Rai Politics

1) Algeria

  1. Chadli BenjedidAlgerian contemporary politics are shaped by the failure of the past ruling regime to implement fair, free, and democratic elections. Indeed, the fuel that generated civil unrest since 1991 was primarily the government’s cancellation of election results that would have insured an Islamist victory under the leadership of the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF), which gained a surprising 54% of the vote. Threatened by the victory, the army took over, forcing the resignation of President Benjedid in 1992, and the next eight years saw a succession of presidents who resigned or were assassinated due to political upheaval in the country. The last two decades of the 20th century in Algeria were marked by military rule against a rising Islamic rebellion that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

  2. Algerian artists and intellectuals have responded to the political crisis and bloody civil war by Cheb Hasni's "Lover's Rai"voicing their concerns over Algeria’s future. Because they have been critical of the violence, divisions, and hostility within their nation and the government’s failure to live up to either the Socialist or Islamic principles it has advocated since the country’s independence (Langlois 270), Algerian artists and intellectuals have been subjected to violent attacks and kidnapping. Cheb Hasni was a leading rai artist who dedicated most of his songs to love and its torments. As one of the promising young stars residing in Algeria, he produced songs distinguished by their slow tempo and nostalgic love topics. Accordingly, he was nicknamed the “Prince of Love Rai.” In October of 1994, Cheb Hasni was brutally murdered in front of his house in Oran. Less than five months later, Rachid Baba, one of Algeria’s most innovative producers, was shot outside his record store. Though no one claimed responsibility for their murders, the Western media was quick to point the finger at Muslim extremists, as can be seen from Emmanuel Legrand’s assessment of the incidents:

    The killing is believed to have been carried out by Islamic fundamentalists, who have attacked a number of prominent members of the intellectual and artistic communities during the three-year conflict. Rai, with its themes of romance and everyday living, has been a long-standing target for Islamic movements, whose followers see it as a perverter of youth. (48)

    Legrand’s statement is not surprising since many Western journalists tend to highlight the tension between rai artists and the rise of the Islamic movement in Algeria. Such arguments serve to promote rai as a rebellious genre and ally it with Western rock while condemning Islam as a religion hostile to music and the arts.

  3. The distrust of the government by Algerian artists can be seen in the writings of the Berber Matoub Lounes' "Kenza"nationalist singer Lounès Matoub, who served in the military in the 1970s. Matoub, who quickly became disillusioned by the government and began singing about the corruption that filtered through the military, voiced his critique of President Hawwari Boumediene’s oppressive regime:

    I also began to understand that I served a power whose goods were antithetical to my convictions…. I started to understand that this permanent fear in which our population lived had a name: military security, and that behind it, there was one man, Boumedienne—always him. (Matoub 61–62)4

    In his illuminating autobiography Rebelle, written shortly before his assassination in 1995, Matoub spoke about his songs and how they served to promote the nationalistic identity of the Berbers who were reacting against Islamization in Algeria. Although rai was being targeted by an unknown enemy, it was also establishing itself as a recognized influence on the determination of Algeria’s political future and construction of identity in Algerian society.

  4. As the country sank into civil war, reports of brutal massacres and mass graves involving Algerian government death squads filled the media and thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire. The political system became more and more polarized, and as the economy reached catastrophic levels of food shortage and massive unemployment, Algerians were overwhelmed with feelings of resignation, dread, and anger: “Fear is in the heart, but life goes on,” explained a woman in Algiers (qtd. in Ciment 1).

    2) France

  5. Fleeing their war-torn country, most rai artists sought refuge in France due to their special immigration status and historical relationship based on the colonial past. There, they were able to express their sentiments against the harsh life in their villages and towns with less fear of persecution and censorship. They were also exposed to international audiences, better recording technology, and new musical styles that contributed to the flourishing and popularity of rai. Yet, artists, as well as their fellow North African immigrants, soon realized that they were not welcomed by all factions in France and they began to suffer from and react to the harsh discrimination and prejudice advocated by France’s right-wing party, the National Front (FN). The resurrection of the FN on the French political scene coincided with growing intolerance and xenophobia towards immigrants. Adapting a policy of exclusion and spreading ideologies of fear and hatred toward Muslim immigrants, the FN established its reputation as an exclusionist anti-immigration party.

  6. The FN’s stance towards immigration involved launching war against Islam as an alien culture and religion that threatens the Christian identity of the West. Citing Islam’s stand on Jihad, or Holy War, exploiting its laws and highlighting crimes by North African immigrants, the FN emphasized the violent and alien aspect of Islamic culture as a “threat” to French society. French Nationalist writer Marie-France Stirbois explains:

    With each day, Islam inserts itself gradually in our lives, our laws, [and] our customs. Soon…Islam will occupy our churches in order to pray to the Prophet…. In Algeria, the partisans of Islamanization march in the streets and do not hesitate to attack the courts that want to uphold the law. In Egypt,…(they) wear the veil, provocative affirmation of their identity. (qtd. in Davies 149–50; emphasis added)

  7. Naturally, such hostility results in numerous attacks by right wing supremacists against Algerians and Africans in general. One such deliberate act, on February 21, 1995, involved the murder of Ibrahim Ali, a seventeen-year old singer who was a French citizen of East Africa’s Comoro Islands. Heading home following a late rehearsal, Ali was murdered by an unemployed French construction worker who was in the company of FN members. They had just plastered a wall with blue-and-white party posters bearing the slogan “Immigration Equals Unemployment.” “What happened in Marseilles was an isolated incident,” claimed Kofi Yamgnane, who was in charge of integration matters for the previous Socialist government and was also the head of the Private Foundation for Republican Integration. “But the atmosphere in which racism is legitimized, an atmosphere created by the current French government, has made some believe they have the right to do things like that” (qtd. in Kraft 1, 5).

    Rai Music and Narrative

  8. Caught between the harsh realities inside Algeria and France, rai artists directed their lyrics to address social and political tensions, demanding reforms and freedom. Khaled’s songs such as “El Harba Wayn” (“Where to Flee”), “Wally L’Dark” (“Go Back Home”), “Wahrane” (“Oran”), “Wahrane Wahrane” (“Oran Oran”), and numerous others, are all fueled by the political climate that exploits the Algerian dilemma. The song “Wahrane” from Khaled’s 1992 self-titled album combines sexual metaphors with political and social puns aimed at criticizing the undemocratic regime in Algeria, especially the increased violence and injustice in his native town of Oran. The lyrics express the singer’s yearning for justice in his hometown, which is dominated by corrupt police and crime. The singer emotionally conveys his worries for the city, especially at night when the sounds of guns disturb the peace. Toward the end, Khaled’s emotional attachment to Oran is metaphorically compared to a beautiful woman with whom the singer hopes to “unite.”

  9. Isaac Albeniz“Wahrane” is drastically different from the preceding songs on the CD. The absence of percussion and bass, and the use instruments such as the accordion, keyboard, and acoustic guitar, add intimacy and passion to the song. The acoustic guitar, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic construction of the piece give it a flamenco flavor, a prominent feature of sha’bi and also influential in rai. In a recent study, Ali Jihad Racy showed how the famous “Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz have been influential in improvisatory passages by celebrated Arab ud players such as Farid al-Atrash of Lebanon and Munir Bashir of Iraq (“Many Faces” 313). In North Africa, this style is even more prevalent—it is celebrated and cherished as a continuation of Arab-Spanish history, culture, and music linking to the time of Arab presence in southern Spain. “Haramtou bik Nouassi” (“[Because of your love] sleep is forbidden to me”) by Reda Doumaz is one of many examples within Algerian popular music that evoke cultural interactions between North Africa and Spain through improvisation on the ud and guitar, based largely on the “Asturias.”

    Farid al-Atrash
    Munir Bashir
    Reda Doumaz

  10. Khaled’s “Wahrane,” however, is more intricate in its allusions and construction since it sustains a gradual increase of intensity through its textual images and alternation between the singer’s voice and musical interludes. As the song develops, the musical interludes grow more aggressive, enhancing the violence embedded in the lyrics (see table 1 below):

    Table 1: Outline of Khaled’s “Wahrane” (Khaled, Barclay 1992)

    Interlude 1
    Verse 1
    Interlude 2
    Verse 2
    Interlude 3
    Verse 3
    Interlude 4
    Verse 4
    Interlude 5

  11. The melodic movement of the piece is seductive and saturated with embellishments, grace notes, and turns performed by the accordion. The acoustic guitar provides the harmonic accompaniment with a standard progression (i–iv–V–i). As with the song’s melody and phrases, the scale fluctuates between the melodic G minor and the Phrygian mode on D (separated only by an F–sharp). Khaled uses melodic and harmonic ambiguity to reflect the allegorical association of the city with the unattainable lover. This is expressed in the song by the gradual intensification of the interludes and in Khaled’s final cries in the postlude, which becomes more dissonant and fragmented. Oran, therefore, is not just a city occupied by violence and civil unrest, but Khaled’s ever-traveling soul as well. More than a city, it is also a restless state of being resulting in agony and departure.

  12. The flirtatious overlapping of voices between the dominant male voice and the “feminine” twists of the accordion express the song’s sexual rhetoric. Initiating the seduction, the accordion ascends with a grace note from the tonic G to B–flat. Even though the accordion accompanies the vocal line, it always plays around it, often anticipating the melody and resolving it. But the vocal line centers around the Phrygian mode on D, thus resisting the seduction of the instrument to cadence on its tonic, G. The tension and flirtation between the two represents both the yearning for and the fear of being away from the other. Toward the end of the piece, the embellishments increase with the participation of the guitar in overlapping improvisatory accompaniment. Khaled’s voice soars high on the ascending interlude figure of G–F–Eb–D, and begins to sing in a style similar to the accordion. When all the instruments finally unite playing the descending line, Khaled uses this opportunity to add more embellishments and modifications to the descending line: G–D–F–C–Eb–Bb–D (the bold letters represent the initial notes of the interlude). As the reality of separation between him and his beloved homeland is confirmed, Khaled’s voice erupts in fragmented wailing of pure anguish and extreme agony.

  13. Khaled employs a similar narrative in his more traditional, yet equally effective, “Wahrane Wahrane,” from his 1996 CD Sahra. He shifts to his remarkable low voice accompanied by a steady and strong rhythmic beat of two eighth notes followed by a half note in duple meter and supported by the luscious Arabic orchestra of strings playing in unison. But when Khaled’s lyrics address the agony and misery of exile and departure, the strings sink in a descending chromatic line amplifying the pain and apathy of the Algerian struggle. The middle section is more lyrical and optimistic as Khaled recalls his childhood and the nights he spent with friends singing and drumming. Soon, however, dark images of violence creep in, sending the singer weeping for the loss of his homeland. A short melancholic improvisation on the violin followed by an unconventional final cadence on the dominant leaves the song with a sense of defeat and suspension. Obviously, Algeria is caught in a web of complex and painful mehna (agony).

    Khaled, “Wahrane Wahrane
    (Sahra, Barclay 1996)


    Oran Oran You’ve lost
    Many great citizens
    Immigrated from you
    They dwelt in exile confused
    And exile is hard and traitorous.


    Oh how happy I am for the descendents of El Hamri
    Wlad Mdina and Sidi El Hawwari,5
    I spent with them my childhood
    And to them, I’ll sing the rest of my life.


    Oh, how happy were the parties in my homeland
    With the gasbah and gallali sounding.6
    Oh you who are heading toward Oran
    Advice its people to take care of my country
    I’ll never forget my homeland
    My land and my ancestor’s land …


    God how I yearn to the Cornish of Oran
    Her beauty was the best of all
    The memories came back to haunt me
    As I cry and weep for its loss.7

  14. Torn between the harsh reality of their homeland and the hostile environment abroad, Algerian artists have a long history rooted in themes of exile, departure, and longing. Addressing such concerns, Rachid Taha broke the charts in 1998 with his innovative reworking of a sha’bi song first sung by Abderrahmane Amrani, better known as Dahmane El Harrachi (1926–1980).

  15. Rachid Taha, “Ya Rayah
    (Diwan, Barclay 1998)

    Oh departing Traveler, where are you heading?
    Your journey is bound to failure
    How many travelers before you
    Have sought the path with similar results?

    How many cities and deserts have I roamed?
    How much time have I wasted
    Touring from one place to another?

    Oh lost one, no matter how much you run away
    Your destiny will end in exhaustion
    Time has passed you by
    And you have yet to notice it.

  16. Taha’s version of “Ya Rayah” is a classic example of a traditional song presented in a new fashion.8 “Ya Rayah” begins with a short taqsim, improvisation, on the banjo instead of the ud that smoothly leads into the piece proper, which is characterized by a heavy down beat.9 The song’s popularity stems from its simple groove and summation of the new generation’s plight, seeking freedom and a better life. Sung and released in Paris, “Ya Rayah” capitalizes on the ancient Algerian concept of mehna in its embodiment of Algerians’ struggle, loss, and yearning to go back home. Here, concepts like traveling and touring take on a gloomy destiny that lead to despair and loss. One can even draw connections between the “touring” star, its migration through the universe, and the exiled self of the Algerian people. Burdened by poverty and their constant search outside of Algeria for a better life, their spirit is in a constant state of travel, intensified by feelings of exile and departure. We can only imagine how such lyrics would strike a chord within the hearts of hundreds of thousands Algerian immigrants living away from home under conditions of displacement throughout Europe.

  17. Rachid Taha's "Diwan"Taha’s deep voice intensifies feelings of pain and agony. The strong down beat of the song allows Taha to accent the first word of each line as if the words are uttered by force and with struggle, thus magnifying the poetic imagery of the text. In “Bani al-Insan,” (“The Human Race”), Taha re-orchestrates the song by Nass El-Ghiwan, the popular Moroccan group from the 70s and 80s. Nass El-Ghiwan sang revolutionary lyrics using mystic beats from the gnawa tradition—a ritualistic practice that mixes Islamic and Sub-Saharan musics—to express their dismay at the social and political conditions in Morocco. Their lead vocalist, Boujemaa’ Hgour, attained legendary status when he died suddenly of a drug overdose, but most Moroccans believe that he was poisoned by the government because of his politically charged lyrics. “Bani al-Insan” strengthens the pessimistic and fatalistic vision of “Ya Rayah” when Taha sings: “My love, oh how much I love you / A calamity from the sky struck you down / Faced with this disaster / I am powerless.” The calamity striking the beloved/homeland is left open ended and unexplained, a further elaboration of the mehna and sense of loss. To this end, Khaled’s early songs of “El Harba Wayn” (“Where to Flee”) and “Wally L’Dark” (“Go Back Home”) gain even greater relevance, not only in their resistance against the Algerian government, but also by voicing dismay regarding the hostile conditions of Algerian immigrants in Europe. “Where to Flee” shows the same pessimism as “Ya Rayah,” as the new generation find themselves surrounded by harsh political realities and the diaspora.





4. “Je commençais aussi à comprendre que je servais un pouvoir dont les buts étaient aux antipodes de mes convictions…. Je commençais également à comprendre que la peur permanente dans laquelle notre population vivait avait un nom: la sécurité militaire, et que derrière elle il y avait un homme, Boumediene—toujours lui.” Translated by Yara Al-Ghadban.

5. El Hamri is a famous district in Oran; Sidi El Hawwari is the name of a revered muslim saint in Algeria.

6. The gasbah is a reed flute; the gallal is a cylindrical drum. Both are traditional folk instruments of Algeria.

7. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are by the author. I am grateful for the help of Zenib Lalaouine for her help with the translation of this excerpt and for her feedback regarding Khaled’s songs.

8. The main musical theme of “Ya Rayah” is similar to Cheb Hasni’s “Yakti Yebek Ban,” from his album Latbkiche. In Taha’s album, only two numbers (2 and 11) were composed by the artist while the rest rework famous Arabic traditional folk songs such as “Habina” (Farid al-Atrash, Egypt/Lebanon), “Bani Al Insane” (Nas El Ghiwane, Morocco), and “Bent Sahra” (Ahmed Khelifi, Algeria). Thus the title of the album, Diwan, Arabic for the forum for playing music.

9. The tradition of using the banjo within sha’bi tradition in North Africa dates back to the 60s. Imported from Europe and the US, it was used to replace the traditional ud because of its louder sound, which make it a more appropriate instrument for playing within a larger ensemble and for outdoor concerts. Technically, however, it is used just as the ud, to improvise and to double the melodic line rather than play accompaniments.


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