The sound of Algeria’s counterculture – a brief history.
Emerging from the late-night bawdy cabarets of Oran, the trajectory of raï music to the international stage has been far from smooth, witnessing assassinations of musicians, censorship and the turmoil of the Algerian Civil War along the way.
Raï, meaning ‘opinion’ or ‘advice’, traces its origins back to post-World War I. In stark contrast to the highly-refined Andalusi classical music of the time where songs were based on Arabic poetry, in raï male and female folk singers, accompanied by drums and reed flutes, sang in their local dialect about the pleasures and hardships of everyday life.
The undisputed grandmother of raï, Cheikha Rimitti, is the most famous singer to emerge during this time. Born in 1923 in the small village of Tessala, an hour from Oran, she was orphaned as a child and joined a troupe of travelling musicians at the age of 15.
She was one of the first female musicians to perform for male audiences and her provocative and lewd lyrics about love, alcohol, and death were controversial, to say the least. Her 1952 record Charag Gatta, which enthusiastically encouraged young women to lose their virginity, was particularly scandalous.
This all proved too much for the conservative government and raï was banned in the 1960s. For the next 20 years, the music became a language of resistance; cassettes were secretly traded in the back of record stores and underground performances took place at late-night cabarets. In one famous attempt to stifle the underground spread, the government confiscated all blank cassettes entering the country.
In 1985, the government conceded to lift the ban on the advice of the French culture minister, Jack Long, who persuaded them that the music was good for national identity.
Raï music returned to the public sphere with a new sound. Rock ’n’ roll and disco were storming the concert halls and dance floors of Europe and the US, and their influence had permeated into Algerian music via synthesisers, electric guitars, and drum machines.
In 1980s Algeria, the port city of Oran was a melting pot of Jewish, Berber, Spanish, and French, and at the centre of it all, was the city’s thriving nightlife scene.
From here, Algerian raï surged across borders and the pioneer of so-called ‘pop-raï’ Cheb Khaled became the first North African singer to have international success with his 1992 break-out hit Didi.
The musicians’ freedom was, however, only temporary. Lyrics about sexual promiscuity and drinking alcohol were still frowned upon in orthodox Islamic society and the music was once again censored in the 1990s. Around this time, the conservative political party Islamic Salvation Front gained seats in the election. They successfully petitioned for the closure of nightclubs and the death penalty introduced for any singer who stepped out of line.
The outbreak of the Algerian Civil War, known as the ‘black decade’, and escalating violence against musicians, such as the shocking assassination of beloved Raï singer Cheb Hasni meant that many musicians fled abroad, namely to Paris.
In the bars of Montmartre, the displaced Algerian diaspora gathered to listen and perform their music, it was a piece of home and a rallying cry of anti-war resistance. Meanwhile, international interest in Algerian music continued to grow; Sting collaborated with Cheb Mami on Desert Rose and the 1998 concert at Bercy Arena in Paris featuring the legendary raï singers Rachid Taha, Khaled and Faudel attracted an audience of 16,000 people.
Today Raï music is an intangible part of Algerian identity, so much so that in December 2022, the United Nations added the music to its cultural heritage list.
But can Algerian raï still exist outside the confines of history? Or is it now relegated to preservation lists, like an artefact in a museum?
I for one don’t believe so. Although it’s true the modern raï superstar, such as those in the 90s and 2000s, are hard to find, music evolves and today the legacy of raï lives on. Producers and artists, such as Eljoee and Acid Arab, mix the traditional with an electronic twist, and remixes, such as this great one from Bakar and Kilomaitre, will keep the genre alive for new audiences to discover and enjoy.
Three Raï singers you should listen to:
Affectionately known as ‘la mamie du Raï’, Cheikha Rimitti is a legendary figure. The gritty tenor voice behind Nouar and Daouni is instantly recognisable. She wrote over 200 songs but remained illiterate throughout her life. She died aged 83 in 2006 in Paris two days after a performing at the Zénith arena for a crowd of 14,000 people.
Known for hits such as Ya Raya, Écoute-moi camarade and Barra Barra, Rachid Taha made waves around the globe for his genre-crossing style, merging rock ’n’ roll, punk and traditional Algerian music. He counted The Clash among his fans and it’s thought he influenced their 1982 hit Rock the Casbah.
Born in Oran, Khaled Hadj Ibrahim started recording as Cheb Khaled, later dropping the Cheb. Khaled is one of the biggest selling Arabic-language artists of all time and has sold over 80 million albums. He mixed traditional Algerian folk with rock, soul and pop, which in turn made him an international superstar.
Ready to dive in? Listen to the full playlist below.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
The Evolution of Raï Music (Hana Noor Al-Deen)
Raï is not dead (dir. Simon Maisonobe and Hadj Sameer)