raï. However, this does not mean that its creator escaped from the real world. Like Rachid Baba Ahmed, Cheb Hasni was shot dead in the street near his home in 1994.
Just before Hasni on the CD we find Cheba Zahouania, sometimes known as Cheikha Zahouania, depending which of her various styles she is singing in. Indeed, the song that she performs here is perhaps closer to cheikha than to cheba material. “Shab El Baroud (“People Of The Gunpowder”) is a raï standard dealing with the resistance to French colonial rule. Zahouania, who sang under her real name of Halima Mazzi with meddahate groups in the early 1980s, offers a very traditional sounding version of this rebel song, in which her rather masculine voice is dominated by the hypnotically repetitive throb of a large drum, with shaken percussion and folk instruments.
The penultimate piece introduces us to the most successful of all raï performers, Cheb Khaled, now known simply as Khaled. He enjoyed international success with his song “Didi,” which often turns up on world music compilations and which many readers have probably heard even if they did not realize who they were listening to. This was followed by a bigger hit, “Aisha,” which saw Khaled moving into the mainstream high-tech recording industry, where he has remained ever since. However, the track included here, “Ya Loualid” (“O My Child”), presents Cheb Khaled as a younger man working with less sophisticated equipment and reduced musical possibilities, although the backing is rich and beautifully orchestrated, reminiscent at times of Ravel’s “Bolero.” What comes across is the strength and emotional range of Khaled’s voice. At his best he has no equal as a singer of raï.
The compilation closes with the song “La Vérité,” which, as you all know, is French for “The Truth.” It is performed by a couple, Cheba Fadela, who began making solo hits in the late 1970s, and the man whom she later married, Cheb Sahraoui, who was himself already a singer who had studied classical music and composition before he teamed up with Fadela. Together, they have developed a highly contemporary form of the music. The obligatory constant beat of percussion is present but in a subtle form and there are brass and wind instruments, but also synthesizer sounds and a certain intimacy in Fadela’s singing.
This CD presents a cross-section of an upstart music that began by shocking polite and respectable society in Western Algeria, just as rock’n’roll shocked many people in its homelands in the 1950s. The raï music that was initially associated with the poor, unemployed or under-employed migrants who filled the cities and seemed to threaten security gradually established itself as the sound of modern Algeria – indeed of many other North Africans too, and in the end created its own aristocracy, its own rich men and women. Like the people, the music spread across the Mediterranean to colonize the immigrant communities in Europe. It is sometimes the angry music that accompanies the revolt of unemployed youth in the no-hope tenements of the major French cities, although recent explosions have probably had stronger links to the rude French rap that parallels similar developments in deprived districts of the English-speaking world.
Raï was certainly the music of rebellion when it grew up alongside the war of colonial independence and it remained a music of protest when it was adopted by disaffected youth, alienated from the repressive and authoritarian experiments of post-colonial Algeria. Today, like so many erstwhile forms of counter-culture, it has its respectable practitioners and there are raï-derived songs with the sharp edges smoothed off and conciliatory lyrics. Even these less conflictual pieces, however, have not managed to shake of the inherent excitement of a music that always carries the marks of its origins among desert people whose main form of musical expression was strong and rhythmic drumming and soaring voices and flutes. If you want to be taken out of the mainstream and hear the heartbeat of North Africa, you should not miss this CD.
(World Music Network, 2002)