Raï: Algerian blues and protest music

This all started because I wanted to find out what "cheb" meant. As I was poking around the internet I discovered several musicians with "cheb" in their names. I realised that it had to be an assumed title. Eventually I discovered that it means young in Arabic but I also discovered that it meant much more than just that.

Many cultures around the world have a tradition of social and political commentary through music. I was born in a place where politicians were weary of the popular musicians. One wrong move and they would be flayed by a skillful lyric. I actually remember singing songs that had been banned because they were critical of the government. The fact that as a six or seven year old I knew the words to the banned songs shows the power of those songs.

I'm sure that many of you are familiar with Sting's collaboration with Cheb Mami in 1999 that gave us Desert Rose(YouTube video). For most of North America that was our first exposure to the Algerian folk/pop music known as Raï.
Raï began in 1900 in western Algeria but came into its own in the harbour city Oran during the 1920s. Its basis was in Arabic love poetry and Bedouin folk music. Traditional rai had two styles; female meddahas who sang for other women at private gatherings, and the more ribald lyrics of the cheikhas (including Rimitti) who added more Bedouin rhythms and performed in cafes, bars, bordellos, accompanied by percussion and wailing "gasba" (rosewood flute). Oran's French colonial population in conjunction with its proximity to Morocco and Spain, added further to the cultural cocktail.

Rai Music 101
Rai music is a popular genre of world music from the Northern African country of Algeria. Rai is pronounced "rye" or "rah-AY" and translates as "opinion". Rai music began in the early 1900s as a combination of popular music and traditional Bedouin desert music.

When your art form has a name that translates as "opinion" you know you're in trouble. Raï has been forbidden music in Algeria, to the point of one popular singer being assassinated. Raï deals with the hardships of life, love, heartache, politics, and it can get quite raunchy, all the kinds of things that an oppressive government would rather not have the populace dwell on. The art form has thrived in Algeria's former colonial ruler France.

Many of the newest generation of raï singers chose the tittle "cheb" or young to distinguish themselves from the older practitioners (cheikhs) of the musical form. While they built on the traditions of their elders what they built was something new with a different cultural identity.

Last year I performed to a raï song by Cheb Mami called "Parisien Du Nord" (the remixed version on the CD Arabesque). At the time I chose the song with the rioting that had occurred in France in the fall of 2005 in mind. The song is an intriguing mixture of French and North African culture with a good dose of American hip-hop thrown in. I thought it was ironic that people whose cultures blended to produce such interesting music were at each other's throats. If they couldn't appreciate the beauty of what they could create together then at least I could.

As it turns out the song "Parisien Du Nord" was written as a protest against the sorts of tensions that sparked those riots in France.
Rai Rebel(2001 article)
The song was an anthem against racism that seamlessly made the transition between hip hop and rai, and introduced throngs of young new audiences to rai.

“It is a song against racism, so I wanted to sing it with a North African who was born in France,” explains Mami. “Because of that and because of his talent, I chose K-Mel. In the song, we say, ‘In your eyes, I feel like foreigner.’ It’s like the kids who were born in France but they have Arab faces. They are French, and they should be considered French.”

Here's a rough translation of the French lyrics. The original song is featured in this YouTube video while the remix is featured in this one.

To learn more about Algerian history and culture see the links below.

Raï (Wikipedia)
Cheb Mami (Wikipedia)
Algeria (CIA World Factbook)
Algeria (Wikipedia)
Algerian War of Independence (Wikipedia)
Algeria (Infoplease)
Algeria (Arab.net)


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