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 governments
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.
- Algerian artists and intellectuals have responded to the political
crisis and bloody civil war by voicing
their concerns over Algerias future. Because they have been critical
of the violence, divisions, and hostility within their nation and the
governments failure to live up to either the Socialist or Islamic
principles it has advocated since the countrys 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 Algerias 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 Legrands 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)
Legrands 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.
- The distrust of the government by Algerian artists can be seen in
the writings of the Berber 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 Boumedienes 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, Boumediennealways
him. (Matoub 6162)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 Algerias political future and
construction of identity in Algerian society.
- 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
- 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
Frances 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.
- The FNs stance towards immigration involved launching war against
Islam as an alien culture and religion that threatens the Christian
identity of the West. Citing Islams 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,
the veil, provocative affirmation of their identity. (qtd.
in Davies 14950; emphasis added)
- 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 Africas 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
- Caught between the harsh realities inside Algeria and France, rai
artists directed their lyrics to address social and political tensions,
demanding reforms and freedom. Khaleds songs such as El
Harba Wayn (Where to Flee), Wally LDark
(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 Khaleds 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 singers
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, Khaleds emotional attachment to Oran is metaphorically
compared to a beautiful woman with whom the singer hopes to unite.
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 shabi
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 prevalentit
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.
- Khaleds 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 singers
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 Khaleds Wahrane
(Khaled, Barclay 1992)
- 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 (iivVi). As with the songs melody
and phrases, the scale fluctuates between the melodic G minor and the
Phrygian mode on D (separated only by an Fsharp). 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 Khaleds
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 Khaleds ever-traveling soul as well. More than a city, it
is also a restless state of being resulting in agony and departure.
- The flirtatious overlapping of voices between the dominant male voice
and the feminine twists of the accordion express the songs
sexual rhetoric. Initiating the seduction, the accordion ascends with
a grace note from the tonic G to Bflat. 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. Khaleds
voice soars high on the ascending interlude figure of GFEbD,
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
(the bold letters represent the initial notes of the interlude). As
the reality of separation between him and his beloved homeland is confirmed,
Khaleds voice erupts in fragmented wailing of pure anguish and
- 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 Khaleds 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).
(Sahra, Barclay 1996)
Oran Oran Youve 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
- 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 shabi
song first sung by Abderrahmane Amrani, better known as Dahmane
El Harrachi (19261980).
Rachid Taha, Ya
(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.
- Tahas 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 songs popularity stems from its simple groove and summation
of the new generations 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
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 traditiona
ritualistic practice that mixes Islamic and Sub-Saharan musicsto
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, Khaleds early songs of El
Harba Wayn (Where to Flee) and Wally LDark
(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.
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, Boumedienetoujours
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 Khaleds songs.
8. The main musical theme of Ya
Rayah is similar to Cheb Hasnis Yakti Yebek Ban,
from his album Latbkiche. In Tahas 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 shabi 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.