Nasser Al-Taee
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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“In rai, there are always enemies, there are always problems.”
Djillali, an Algerian fan (Shade-Poulsen 124)

  1. It is no coincidence that rai surged onto the Algerian popular music landscape during the 1980s, a time in which Islamic reformists brought about new challenges to the political, cultural, and artistic scenes in the developing country. [Listen to an example of rai.] Caught between tradition and modernization, and reacting to the failure of socialism and its inability to appeal to the majority of the Algerian masses, the country sank into a brutal civil war between the military-backed regime and Islamic conservatives demanding a fair democratic election. Algerian rai artists responded by expressing disenchantment with their country’s situation through a modernized genre largely based on its traditional, folk-based, sacred ancestor. In Arabic rai means “opinion,” a word reflecting the desire for freedom of speech and expression, values that have been subjected to extreme censorship by non-democratic Arab governments. Currently, rai is associated with an emerging youth culture and the new connotations ascribed to the genre reflect tenets of liberalism that depart from the past. In its newly adopted form, rai represents an alternative mode of protest and liberation.

  2. When new rai began to achieve popularity in Algeria and Europe in the late 70s and early 80s, rai artists and the conservative factions were at odds with each other because of their conflicting ideological positions. In their lyrics, rai singers reject older religious models, voice their resentment that pleasure would be associated with sin, and insist on free speech. Conservatives, on the other hand, claim that it is time to seek radical salvation for the country; they would provide an Islamic solution to the country’s increasing new challenges.

  3. Scholars, from either the Middle East or the West, usually discuss rai from the vantage point of its political and sexual messages; both issues connect to the identity of the music and its audiences (see Schade-Poulsen). Many of those who listen to rai find power in its rhythms and highly politicized lyrics. For certain listeners, rai promotes cultural values that address particular taboos in the Middle East: immigration and assimilation, criticism of the state, modernization, and the place of sex and sexual activities within an Islamic society. Other listeners enjoy rai’s dance rhythms and its eclectic musical style without necessarily understanding or agreeing with its lyrics. One of rai’s strengths lies in its ability to appeal to diverse social groups.

  4. As a transgressive popular music genre, rai combines Eastern styles of singing with Western instruments. Its rhythms mix complex Arabic and African patterns with Spanish flamenco, American disco, hip-hop, and reggae. Modern rai emerged from the Algerian port city of Oran on the Mediterranean in the early 80s, and by the early 90s rai had achieved enormous popularity in the Middle East, Europe, and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Based largely on Algerian folklore of sha’bi, traditional rai was sung within a private domain by a cheikh, a person revered for his or her age or religious and social stature. In the 1920s and 1930s, rai re-emerged when oppressed and marginalized women adopted the pseudo-sacred genre and used it as a vehicle to express political, social, and sexual freedoms. In its most recent development since the early 80s, rai artists, such as Khaled and Rachid Taha, base their lyrics and singing style on the traditional genre. Pop-rai, as it is commonly known today, has become controversial throughout the Middle East due to its lyrics, its musical slippage (which resists definition and categorization), and its challenges to traditions. Rai singers’ strong political reactions to the civil war, coupled with their borrowing of Western instruments and rhythms, facilitated rai’s resurgence into the world’s musical scene where it stimulated debates regarding politics, identity, and sexuality among young Algerians living at home and abroad.

  5. The politics, identity, and sexual narratives of Algerian rai have not received their due attention from music critics, sociologists, or musicologists. In the last two decades, since the genre re-emerged on the global popular music scene, scholars such as Andy Morgan, Tony Langlois, and Marc Schade-Poulsen, for example, have focused almost exclusively on rai’s origins and reception. Morgan provides a solid summary of the origin of rai and its major contributors, while Langlois examines aspects of the local and the global within the context of popular music. Schade-Poulsen’s book presents an excellent study on the social significance of rai as a powerful force within Algerian (male) youth society. While such studies advance our understanding of the genre, they ignore that rai is a musical statement rebelling against political, social, and religious constraints. Central to my argument is the reception of rai: who embraces it, who opposes it, and why. I further attempt to situate rai within a global position of world music, and focus in particular on its transgressive and discursive qualities as a rebellious musical genre that defies labeling and celebrates its multiplicity.

  6. I am most concerned with the concept of identity among rai’s audiences and artists. In examining rai, I analyze its musical and political contexts and look at how politics and sexuality converge to frame the lyrics and musical styles of a defiant genre. Using the political and cultural crisis in modern Algeria, rai artists inject their music with fiery lyrics, funky beats, and Western instruments, while calling for an end to violence in a country torn by a bloody civil war. Through this process, rai artists reveal their social, political, and moral identity through lyrics that express pain, anger, frustration, as well as love, desire, and a quest for social and political freedom. While surveying the re-emergence of rai in the past decades, I focus specifically on its most visible artists, selecting repertory from Cheba Fadela, Cheb Hasni, Cheb Mami, Rachid Taha, and Khaled.

    From Oran to Marseilles: The Re-birth of a GenreFrom Oran to Marseilles: the Re-birth of a Genre

  7. In the early 1900s, rai was sung and performed by men respected for their strong moral and social stature in the city of Oran. The singers were referred to as cheikh, a term meaning “honorable” or “master.” Their rural songs combined the sentimentality of ballads and the mysticism of the Sufi tradition, and they accompanied their vocals with gillal (a drum), gasbah (a wooden flute), and, most importantly, hand clapping. Musically, the repetitive melody, percussive beat, audience participation through dancing, hand clapping, and joyous ululations, are all prominent elements of Algerian folk traditions, sha’bi. They are also characteristics of Sufi music designed to promote the metaphysical state of tarab (musical rapture or ecstasy) through the practice of sama (listening) (see Racy, “Creativity”). Rural rai was performed in small, private, sacred, and social gatherings such as weddings, religious ceremonies, and the celebration of circumcision. They were attended by close members of the family and honored guests and the music was enjoyed by a selected group for selected events.

  8. In the 1920s and 1930s, peasant women began to resist severe injustice and domination by men. Their desires to express themselves and enjoy their own bodies were surrounded by taboos. But due to colonialism, French occupation, and the deteriorating economy, some women were forced to work in nightclubs, cabarets, and even in brothels to meet the harsh demands of life. As a result, a group in rural Algeria emerged from the dust of old traditions and poverty: women and daughters of peasant laborers and orphans who became known as “women of the cold shoulder.” These women challenged local traditions by adapting the style and songs of the cheikhs with a “‘shocking’ approach to poetry and music” (Morgan, “Rai” 415).1 As a group, this stratum of society shared many similarities with European gypsies in dress and behavior. Morgan links the inspirations for their art to the concept of mehna, an Arabic term for suffering and hardship, which he compares to the notion of duende from the Flamenco tradition (Morgan, “Rai” 417). The cheikhat, as they came to be labeled, were viewed by the rest of the male and traditional female society as a threat. Perhaps it was the linking of rai to mehna in this context that first opened this musical genre to expressing “opinion” and protest.

  9. Socially segregated from the rest of the society, the cheikhat felt free to challenge conventional rules and roles of women. The lyrics, tempo, and style of the private and sacred genre had to be drastically modified to suit its new purposes and audience:
    For all the distance traveled, rai has always been a music of the margins. Cheikha Remitti 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.” (sic) (Rosen 22)
  10. Cheba FadelaRemitti’s radical message, however, did not stop at describing sexual pleasures and breaking traditional female boundaries. When the armed Algerian resistance broke out against the French following WWII, Remitti (born in 1923) did not hesitate in joining the resistance. Proudly she stated: “The FLN (Front de Liberation National) didn’t have to contact me. Straight after the uprising of November 1, 1954, I began to sing about the armed struggle…to brave the colonial police and sing about a free Algeria in public” (Morgan, “Thursday Night Fever” 128). Remitti’s legendary stature serves as vital inspiration for current rai singers like Cheba Fadela and others who echo similar sentiments. Following the revolution and Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, the legend of the cheikhat continued to affect Algerian society and its social values. The cheikhat further inspired female singers to articulate and contest the prohibitions against expressions of female sexuality and outspokenness on political issues.

  11. According to Rabah Mezouane,
    Remitti is undoubtedly the most radical of the cheikhats. She is also the one who founded the thematic bases of rai as it is played on today and the artisan of a “poetic” technique which lies on an inventory of words including the allusive sexual jargon of the red-light districts…, the drawling tonic accent of the village idiom and the list of metaphors, double meanings and the clichés of the malhûn.

    In the post-revolutionary Algeria of the mid 1960s, artists focused on modernizing rai by making it danceable, replacing some of the traditional instruments with European ones, and cutting the length of songs in half. At this time, Oran was the center for numerous musical traditions, including the classical Arabic-Andalusia tradition and its close affiliates, the art songs of the malhûn and sha’bi, as well as influences from Spanish flamenco and American jazz, which were introduced by soldiers during WWII. In order to separate themselves from previous associations connected with rai, the new generation of rai singers called themselves “cheb,” (masculine) and “cheba” (feminine) meaning young, not only to denote their youth but also to distinguish their art from that of the their predecessors. Situating themselves against traditions, rai artists came to be associated with rebellion and a brand of marginality that soon became mainstream and the mark of a whole new generation.

  12. Rai had to be made accessible on more than one level. Lyrics were modified from the proper qasida (classical Arabic poetry) to incorporate topics and dialects taken from everyday life. Musical structure was altered drastically so that a single musical unit could serve for many verses, and songs became shorter and less complex. Gone was the long muqaddimah (musical introduction), which on its own can last several minutes. The tempo was radically accelerated through the use of Western rhythms drawn from disco and reggae. Rai artists also modified the traditional ensemble by introducing instruments associated with Western pop, such as guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers, and these instruments inspired a different approach to harmony. Even though some instruments—keyboard, accordion, and saxophone—were modified to play the Arabic quartertone, rai uses the conventional scales shared by Western traditions (major, minor, and phrygian mode, in particular are popular). Finally, rai borrowed from different international styles to achieve legitimacy as popular music. The use of blues chord progressions, Jamaican reggae, and disco arrangements give the music its diversity of style, energizing it and giving it additional sophistication.

  13. These changes were made possible by new technologies and the consequent shift in the site of musicking, from live concert to the studio.2 Technologies associated with studio recordings, electric keyboards, synthesizers, amplified sounds, and drum machines allowed for the abandonment of the large Egyptian style orchestra used in sha’bi in favor of a smaller, more intimate, and more economical band. The drum machine replaced the percussion ensemble while the synthesizer substituted for the large string section. As Simon Frith argues, recordings and technology create a public means of emotionally complex communication. By embracing new performing and musical styles, rai artists also move audiences by coding their music with a different type of personal aura. Cheba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui rely on their deep rough voices, which are traditional for rai singers but not particularly favored in the Arabic world.3 Khalid’s “rebel” image is well known from his drinking and smoking while living in Paris. By allowing for the exaggeration and manipulation of voices, technology helps singers further create a self-determined image and promote themselves as celebrities.

  14. Changes in music were also accompanied by changes in function. The increased Cheba Fadela and Cheb Sahroui's "Live"availability of rai through radio, cassette, live concerts, and music videos, made rai accessible to a larger and more diverse audience. Algerian producers have limited funds and technology—in fact, only few own 24-track studios. Rachid Baba Ahmed and his brother Fethi have been the most famous rai producers in Algeria. Active in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were the first to introduce the complete synthesizer and drum-machine sound into rai in 1982 (Schade-Poulsen 17–18). Island/Mango records was for a while one of the chief sponsors of pop rai and was the first to sign Cheba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui, whose album N’sal Fik (You are mine) is considered by many the first rai record to achieve international recognition. They followed that record with Ana Ana (Me and Me), which included a complete translation of the lyrics into English on the inside CD cover.

  15. Rai emerged in the 80s as one of the world’s leading musical representatives of pop culture and World Beat. Artists like Khaled, Cheb Mami (the “Prince of Rai”), and ChebaCheb Mami's "Meli Meli" Fadela sold millions of records world wide. In Europe, Khaled (the “King of Rai”) emerged as the premier celebrity of the genre and managed to land a major producer, Don Was, who gave him greater international exposure. As a result, Khaled’s self-titled 1992 CD claimed universal success due, in part, to higher quality recording and distribution. Khaled’s 1992 smash hit “Didi” was popular in nightclubs for months and eventually earned him a Cesar (the French equivalent of the American “Oscar”) for best soundtrack album in France. While touring the Middle East, Khaled enjoyed audience sizes unprecedented since the peak of Egypt’s ughniya (popular song) in the 70s, which included singers such as Umm Kulthum, Abd al-Wahhab, and Abdul Halim Hafiz. By the late 90s, rai dominated the world music market, achieving major success throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Seeking greater exposure and freedom, most rai artists left their war-torn Algeria and settled in France where they continue to produce concerts and albums with increasing popularity.



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* A shorter version of this paper was planned for the IASPM-US Annual Conference in Iowa City, Iowa on 14 September 2001. Due to the tragic events of 11 September 2001, the conference was cancelled but papers were made available online. My title is drawn from Van Halen’s song “Runnin’ with the Devil” which was used by Robert Walser in his book Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. I am indebted to Robert Walser for his encouragement, comments, and valuable advice regarding the manuscript. I would like to thank Katherine Hughes for helping edit the manuscript and Katherine Hughes Management Consulting for its sponsorship of the article. I would also like to express my thanks and gratitude to Maria Cizmic and Cecilia Sun for their invaluable feedback and recommendations in editing the manuscript.

1. Incidentally, the term cheikha serves as a derogatory term for female dancers from the lower class. However, the masculine term cheikh does not apply to male singers and dancers and, thus, retains its honorable meaning.

2. I am using the term “musicking” as outlined by Christopher Small. Small offers the following definition: “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing” (9).

3. With the exception of a few singers like Farid al-Atrash, Muhammad Abdel Wahhab, and Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian ughniyah favors singers with high and thin voices, such as that of Abdel Halim Hafiz, Warda al-Jazaeriyah, and more recently Hani Shakir, Hakim, and Am’r Diab.


Table of Contents
Top of article
Letter to the editor

The Musical Number and the Sitcom

Politics, Identity, and Sexual Narrative in Algerian Rai

Review Essays

Carson: El Niño

Courtier: Long Road to Freedom


Grigg and Murphy: Opera’s Second Death

Niebur: The Film Reader

Jorritsma: Amandla!

Conference Report

Garrett: Criss Cross