Outspoken. Blunt. Gritty. Rebellious. These adjectives have been used to describe American rap music – but they can also describe Algerian raï music, pronounced “rye” or “rah-EE” and translated as “opinion” or “point of view” (it is also colloquially used as an exclamation similar to “oh, yeah!”).
In addition to being compared to rap, it has also been likened to African-American blues music and punk, as well as characterized as “good-time, party music”.
Raï is a shining example of world music, boasting a heady mix of Bedouin, Spanish, French, and Berber influences. Born around the turn of the century in the Western Algerian port of Oran, it emerged from a blossoming music scene and transformed into a distinct musical style in the 1930’s.
The earliest forms of Raï drew from diverse sources such as Bedouin melhun poetry, bar songs referred to as zendanis, medh, poetic songs praising the Prophet Muhammad, and hawzi, a descendant of Spanish classical music. It was typically performed in venues frequented by the underclass, such as cafes, bars, and bordellos. Performers of raï refer to themselves as “cheikhs” or “cheb” (translated as “youthful” or “charming”) if they are male, and “cheikhas” or “chaba” if female.
Development of Raï Music
By the 1930’s, raï (also called “wahrani”) had developed political overtones, earning the disapproval of French colonists. The first internationally known raï shaabi musician of this period was Cheika Rimitti, who began performing during this time as a teenaged girl. In a 2001 interview with Afropop Worldwide’s Banning Eyre, she characterized traditional raï as “a music of rebellion,” music that “looks ahead,” in which she sang about ordinary problems of life, social problems, and the condition of women. This interview was granted after her first and and only performance in North America, at the New York Central Park Summer Stage. She died on May 15, 2006.
Additional western influences began seeping into raï in the 1960’s with the music of Bellamou Messaoud, a trumpet player nicknamed Le Pere du Raï. In addition to replacing the qasbah flute with the trumpet, he infused jazz, rock, blues, funk, and flamenco into the traditional wahrani sound, complete with guitar, saxophone, and accordion arrangements. By 1967, the Algerian government had banned raï from broadcast media, which drove it underground. Despite the government’s efforts, cassettes of raï music circulated around the country as well as Europe.
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s raï flourished even more, gaining a widespread appeal both at home and abroad spurred by Ahmad Baba Rachid’s blending of traditional raï with contemporary pop music. The first state-sanctioned raï festival was held in Algeria in 1986, with another raï festival in Bobigny, France the same year. In 1988, raï performer Cheb Khaled rose to international stardom, spurred by his extraordinarily successful album Kutché. In 1992, he became a major hit in France and India with his album Khaled, and in 1996 was the first musician to ever produce a number one hit song in France that was sung entirely in Arabic.
Popular Raï Music Performers
Other raï performers aquiring popularity and stardom during this time included Cheb Mami, Cheb Hamid, Raïna Raï, Houari Benchenet, and Mohamed Sahraoui. In the 1990’s performers such as Cheb Hasni, Cheb Tahar, and Cheb Nasro popularized lover’s raï, characterized by sentimental pop ballads. Although Americans are by and large unfamiliar with raï, many were introduced to it through Sting, the former frontman of the rock band The Police, via his collaboration with Cheb Mami on his album Brand New Day. Cheb Mami’s vocals were also featured in the song “Desert Rose,” one of the album’s hits. By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, performers such as the French star Faudel and fusionist Rachid Taha were adding hip-hop, punk, and rock to the raï mix.
Those listening to raï for the first time may sound like typical western pop music with Arabic lyrics and world music overtones. This is not a genuinely accurate description, however, the wide range of musical influences notwithstanding. Combining eastern and western influences in a unique way, the cornerstone of raï is comprised of the instrumental, tonal, cultural, and religious influences of traditional Bedouin music.
Controversial Raï Music Lyrics
Raï has also gained an equal amount of notoriety through its conversational and controversial lyrics, sung in both Arabic and French, often in the same song. Bawdy and not lacking in blunt imagery, raï lyrics are a vehicle of intimate confessions of love, as well as a vehicle in which to sing about sex, lust, and alcohol and express opinions on headier topics such as corruption, misery, poverty, and war.
Just as raï earned the ire of French colonists in the 1930’s, it has faced a similar, and more extreme fate under the current Algerian government, which is highly conservative. In 1994, raï singer Cheb Hasni was assassinated by an extremist group. As a result, most raï musicians currently live in exile in France.
Nevertheless, raï remains a popular musical genre in North Africa and Europe, and is slowly catching on in other parts of the world.