PRINT September 1990



The young girl wants to get married
The divorced woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants a divorce
The married woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants to go wild

You’ve done what you wanted
You’ve done what you decided

My God, my God, her husband’s asleep
—Cheb Khaled, “Hada Raykoum” (It’s your opinion)

AFTER REGGAE, JUJU, fado, zouk, Ofra Haza, and lambada, Algerian rai (pronounced like the whiskey) is making its way to the center of the world-music stage. And for good reason: the rhythms are not only different but irresistibly danceable, a syncopated mix of melody and percussion overlaid with galvanizing vocals that translate themselves from street Arabic into the universal language of the heart. Cheb Khaled, the undisputed “King of Rai,” has made a name for himself from London to Tokyo, and if his long-announced U.S. debut has yet to materialize, Cheb Mami, the “Prince,” is about to start his second North American tour, after making the rounds of Europe, Japan, Korea, and Turkey. Also, the wife-and-husband team of Cheba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui have just added 20 U.S. cities to their list of international conquests.

In the Western media shorthand, rai has become a kind of North African rock, blues, and/or reggae; the performers are young (this is what the title “cheb” and the feminine equivalent “cheba” mean), their voices are plaintive, their guitars are electric, and even though no one can understand what they’re singing, it’s known to be controversial. But closer to home—which is the port city of Oran, “the Las Vegas of Algeria”—the sound carries the copyright of local history. To be sure, there are almost as many explanations of rai as there are chebs and chebas singing it (appropriately, the word “rai” means “opinion” or “advice”), but everyone seems to agree on its singularly extramusical importance. For Algerians, rai is the youth culture of a country where 75 percent of the population is under 25; it is a rejection of taboos in a society of traditions, an assertion of identity in an era of postcolonial confusion. As Cheb Khaled says, “It’s not poetry. It’s speaking, expressing yourself, talking, and making yourself heard, saying what you want to say.”

Notwithstanding the synthesizers and the electric guitars, rai has its musical origins in simple Algerian shepherd melodies that were accompanied by a reed flute and a terra-cotta drum. It was the rural exodus of the 1930s that brought these tunes to the city, where they came to be sung with a thoroughly unpoetic license that appealed to popular audiences much more than the outdated classics of sung poetry (melhun). This “traditional” rai was largely the province of two groups of women singers—the meddahas, who performed for other women at private gatherings, and the cheikhas, who addressed themselves to the strictly male public of the cafés, bars, and bordellos. (Even today, 54 years after she cut her first record, the eternal Cheikha Rimitti continues to roll her eyes, her hips, and her seductive words in the old-time style.) What brought the musical matriarchy to an end (apparently not without numerous run-ins between Cheikha Rimitti and the newcomers who were cutting into her audience) was the “modern” rai of the ’50s and ’60s, now accompanied by the violin, the accordion, and eventually the saxophone and the trumpet. Finally, with the coming-of-age of Algeria’s first postindependence generation in the 1970s (and the advent of the tape cassette), modern rai went electric and became the “pop” rai that has now been harmonized, synthesized, and internationalized into world music.

What makes the latest sounds stand out is the complexity of the musical arrangements. The voice is still the centerpiece, especially for Western ears newly attuned to the quarter-tone scale, but with the multiplication of the instruments and the technology behind them, the rhythms have gotten denser, faster, and more streamlined. Traditional melodic structures, already embellished with repetitions and variations, are now sandwiched in between a double percussion of Western drums and Eastern darbuka, and often the drone of a synthesizer as well. In the process, there is much less room for the improvisation that was traditionally a mainstay of rai—until the era of LPs and CDs, the chebs and chebas did not even have their own stable groups, much less arrangers. And if the new, international rai is more polished, it is inevitably less spontaneous.

For all the distance traveled, rai has always been a music of the margins. Cheikha Rimitti has been singing sex and drink for over half a century, and the chebs and chebas still exile themselves from polite society with lyrics like “We made love in a run-down shack.” Likewise—and probably as a reflection of its social marginality—rai has always been open to outside influences: just as the popular Arabic of Oran has picked up its share of French and Spanish over the years, the music has continuously absorbed new elements, from the Spanish flamenco and paso doble to the gnawa music of southern Morocco to the blues, the Beatles, and reggae. But what makes today’s rai different is that in Algeria, the margins have now become the majority. The chebs and the chebas are not romantic antiheroes but representatives of a whole generation (if not that of their parents and grandparents as well). Born around the time of the nation’s independence, they come from poor families, they are practically self-taught musicians (they often got their training at weddings and circumcisions—“for many of us,” says Cheb Mami, “the marriages were our conservatories”), and they sing what they have lived. As one Moroccan journalist put it, “Young people in Algeria like the chebs because the chebs are like them.”

Khaled, for example, who has been performing for 21 of his 30 years, started out singing and playing the accordion on the wedding circuit. He cut his first 45 at 15 or 16 (a 100-franc, two-track operation called “Trig el-lycée,” or The school road), missed enough school to get thrown out shortly afterward, and went from one odd job to another until he made it into the cabarets and his cassettes caught on. Mami, the baby of the senior chebs (he was born in 1966), went much the same route, but had Khaled as his model; he was training to become a welder when he won the first round of a talent show with a song in traditional rai and wound up on national television at the age of 16.

Fadela, the veteran of the chebas, made her debut at the age of ten (1972) in the chorus of a 1960s rai star. After a stint on TV as a miniskirted rebel-without-a-cause, she went back to traditional rai and the bawdy repertoire of the med-dahas, spent some time singing with modern Moroccan groups that played regularly in Oran, and then, in 1979, came out with “Ana ma h´lali ennoum” (I don’t like sleeping anymore), the song that for many people marks the real beginning of pop rai. Somewhat eclipsed by the chebs in the aftermath, she reemerged in 1983 with “N’sel fik” (You are mine), a spur-of-the-moment improvisation that she recorded with her soon-to-be husband, Cheb Sahraoui, and that has become a contemporary classic.

The fact that Fadela now sings with her husband clearly tends to safeguard her reputation (which was apparently so besieged in the early, single years of her career that she recorded a song called “They’ve run me down so much”), with the result that she can afford to be a very visible cheba. At the other end of the spectrum, the relative newcomer (1985-86) Cheba Zahouania is completely invisible—she refuses to be photographed, makes no TV appearances, and performs mainly at women’s events, supposedly because her exhusband threatened to take her four children away if she sang in public for men. The enforced propriety seems to extend to neither her songs—among them, “We made love in a run-down shack”—nor the sultry tone in which she sings them, and her cassettes are sold by the tens of thousands.

In the early 1980s, and notwithstanding its tremendous popularity, rai remained an underground phenomenon for the simple reason that the Algerian government and media refused to acknowledge its existence. As far as the newspapers, radio, and TV were concerned, chebs and chebas alike were invisible, and at one point there was reportedly an attempt to keep them from recording by halting the import of blank cassettes (an obstacle that the producers are said to have circumvented by recording over old ones.) The end of this official blackout came in the summer of 1985, when rai was included in an international youth festival held in Algiers that July and was then accorded its own eight-day festival in Oran the following month. After that, it was only six months until the chebs and chebas were on their way to Paris for a two-week festival of Algerian culture, and their first concerts outside the country.

It takes no more than a quick listen to an early rai cassette, barely arranged and poorly recorded, to be reminded of what international recognition and support have meant, in material terms, to the evolution of the music. Less evident, perhaps, especially from the other side of the Atlantic, is the importance of the increased contact with the North African immigrants in France, and especially the beurs (French slang for Arabs) of the second generation. If France has served as a springboard for rai in the international arena (which it undoubtedly has), this is not because the habitual fringe of French culture-mavens has bought a cassette or two for its collections, but because the immigrant community, its radio stations, its social organizations, not to mention its innumerable cassette and video merchants have provided a constant base of support. Nor is the exchange one-sided, for rai also provides the people of this community—in all of their generations and their classes—with a vital link to Algerian culture, a form of expression that, like their very existence, bridges the traditional and the modern.

So much for the positive effects of success. But obviously it’s harder to sing the margins from the center, and ever since the summer of 1985 there have been grumblings about the “officialization” and/or “professionalization” of rai. The first of these, however, really has not come to pass. Late in 1987, for example, Colonel Snoussi, head of the Algerian Cultural Office and for a time Cheb Khaled’s manager, arranged for Khaled to do an avant-garde LP with American-trained jazz musician Safy Boutella. Result: three months’ work between Paris and London, a record that didn’t go over very well because it was too controlled, and in September 1988, Khaled repaid the government for its generosity with “El Harba win” (Where to flee?), a song of outrage and despair that became the anthem of Algerian youth during the bloody riots that broke out the next month. Khaled, like Mami, is now based in France, and Fadela and Sahraoui have just received their French residency permits. In any case, in the wake of last summer’s municipal elections, which brought the religious right to power, the future of rai in Algeria seems only slightly less precarious than that of the country’s formerly booming wine industry.

Professional rai, on the other hand, seems to be here to stay , as a “clean” or “soft” alternative for family listening. Pressures from the government and producers may have encouraged the miraculous conversions of certain chebs and chebas, and the increasingly conservative religious climate in Algeria has undoubtedly contributed as well. But in a sense, rai and its contemporary creators are no more ambiguous than the situation in Algeria, and none of them ever pretended to be political activists. Earlier this year, one cheb announced he was giving up singing altogether because it was un-Islamic, but he has since come back to the stage. Another released his own version of the lambada, in Arabic. At Radio Beur (which happens to be Paris’ largest alternative station), veteran announcer Moukrane Attouche talks about the proliferation of “instant chebs” hoping to cash in on the name; in his view, the biggest danger right now is repetition: “If they’re all going to sing the same thing,” he says, “we only need one cheb.” But at the same time, he—and just about everyone else—is willing to swear by Khaled, the one who was the most authentic to begin with, and who’s never changed. He doesn’t show up for interviews, his concerts start an hour late, and who knows if he’ll ever make it to New York, but when he sings his unprofessional, unclean, unfamily rai, the place is packed with young people of all ages. And according to Attouche, Khaled still drops in on weddings.

Miriam Rosen is a writer and editor who lives in Paris. She contributes regularly to Artforum.