II. Identity and Reception

  1. In his discussion of popular culture, Stuart Hall argues that culture constitutes more than a fixed set of criteria. He sees culture as a struggle involving several dynamics such as incorporation, distortion, resistance, negotiation, and recuperation (236). Becoming part of the historical process in which forces both disappear and reappear in various forms and disguises, culture involves the articulation of elements with no inscribed position, elements that can be rearranged and reorganized. Culture is conceived not as a separate “way of life,” but as “ways of struggle” constantly intersecting at crossroads which yield hybrid cultural genres, such as rai. When rai artists adapt older lyrics within a new musical context, and when their message reflects the social and political conflicts of the Algerian population living in both Algeria and France, they enact precisely those ever-changing struggles within a larger historical context as expressed by Hall.

  2. As a manifestation of postmodernist capitalism and industrial technology, rai addresses contemporary oppositions, such as traditional versus modern, sacred versus secular, and Arabic versus Western. An artist such as Khaled embodies these oppositions when he celebrates sex and drinking in one song (“Serbi Serbi”), yet retracts from them in other songs (“Wahrane Wahrane”).10 Rai lyrics and music celebrate intercultural coalescence and conversation without abandoning their Arabic heritage. In songs by Khaled, Cheikha Remitti, Rachid Taha, and Cheb Mami, we are constantly reminded of images of the desert and its symbolic association with Arabness. Khaled’s “El Arabi” (“The Arab”), “Sahra” (“The Desert”), Remitti’s “La Camel” (“The Camel”), Taha’s “Bent Sahra” (“Daughter of the Desert”), and Mami’s “Saida” (the artist’s hometown), all conjure the geographic beauty of the homeland with its dunes, oases, palm trees, and women. Many of these songs are based on the musical genre about the Algerian Sahara known locally as “ay ay,” which uses minimal instrumentation (including only flutes and drums) and lyrics rich in poetic chivalry and romance. To bring the imagery to life musically, the songs also employ a duple meter and a strong down beat rhythm that matches the pace of the caravan.

  3. But just as some songs root themselves in images of the desert and Middle Eastern terrains, others, often on the same album, journey to world cities such as Marseilles and Chicago. Cheb Mami’s style, for example, is well known for his use of bi-and tri-lingual lyrics (Arabic, French, and English) in songs that combine rai with French rock and rap. Thus, rai combines the local and the global in one genre that flourishes in its multi-vocality, contradictions, and defiance of categorization.

  4. The fusion between the traditional and modern within a globalized postmodern context creates newly hybrid sounds. Some songs sound rhythmically Western but many also have a strong Arabic flavor. Utilizing the rich cultural heritage of Algeria, rai artists bring to the surface issues of identity, culture, and tradition utilizing old music and playing it within a new medium. Indigenous and Western sounds are combined, played, and composed side by side without contradiction. Rai by nature fuses multiple sources because of its origins in Oran, a sea-port with multiple ethnicities and traditions. As an example of musicking, Rachid Taha’s 1998 album Diwan does not claim to be completely new; its strength lies in reworking songs by the “old masters,” such as Dahmane El Harrachi, Massaoud Bellemou, and Farid al-Atrash. These common fluxes of culture remind us of rai’s fluidity and durability.

  5. In the world of globalization and fast communication, musicians find themselves closer to one another in their concerns and artistic achievements. Collaboration and borrowing replace individuality and monoculture. Each artist now finds him/herself not only belonging to a vast global village, but participating in its identity. Like the Pakistani Sufi music of the Qawwali tradition, led by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who collaborated with singers like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and like the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s work with Paul Simon, collaboration is not without its problems. Cheb Mami gave rai international exposure through his collaboration with Sting in “Desert Rose.”

  6. Yet, for artists from the Middle East, embracing Western culture often clashes with traditional values. Older generations often complain about the new generation’s lack of identity and cultural specificity. Authenticity and creativity become major concerns and a source of a great deal of tension between the preservation of the past and the creation of the present, as argued by Timothy Taylor:

    This global/cultural mixing in this global postmodern, these new ethno/mediascapes result in some new music, many of which sound increasingly North American. But it’s equally true that some things aren’t changing. The opening to Rhoma Irama’s “Qur’an dan Koran,” for example, sounds as if it could be a North American/British pop/rock song, but when his voice starts, there is no question: the language and local style make it Irama’s own. Rather than cultural imperialism simply wiping out indigenous musicking and indigenous sounds, new popular musics are being made, old ones altered or maintained, sometimes museumized and sometimes lost altogether. (197)

    In rai, as in pop culture throughout the Middle East, the debate regarding originality and authenticity is often linked with turath, heritage, and nostalgia. While many argue that the return to turath is the basis for creating a strong modern Arab culture, others demand reform based on Western models. Rai’s vulgar lyrics, revolt against traditional values, and promotion of [Western] decadence, raise objections and controversy, and represent only one dimension of this complex cultural debate. Its rejection of taboos in a society of traditions is an assertion of a new identity in an era of postcolonial negotiation. Khaled explains: “It’s not poetry. It’s speaking, expressing yourself, talking, and making yourself heard, saying what you want to say” (qtd. in Rosen 22). Rai seems to embody binary forces: high and low, conservative and liberal, traditional and commercial, poetic and vulgar, Western and Eastern:

    …critics of rai viewed it as a destructive deviation from the Bedouin sheikh poetic tradition drawing its substance from a noxious and vulgar jargon signaling the emergence of moral decadence…. It [an article from the Algerian media] argued that for those who were more informed and prepared to analyze it, rai could be seen as a cry of revolt, a quest to break down taboos and prohibitions. (Schade-Poulsen 22–23)

  7. By making their own rules, rai artists have been accused by Arab critics of “polluting” the indigenous Algerian culture. The fact that rai artists use traditional folk melodies and reincorporate them within a new format often using modest budgets and technology, especially within Algeria, has led to many negative reactions from Arab and Western critics alike. Arabs often voice their concerns regarding “authenticity” and the need to “preserve” and insulate their culture, considered by many to be sacred and its meanings fixed once and forevermore. The borrowing and recycling of folk melodies was considered threatening to the values of tradition, and these non-conformist traits of rai led the Algerian government to label rai “rebel music” and to regulate its broadcast privileges on radio until the popular interpretation of “rebel music” was convincingly appropriated by national sentiments. But in 1985, the Algerian government sponsored the first international rai festival in Oran. The post-revolutionary government in Algeria has assumed a favorable stance toward rai, primarily because of its outspoken conflict with the fundamentalists. By sponsoring rai, the Algerian government also hoped to present itself as liberal by promoting free speech. The politically loaded festival was a testament to rai’s deeply penetrating message within Algerian society.

  8. Currently in Middle Eastern artistic circles, authenticity is almost always associated with the past and most of its advocates cling to it with a sense of nostalgia that is ever present in the vibrant culture of the Arab world.11 Citing evidence such as vulgar lyrics, repetitive tempos, and “lack of originality,” many critics of rai accuse contemporary artists of polluting and contributing to the cultural decline of Arab music. Authenticity is further linked to issues concerning modernity, often articulated in opposition to Westernization. While many tend to view these tensions as binary, it is much more constructive to examine these cultural parameters as important signifiers occupying the postcolonial Arab world in its struggle to reconcile its past with the present and future. Neither culture nor rai are fixed entities. Concepts such as authenticity and modernity are in constant flux, contesting and interacting with many other complex parameters within culture.

  9. Islamists in Algeria object primarily to rai’s lyrics, which they consider offensive, obscene, too French, too Western for Arabic culture, and too discordant with the teachings of Islam. They often master covert operations to harass and attack their opponents. Khaled raises objections to the censorship from Islamic reformists: “They come [to our concerts] and break things up. They say rai is street music and that it’s debauched. But that’s not true. I don’t sing pornography. I sing about love and social life. We say what we think, just like singers all over the world” (Lipsitz 125).

  10. Yet what sounds “too Western” for some Algerians is also very Arabic to others. Questions regarding the essential nature of rai are controversial among audiences from different parts of the world. To the Algerian and Moroccan immigrants who live in Europe, rai is an artistic connection that bonds them to their roots, helping them survive in a hostile culture. The shifting ideologies and cultural values in postmodern Algeria continue to set “new” boundaries and create new margins to be explored and challenged.

  11. Conservatives are not the only opponents of rai in the Middle East. Most music scholars also voice their concerns over the music and its national “identity,” for they see nothing artistic in its simplicity and often dismiss it as “noise.” Their main objection lies in its departure from the ethos of classical Arabic music, which is rooted in the tradition of the maqam (mode). But why judge pop rai by standards that apply to older music of the court or to the Egyptian ughniya of the 60s and the 70s? Many of these critical voices come to us from Egypt, a country that, for several centuries, has dominated the Middle Eastern cultural and artistic scene. In the past four decades, the Egyptian culture industry has set the standard for music, film, art, and dance. As countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria catch up in their cultural productions, not the least of which includes rai music, objections from Egyptian critics towards Algerian rai reflect the intense debate in the Arab world regarding modernity and how art and culture should proceed.

  12. Interestingly enough, rai is not the only modern genre targeted by the traditionalists, i.e., advocates of “classical” music, who view Western influences on Arabic music in negative terms. In his evaluation of popular Arabic music in Israel, for example, Suheil Radwan voiced his concern regarding the infiltration of such “cheap songs performed in a pop-rock style, imitating the Anglo-American rhythmic patterns, using keyboard instruments, bass guitar, and with an emphasis on the rhythmic role played by the drums, cymbal, and tambourine.” He adds: “Traditional instruments are losing their importance in these ensembles. The main goal of the singers and players is to motivate the young people to dance in a hysterical way. The songs are performed in a monotonous style that tries to imitate the popular singers of Egypt and Lebanon” (42).

  13. The Egyptian position represents a complex struggle involving rai artists, technology, and tradition. By taking the music from its private social milieu of music-making to the studio, rai artists provoke objections to the unnatural and slushy sound introduced by the use of synthesizers and modern recording technology. Many Arab critics argue that the musicking of rai takes them away from their long established traditions. Arabic music has long been associated with the concept of sama (listening), which involves a dialectical relationship between the singer/musicians and the audience. Racy has demonstrated the importance of this relationship, arguing that in Arabic aesthetics, the creative process stresses “listener consciousness” and places the creative process within the domain of “social accessibility” (“Creativity” 10). Racy specifically relates this to music, which derives its momentum from human interplay and feedback involving the artist and the initiated listener. It is this relationship between the artist and his/her listeners that is missing in a recording that excludes audience participation.

  14. In live performances, Arab artists gain their audience’s respect and admiration by using their hala, or aura, and by demonstrating their mastery of modulation and exploration of the maqam. It is an aura emanating not of stardom, but rather of superior communication of emotions through control of musical and vocal dialectic, the Umm Kulthummastery of the mode of the piece, and the ensuing variations and improvisation. Not only do rai songs often lack modulation, another supposed “violation” of a long established tradition, but Arab critics also claim that by relying on recordings, the musicians cannot communicate their auras to the audience. Without this fundamental interaction, an artist might be criticized as someone who cannot communicate his/her emotions. The audience feels cheated because of the loss of physical contact traditionally involved in live performance. Arab artists through the 70s had relied on vocal and instrumental virtuosity to influence their audiences. Farid al-Atrash was a renowned ud player who mesmerized his audience by playing improvised passages (taqasim) during his live performances. Similarly, Umm Kulthum displayed her virtuosity and control of the maqam by singing long and complex songs that spanned over sixty minutes (Racy, “Creativity” 7–28; Racy, “Many Faces” 302–320).

  15. In Western media, rai has become a kind of North African rock, and the Algerian city of Oran is nicknamed “the Las Vegas of Algeria.” In short, the originality and creativity of Algerian artists is always measured in terms of Western counterparts as opposed to its original Middle Eastern parameters. Such reactions to rai echo a long history of cultural prejudice against the Middle East, and against Arabs in particular. The position of Western critics who view rai as a “tacky imitation”Oran of American and European rock, supplement a long tradition of Western supremacy and racist attitudes against Arabs. Unfortunately, the Western projection of “threat” onto all Middle Eastern influences prevents an ideologically open curiosity among some Western music audiences. Western curiosity toward “Oriental culture” has always been limited and narrowed by its perspective of the outside looking in, the above looking down. Those who dismiss rai in France describe it as being “too foreign, too primitive, too exotic, too strange” (Lipsitz 124). Unfortunately, these negative views veil the interconnectedness between cultures and their complex dynamics. They further obscure the positive borrowings and cooperation resulting from the “dangerous crossroads” outlined by George Lipsitz.

  16. Yet the significance of rai lies in its ability to capture listeners around the globe, even without its language being understood in its biggest markets: Europe and North America. Most non-Arab nations feel that it is not necessary to understand the words in order to enjoy the music. And although rai’s funky beat, vocal note bending, and mixture of Eastern and Western sounds are a truly beautiful aesthetic experience, European and American audiences miss out on its powerful texts: its mixtures of sacred and secular, its political voices, and its noble messages of love, freedom, and peace. Peter Spencer explains how world music affects American listeners by transposing them into a different space without exposing them to the dark reality of its complex lyrics and its symbolism:

    World music gives the American listener a sense of freedom from the constraints of standardized Anglo-American pop, without the arid, over-intellectual pomposity of much “progressive” music. World music is both entertaining and different. It takes the listener to a place where the world’s various cultures meet happily and in the spirit of festival. It is a force for understanding and goodwill in an increasingly dark world. (2–3)

    Like many Western music critics, Spencer emphasizes the “entertaining” and charming qualities of world music, as well as its exotic sounds. By focusing primarily on its festive and celebratory side, Spencer fails to mention the agonizing side of rai. Joe Gore advocates a similar position when he writes: “Pop rai blends Islamic, Spanish, French, black African, and disco elements in a spicy stew of wailing vocals, cheap-sounding drum machines, and brittle electric guitars.” In the same article, Gore refers to rai fans in Europe and the U.S as “cult” members, thus singling the music out as exclusive, bizarre, and alien (110). The association of music followers to a cult is exaggerated and distorted.

  17. The struggle to claim or disclaim rai music has ramifications that extend beyond the sound of rai. Rai’s political and social ideologies beckon its audience to take a stand, to be active listeners, and to participate in the current social and political issues in Algeria and abroad.





10. “Serbi Serbi” is a celebration of drinking as an escape from the sad fate of a broken love: “One drink follows another / And another still / I drink to my lost love / And the life we’ll never have / And I drink to the empty glasses that surround me / The barman knows my sorrow / And fills another glass / As I drink to one more broken promise / One more sad turn of fate.” In “Wahrane Wahrane,” however, Khaled sings: “Also, advise its people [of Oran] / Who abandoned their religion and followed the glass / How shameful it is on the dining table / For it is surely a useless companion.”

11. The degree to which nationalist thought is opposed to the “Western” is a subject of great debate. For more on this, see Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? and The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories.


Table of Contents
Top of article
Write to ECHO



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