Status Audio Magazine

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Transgressive Imaginaries: Nation and Identity through Raï

Omar Shanti

Photo: LMNT @digitalmnt
Interviewed by Omar Shanti
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In this podcast, Omar Shanti will trace Raï throughout its history from its inception in the 1930’s until the early 2000’s. Raï is analyzed not only as a strictly musical phenomenon, but as a vehicle for articulating and embodying complex narratives. With special thanks to LMNT @digitalmnt for the graphic.


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Omar Shanti
Omar Shanti

Winner of the Young Writer's Prize from MedReset Project.

Winner of the Young Writer’s Prize sponsored by the MedReset Project, which is primarily funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme. Omar spoke about his winning paper, entitled "’El Haraga’" Read Through Maghrebi Literary Production,” at MedReset’s conference in March 2019. His research draws upon the haraga read through literary production, combining together theory, literature, and global events in communication with one another to glimpse at the Maghreb’s own evolving cultural self-understanding of the phenomenon.

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Interview Transcript

*Musical Excerpt - Bellemou Messaoud: Sidi Hbibi*

Hello and welcome to this الوضع Status Hour Podcast 

My name is Omar Shanti and I will be our host for this episode entitled “Transgressive Imaginaries: Nation and Identity through Raï.”

*Musical Excerpt - Bellemou Messaoud: Sidi Hbibi*

This podcast will trace Raï throughout its history from its inception in the 1930’s until the early 2000’s. It will analyze Raï not as a strictly musical phenomenon, but as a vehicle for articulating and embodying complex narratives. In the tradition of Schade-Poulsen (1999) , it will treat Raï as a total social fact defined by the situated practices of performance and listening - which in the age of records also translate to production and consumption. This approach allows one to read history through Raï precisely as one reads Raï through history. To facilitate this reflection, the podcast contextualizes Raï’s history against its relevant social, political, and cultural backdrops. Where appropriate, it theorizes these developments, drawing off of post-colonial, sociological, and anthropological repertoires. It also incorporates musical excerpts and snippets of lyrics to color the analysis.

By orienting its analysis on a genre, this podcast emphasizes the sociocultural continuities that link time and space. It offers an important counterweight to the historiography that is grounded in formal politics and that draws from its ideological economy of borders and rupture. Moreover, it dismantles the methodological nationalism of these approaches by focusing on social agents rather than reified state actors. In studying Raï specifically, this podcast observes a rich legacy of multifocal transgression that produced alternative conceptions of self-identity and collective imaginaries at important historical junctures. Throughout this history, resident and migrant Algerians alike have turned to Raï to carve out inhabitable spheres within their societies. In Raï music, they had an accessible and inclusive medium through which they could contest the constructed identities that were imposed upon them. 

*Musical Excerpt - Faudel, Khaled: Eray*

Raï music first emerged in Eastern Algeria in the 1930’s at the confluence of three sociocultural currents: the colonial destabilization of Algeria’s rural peasantry; the increased global connectivity of Algeria’s urban centers; and the entrenchment of indigenous forms of music as means of resistance and cultural authenticity.

The French had colonized Algeria a century earlier and, having decided that it would be a French settler colony, immediately began a long and gradual, though at times abrupt and episodic, process of dispossessing the native population. The French erected a legal superstructure to facilitate this plunder, capitalizing on the informal social arrangements that had mediated Algerians’ relationship to the Ottoman state prior. A law of 1830 placed the Beylik, Ottoman, and Waqf lands, which peasants had tended to for their livelihood, under the control of the state. Another law of 1880 betrayed the arbitrariness of this legal edifice by granting the colonizer the right to seize property that it deemed did not have a verifiable title. In addition to the this form of expropriation, large-scale private investment worked in concert with the state to capitalize on epidemics, droughts, debt, and market fluctuations to further dispossess Algerians. All of these measures disproportionately affected the rural peasantry. Confronted with this increasing precarity, large numbers of Algerian workers immigrated to France and to the urban centers, sustaining their families in the rural areas with remittances.

While rural areas were being depopulated, the development of urban centers took on a different trajectory. As shantytowns proliferated to house the desperate and disenfranchised, a new indigenous educated middle-class was emerging. Buoyed by a 1901 French law that legalized associations, this segment of the population formed political parties, trade unions, newspapers, and other institutions of self-representation. Though their power to effect change was heavily curtailed by the colonizer, the early 1900’s effectively established what McDougall has called the “beginning of professional politics” (McDougall, 2012, p.152). Additionally, with the spread of vinyl, video, and phonograph technologies, urban centers had increasing access to the world beyond their borders.

Amid the turbulence of this climate, the local practices of music performance and listening came to be an important domain for the restitution of the social hierarchies and divisions that had underpinned rural and urban society alike. Yet, these practices were also crucial sites for reconfiguring these same structures and thereby constructing new social imaginaries. During the final decades of colonial rule, the struggle between these two conceptions of genre was waged within the Western Algerian milieu between, on the one hand, the traditional genres of the Bedouin Cheikh and the Meddahat, and, on the other, the newly emergent Orani ‘Asri and Raï of the Cheikhat. As will be explained currently, while the former two genres conserved their traditional norms of musical practice, the latter two actively dismantled these norms.

The Cheikh’s musical genre, known as the Melhun, dates back to the 16th century. It is a highly elaborate practice that overlays Bedouin poetry on the music of the guellal (a long cylindrical drum) and the gasba (reed flute). Like its performer, it enjoys a high sociocultural status in rural settings for the tradition, formality, age, and masculinity that it embodies. The Cheikh’s qasidas, numerous and long, were important repositories of oral tradition, passing down stories of tribal battles, Sufi learnings, love, and more. As such, aspiring practitioners were required to do apprenticeships prior to performing. 

Here is Cheikh Hamada’s recording of Tal Eddar Aalia: 

*Musical Excerpt: Cheikh Hamada - Tal Eddar Aalia*

The Meddahat were afforded a lesser, yet nonetheless valuable, legitimacy among the rural population. As their name suggests, the performers were females whose repertoire was historically known for its Medh(praise) which was primarily directed at the Prophet and the local Saints. Their performances were restricted to private and socially-sacred women’s spaces such as segregated weddings, religious events, and private gatherings.

This excerpt from Salu ‘Ala al Nabi (صلوا على النبي) is a good representation of this genre:

*Musical Excerpt: Meddaha group performing Salu ‘Ala al Nabi*

Both of these genres reinforced social norms that were built upon binaries including those of public/private, traditional/contemporary, and male/female. The emerging genres of Orani ‘Asri and Raï were to be conceived, not as distinct musical forms but rather as direct challenges to these binaries.

The Orani ‘Asri style was pioneered by the late musicians Ahmad Wahbi and Blaoui El Houari. It drew on the local Andalusian tradition as well as international music, both Western and Middle Eastern, to transform the sound of the Cheikh’s Melhun to fit new transnational urban sensibilities. To this end, they incorporated instruments such as the ‘oud, the accordion, the piano, and the banjo. The musical adventurism and cosmopolitanism of this group marked a distinctive break from the celebrated traditionality of the Melhun’s instrumentation. Moreover, the generation of singers had not gone through the rigid apprenticeship that qualified one to perform from the Cheikh’s repertoire. As such, this group defied restrictions both on who could perform the Melhun and on how it must be performed. This contemporization defined the genre as apparent in its name: ‘Asri.

Here is Ahmad Wahby’s Wahran Wahran: 

*Musical Excerpt - Ahmad Wahby: Wahran, Wahran*

A similar tradition of rupture could be seen with the Raï of the Cheikha - indeed the subject of this podcast. This genre transgressed the gendered boundaries of performance, music, and spatialization. Commonly performing in front of men, the Cheikha sang a wide repertoire that drew off of three sources: improvised renditions of the Cheikh’s melhun, which were a double-crime for their “bastardization” (Virolle, 1989, p.52) of traditional text as well as their gender-role inversion; the songs of the Meddahat, hitherto restricted to private realm of female space; and her own written songs which dealt with a wide domain of social issues, personal troubles, and worldly pleasures. As Virolle (1998) notes, in adopting a moniker the Cheikha became a “nameless woman” severed from the “patrilineage before which she would normally be held accountable.” In this state, the Cheikha inherited “a trace of masculinity” as represented in her “spatial idiom” as well as in her practices of self-expression and consumption. For her affront to traditional norms, the Cheikha held minimal prestige. Nonetheless, she enjoyed substantial freedoms of movement and performance during the interwar period. It was with this mode of performance that Raï was born with Cheikha Remitti and Cheikha El Ouachma firmly embedded among its founders. 

Here is excerpt of Cheikha Remittis’ Fatma Fatma:

*Musical Excerpt - Cheikha Remitti: Fatma Fatma*

When dealing with taxonomy of this sort, one must acknowledge that epistemological borders rarely pretend to reality. Though these definitions constitute a useful framework for the analysis that follows, none of these entities are ontologically stable. Rather, these genres are continuously coming undone and being remade by performers who claim to represent them as well as by audience who claim to discern them. Genres are thus products of discursive practice and must be understood as a necessarily fleeting, nebulous and social entity that is sectioned off by borders which are fundamentally porous.

Having statically defined these genres in both the social and cultural landscapes, this podcast now turns to observing the dynamics of their development throughout the latter decades of colonial rule. To do so, it situates them within the larger struggle for expression and identity in the colony that had at that moment taken Algerian auditory culture as an important battle ground.

During the mid 1930’s, a time of heightened demands for national independence in the political arena, the French Bureau for Native Affairs became increasingly sensitive to the subversive potential of cultural products and insecure about its own ability to police them. This concern became more pronounced with advances to radio and record technology that further undermined the borders of a colonial state built on rigid spatial compartmentalization. The colony feared the spread of music and messaging that articulated Algerian independence, pan-Arabism, or any movement antithetical to their interests. Unwilling to invest in the technology needed to police radio transmissions, and unable to prevent the smuggling of records across the borders, the colony instead policed the person of the Algerian listener. Radio and record vendors, cafés, musicians, and households came under surveillance for listening practices alone. Musicians were required to obtain permits for travel and were frequently harassed by authorities. Both artistic production and consumption were obstructed.

This policy of repression was coupled with the development of the state-run Radio-Algers in 1929. As Scales describes, one of the primary goals of this station at its inception was to “advance a spiritual conquest of Arab hearts and minds by transgressing the public/private divide to reach into the impenetrable spaces of Algerian domestic life to advance the ‘civilizing mission’” (p.389). To promote viewership, the station dedicated weekly segments to the Algerian politicians, intellectuals, and musicians whose content was deemed acceptable. Thus those wishing to partake had the choice: self-censor or disguise. While some chose the former, others, such as the opera singer Mahiedinne Bachetarzi, the founder of Chaabi music, Mohammed al-Anka, and a young Cheikha Remitti often succeeded in the latter. This had the double benefit of transmitting political messaging and springboarding these artists to notoriety, among the Algerian audience and European labels alike. These labels sought to capitalize on the expanding market for records within Algeria and produced music for many Algerian artists. In so doing, the labels challenged the state’s claim to monopoly over artistic production.

Thus, the French response to these musical development mirrored its response to radio and to Algerian representational politics at large; they adopted a policy of coercion and cooptation. Yet due to the lingual incompetence of the censors as well as the shifting political and social dynamics, the colony failed both to discern political messaging and to control the distribution of records. According to Scales, this battle ground of auditory culture “expose[d] the limits of colonial hegemony” It is precisely these limits that inadvertently produced a fertile space for the consolidation of these emergent genres in the final decades of colonial rule (p. 387). 

One record emblematic of the time is Cheikha Ouachma’s Sid El Hakem (O Esteemed Judge):

*Musical Excerpt - Cheikha Ouachma: Sid El Hakem*

The outbreak of the War of Independence in 1954 brought with it important cleavages and continuities in the cultural domain. Many artists signalled their support for the revolution. Seminal figures of the Wahrani tradition, Ahmed Saber and Blaoui elHouari were arrested. Their counterpart Ahmad Wahby joined the resistance on the Tunisian border. Yet while Raï singers also expressed their solidarity, the FLN actively discouraged their transgressive performances. It was already clear - Raï was not representative of the independent Algerian nation that the FLN wished to construct and which was rooted in religious orthodoxy, patriarchy, and traditionalism in the name of restoring an authentic Algerian identity. This foreshadowed tensions between the state and the various artists and subcultures of Algerian society that it would govern following the achievement of Independence in 1962.

The early days of independence saw a “cultural effervescence” (Daoudi and Miliani, p. 47) As the nascent Algerian state consolidated itself, it strengthened its attempts to construct a single national identity that would replace Algeria’s pluralistic and culturally diverse society. This identity was conceived of with respect to three pillars: Arabness in the face of both Berber and European culture and language; Sunni Islamic orthodoxy in the face of the traditions of the walis and the Sufi tariqas; and anti-Imperialist socialism as a perpetual continuation of the revolution. For the nation’s “community of memories”, which Weber argued “constitutes the ultimately decisive element of ‘national consciousness’”, the state offered its founding myth: a revisionist tale of the war of Independence and the million martyrs (1978, p. 903). 

Given the nature of this undertaking, the cultural realm was a key battleground. The state attempted to monopolize audio, visual, and print media, propogating the works of artists that conformed with their normative vision of Algerian society and history, while censoring those that did not by way of passive erasure and violent repression. With respect to artistic production, the Algerian state operated the same mechanisms of exclusion and instrumentalization as the French regime had, although they offered different justifications. The point is illustrated by both regimes’ imprisonment of ‘Orani musician Ahmed Saber for his overtly political content. According to Gafaiti, artists were “asked to complete the task initiated by the war… to generate a discourse that furthered the goal of creating an anti-imperialist national identity and the project of creating a socialist society… to allow content to prevail over Form… to abandon French and to write in Arabic” (p.64). Those artists who took part did so against these constraints; others went into self-imposed exile.

Here is Ahmad Saber’s 1964 track, El Khayene. Its lyrics go - “O Traitor, your days are numbered; no matter how long it takes us, we will hold you to account” 

*Musical Excerpt - Ahmad Saber: El Khayene*

The regime was similarly prescriptive in the domain of music. In 1968, it declared the traditional Andalusi genre as the national music, despite it then being a genre reserved for the elites. The state-controlled radio-stations only played music in line with the goals of the revolution: Andalusi; Egyptian and Levantine music which was meant to instill an Arab identity in the population; the Melhun, which was considered a national heritage that had maintained its authenticity against the onslaught of French colonialism; and a new breed of patriotic music within the confines of the state’s vision for the New Algerian. Raï, as a multilingual, mystical, and socially transgressive genre, was almost entirely excluded from state multimedia.

Beyond informally banning it from the radio waves, the state also drastically curbed the spaces in which Raï had thus far been performed. In so doing, it reconfigured the performance and audience of the genre and thereby redefined its practices of social enactment. By outlawing the public performance of women, the sta