Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Algerian popular music form of immense popularity in the lands of the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) and among Algerian expatriate populations, especially in France. The word rai derives from the Arabic for 'opinion'. Like many folk-pop musics of the Mediterranean basin and the Iberian peninsula (rembetika in Greece, fado in Portugal, flamenco in Spain) rai is a vibrant hybrid, the product of the cultural waves that have followed the region's troubled history. Rai has been seen as a music of rebellion, in part because of its suppression by the Algerian authorities and in part because of its lyrics' departures from preconceived notions about Islam. In its early days it was perceived as a youth music; hence many performers carried the titles cheb (indicating a young man) or chaba (the female equivalent); Cheb Khaled, Cheb Mami, Chaba Zahouania and Chaba Fadela. Explaining the antecedents of rai in the port city of Oran (Wahrane in Arabic), Khaled, rai's most successful export and brightest star, told Folk Roots, 'Before rai we had two styles in Algerian music around Wahrane: Le genre Oranais and El Wahrani. It wasn't traditional. It was classical music. That music used percussion, ney, gasba [two kinds of flutes], oud, violin. They didn't use electric instruments. Nor drum kit. Just traditional. Gasba is the first instrument of rai ... In Morocco they don't use it, don't know it at all. In Oran it's called six cylindres because of the six holes.' Oran is not far from Morocco and it was inevitable that many young Algerians would fall under the spell of one particular Moroccan act, Nass el-Ghiwane, who not only blended Berber music and the folk music of the Maghreb but deliberately avoided the coast's most pervasive commercial music, that of Egypt, whose artists such as Om Kalthum dominated the airwaves.

Around 1975 relations between Algeria and Morocco became strained leading to Moroccan music being seen as unpatriotic. It became instantly 'cool' to like the music that the state was suppressing and in that climate rai began to develop. It had weaned itself off the Egyptian stereotypes and it left Moroccan music behind in the forging of its own identity. Bellamou Messaoud was especially influential because of his transposition of traditional instruments' lines to the trumpet, hence his nickname, 'Le PŠre du Rai' ('The Father of Rai'). Cheb Khaled (later Khaled) became rai's undisputed leading male vocalist and became the first rai singer to break through to a non-Algerian and non-French audience. In his wake numerous performers stepped forward and took the form further; Cheb Mami's Prince Of Rai '88 on Triple Earth used rock-orientated electric guitar and a synth wash; 'Dertfik Confidence', for example, seemed to reflect a blend of dub, rap and rai. Similarly modern in its approach but less effective was Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui's Hana Hana '89 on Mango. Although it could seem as if Algerian popular music was rai and rai alone during the '80s, it did not completely oust other popular music forms; Ouardia's Assirem on Globestyle '88, for example, made few concessions to the charts, relying instead on traditional stringed instruments and, in contrast to rai's use of Arabic, they sang in the Berber language. Rai's growing popularity spawned anthologies or primers '80s incl. Le Monde du Rai on Buda, He Rai! on Celluloid and Rai Rebels and Pop-Rai And Rachid Style on Earthworks/Virgin. In the '90s Cheb Mami has been a guest of the Kronos Quartet in London and Khaled was increasingly successful as a crossover act; Khaled's has remained the most consistently interesting of the rai maestros: see his entry.