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 state ensured Raï could no longer be performed in many of the spaces it had hitherto inhabited, such as the public squares, cafés, and souqs. Additionally, by regulating unorthodox religious festivals such as the wa’dat, the state further stripped Raï of a domain of performance. In the absence of these venues, Raï was confined to the marginal and socially peripheral spaces of the bars, cabarets, and mahshashat (cannabis dens). As DeAngelis notes, this pulled Raï into “a space… at once marginal (nocturnal, hidden) but central within a certain culture of masculinity” (p.50). 

This set in place a dual-movement. Firstly, the Cheikhat gradually stopped performing in cabarets. Some, such as Cheikha Remitti, continued to subversively release Raï records under the classification of folklore. Others transitioned into Meddahat groups. With Raï artists among them, these groups began to incorporate secular Raï tracks among their repertoires and thereby grant them greater visibility and cultural legitimacy. Secondly, the first generation of young male Raï artists began to take the place of their disenfranchised female counterparts. Their performances injected the genre with a new energy and rid it of its gender-based transgressions. Both these movements would be conducive to the grassroots spread of the genre in the years to come.

The most emblematic of these young Raï artists is Bouteldja Belkacem. According to Smaïl, he was “the young wolf who, barely 13 years old, had committed a crime of treason. He had dethroned the then queen of rural rai, the diva Cheikha Remitti.” Indeed, his impact was immense; he is considered the one who paved the way for the first generation of male Raï artists. He achieved notoriety through Western Algeria in 1965 at 13 years old with his debut track: a cover of Cheikha el Ouachma’s Gatlek Zizia. His record the following year spread nationally. It included the tracks Serbili Baoui (Serve Me My BAO) and Milouda Fine Kounti (Where were you Milouda?). The former saw the singer begging for beer and alcohol to wash away his sorrows, while the latter is a tragic account of the troubles this causes. Its lyrics ring:

“Milouda where were you?

And tell me - where did you leave the child? 

My darling, what happened to you and how did you forget Saïd?

O milouda how did you manage to forget this poor child?

Wine has carried you away and whiskey seduces you”

*Musical Excerpt - Bouteldja Belkacem: Milouda Fine Kounti*


Musically, Raï continued to evolve. By the late 60’s, Raï musicians were channeling the creativity of the Orani style in turning to the instruments of modern Western music to reimagine their genre. Two key figures of this movement, as shown by Swedenburg, were Bellemou Messaoud & Ahmad Zergui. The former replaced the gasba and mizmar with the saxophone and the trumpet; the latter introduced electric guitar and the wah-wah pedal. Though the latter died of a car-crash in 1983, both had tremendous influence on the music to come. For his innovations, Bellemou is widely considered to be the founder of Modern Raï despite being a trumpeter. Many point to his 1975 track, Zarga Ou Mesrara as the birth of this new phase. Other notable contributions include C’est pas ma faute (It’s not my fault), Rouhi ya Wahran (Go, Oran), and Shab el Barroud (People of the Gunpowder). Each of these became hallmarks of the Raï tradition and were covered extensively by future performers.

*Musical Excerpt - Bellemou Messaoud - Zerga ou Mesrara*

*Musical Excerpt - Ahmad Zergui - Ana Delali*

By the mid-1970s, Raï was musically innovative, socially licentious, and more popular than ever among greater segments of Algerian society. Around that time, the first generation born of an independent Algeria came of age. These young women and men had grown without experiencing the brutal war of independence, the memories of which still legitimized the state’s one-party authoritarianism. Instead, they witnessed the cracks of the regime: limited mobility; endemic corruption; poverty; unemployment; and isolationism. With bleak outlooks, many turned to Raï as a vehicle for self-expression and artistic production. A number of these youth began to perform and soon the first generation of Pop Raï artists arrived on the scene.

Musicians of this generation prefixed their names with Cheb or Chebba to mark their youth. The most notable among them are Fadela, Khaled, Mami, and Zahouania. Khaled had begun recording to some success in the mid-1970s. His 1974 track, Trig Lycee, recorded when he was 14, is thoroughly emblematic of the new wave of Pop Raï - the pace is frenetic; the expression youthful; and the accordion within it is fully integrated. Yet it is most commonly held that it was Cheba Fadela’s 1979 song, Ma Hlali Nom (Sleep Doesn’t Please Me) that marked the start of this new era. As Daoudi and Miliani claim, this song would “ignite the powder trail of the new rai.” 

*Musical Excerpt - Cheba Fadila - Ma Hlali Nom*

Thus the stage was set for Raï to explode into a national mode of expression for Algerian youth in the 1980s. Raï had overcome its marginalization and emerged as an increasingly crucial medium for the articulation of new, grassroots national imaginaries that were inclusive, accessible and local.

Its impact was not restricted to Algeria. With the advents of cassettes and new networks of broadcasts and distribution, Raï attained a growing audience among the immigrant Maghrebi communities of France. Raï tracks could be found in the record stores of predominantly immigrant neighborhoods and from 1981 were broadcast on the nascent Radio Beur station. Beyond this, in 1980, the group Raïna Raï formed in Paris. This band played their own distinctive blend of rock Raï, refashioning the classics of their elders with crisp, intricate, guitarwork and a rock drum kit. In a certain respect, they carry on the traditwion of Les Frères Zergui with their instrumentation. However, Raïna Raï is uniquely significant for performing important symbolic work in articulating the hyphenated Franco-Maghrebi identity that had become an urgent concern at this period.

*Musical Excerpt - Raïna Raï - Ya Zina*

During the 1980’s, France and Algeria both witnessed immense outpourings of social energy and collective reflections on national identity. While the unique circumstances of these moments differed, Raï nonetheless would play an important role in both locales. As Algerians agitated against their exclusion and marginalization in both countries, Raï provided them an inclusive medium that embodied and centered their complex identities in opposition to the reductionist and essentialist labels imposed on them.

Algeria was rocked in the first years of the decade by unprecedented wave of widespread social mobilizations. The demographics and demands of the protests were diverse. They included the 1980 Berber Spring, the 1981 female-led protests over the repressive Family Code, and the 1982 circulation of a petition calling for the establishment of shari’a. Respectively, they called for: an end to Arabization; a reconfiguration of the role of the woman; and a prioritization of Islam.  In so doing, these activists challenged the very pillars on which the ‘cultural revolution’ had been based and proffered new conceptions of the Algerian national imaginary. Simultaneously, demands for greater freedoms and reform grew among a population frustrated at the unaccountability and corruption of their regime, the lack of public provision, the rising unemployment, and the worsening housing crisis. This was primarily expressed among Algeria’s first generation as reflected in the student protests of 1980, 1981, and 1982.

Amid this climate of social unrest, the Algerian government finally began to embrace Raï in 1985. That July, Raï was included, for the first time, in the Algiers Youth Festival. The following August, the first ever Raï festival took place in Oran. Liberal elements within the establishment led by Lieutenant Colonel Hocine Snoussi architected this shift in state policy. Snoussi was then Director of the State-Supported Arts and Culture Organization. He explained the move’s rationale in March 1986 -

“Raï, for us, constitutes a podium for this youth that have a need to “break out”... I’d rather see a young person come dance to Raï at Riadh el Feth than loiter in cafés. In addition to that, Raï is in the process of becoming an event of international import. And who’s to say that Raï will not make Algeria better known to the world than its gas?” (Daoudi and Miliani, p.28)

The double-meaning of the phrase “break out” is well-advised. As shown in the examples above, certain actors had gone beyond calling for reform. By challenging the dominant conception of national identity and the premises of the cultural revolution, these actors were indeed breaking the very mold that the Algerian nation had been fitted in since independence. Moreover, youth activists played central roles in each of these movements.

Snoussi’s view on Raï is similarly shrewd. Raï had presented an accessible and compelling subculture that addressed relevant issues in local dialects and with the latest musical stylings. The genre’s remarkable spread among the youth suggested its importance as a vehicle of communal belonging and a platform for exploring alternative conceptions of national identity. To finally embrace it and grant it a venue in the Riad El-Fath, opposite the testament to the War of Independence, in the name of which Raï had thus far been excluded, was a symbolically rich gesture. In a way, the subculture was being legitimized.

Snoussi’s final question betrays his global considerations. Algeria had been known under Boumedienne as a bastion of Third Worldism and Socialism. That was over. Chadli’s regime, as part of a policy of selective liberalization and rebranding, had to be shrouded in a new image. To achieve this, Raï was to be publicized and exported.

France was the first country to import Raï, hosting its first ever Raï festival on January 1986. This project was the brainchild of Colonel Snoussi, the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and the French music producer, Martin Meissonnier. Just as with the Raï festival sanctioned a few mon ths earlier by the FLN, it was motivated by political interests. It was conceived of primarily as an intervention into the urgent battle over the definition of Frenchness that was then fixated on the figure of the immigrant as the perceived outsider within. French society was polarized. On the one hand, xenophobia had been steadily on the rise since the recession of the mid-1970s, stoked by: the scapegoating of the immigrant for the economic downturn; the conception of the immigrant’s race as necessarily trapping them in an unbridgeable foreignness; and a holistic demonization of the culture, language, and character of the immigrant. The most representative instigator of this movement was the National Front which was rapidly gaining in the elections of the mid-80s. On the other hand, this far-right mobilization was matched by a large, but ideologically rigid, anti-racism movement that is best represented by SOS Racisme and Lang’s Socialist Party (PS). This latter group advocated for republican integration and rallied around the droit a difference of their ethnic minorities. Despite their different conclusions, both the FN’s and PS’ ideologies were built on the static reification of the fluid categories of ethnicity and identity. Both premised the distinctness of the Other and in so doing conceptually isolated her from the rest of society. In the case of anti-racism movement, this was implicitly understood as a necessary step towards celebrating diversity and defeating the FN. It was in this vein that Lang and Meissonnier sought to bring Raï to France.  

By then, Raï had already become an important channel for the French Maghrebi population to both form and express their hyphenated identities. Confined to the peripheries of French society, where they were pressured to assimilate while also castigated for their race and ethnicity, they sought to construct what Gross et. all have called  “livable zones” (p.206) - spaces of hybridity that celebrated and legitimized their unique Franco-Maghrebi reality. Raï music, with its spirit of individuality and protest as well as its local language and transnational outlook, had offered an ideal medium for their elaboration. French-born and immigrant artists alike connected their plights to the larger history of Algeria through the language of Raï, which, as Gross et al (1992) observe, became a “chief means of cultural expression for a minority struggling to carve out an identity in a racist environment” (p.13). 

Thus, on January 1986, the first ever Raï festival in France was held in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny. The genre’s biggest stars, such as Remitti, Fadela, and Khaled, attended this 4 day festival. The concert brought Raï out of the “strictly ethnic space” (Gross et al, 2002, p.213) it had hitherto occupied and catapulted it to the forefront of the emerging French World Music Scene. A number of these performers earned deals with international record labels, thereby setting themselves and the genre on a course towards global recognition. 

Thus, the mid-1980s marked the legitimization of Raï by the FLN and the PS. This took the form of sponsoring the first festivals in Algeria and France, respectively. For the former, this move was a way to quell the environment of youthful mobilization and to modify Algeria’s image for the outside world. For the latter, it was a symbolically important interjection into a broader struggle over the symbol of the immigrant as well as the meaning and the borders of French republicanism. While it is difficult to quantify their success esin this respect, these concerts certainly amplified Raï to new audiences and facilitated its absorption into networks of global production and consumption. 

This set in motion a gradual artistic flight with musicians leaving due to the allure of the production and distribution capabilities of Western record labels. The outwards flow grew drastically more abrupt with the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its direct assault on Raï following its victory in the 1989 municipal elections. As DeAngelis convincingly argues, the attack was motivated both by the perception of Raï as anti-Islamic and by the competition that Raï posed for the hearts of the marginalized youth. Indeed, as shown by Schade-Poulsen’s anthropological work, marginalized youth may support the FIS and listen to Raï music without perceiving them to be at tension. The same can be said about Raï singers who draw heavily off of religious repertoires. Indeed Raï’s conflict with the FIS, like its conflict with the FLN, was less ideological than existential. According to Gafaiti, these two conflicts were identical insofar as both antagonists were “[obsessed] with unity, monotheism, be it secular or religious, that by definition cannot bear multiplicity”, and Raï was a vehicle for channeling complex narratives that did not align with these conservative conceptualizations of culture  (p.76). Yet despite their similarities, he concedes that Raï was no longer dealing with a “relatively benign form of censorship” but instead “the most barbaric form of repression” (p.73). 

With their election victory on June 12th 1990, the FIS assumed governance of a number of territories, including Oran. There, the local government cancelled the upcoming annual raï festival of August 1990 and severely curtailed the performance of this genre. The repression turned violent during Ramadan in March 1991. FIS activists attempted to torch one concert and attacked the audience of another. After the government cancelled the second round of the general election in January, this violence on artists, cultural figures, and the population at large, reached tragic levels and the country became consumed by war.

Cheb Hasni would lament in 1992, “We were all on the black list, male or female youth. With this FIS [...] Oran was dying” (Daoudi and MIliani, p.31). He had told Liberation magazine in 1993, “Islamists often come to my house and say to me, ‘you have a beautiful voice, why don’t you come and be a muezzin for us? People love you. If they see you pray they will come and pray too” (Laïreche, 2019). Instead, Hasni sang of love and desperation, of ecstasy and sadness. For this he became known as the Orani Nightingale, the creator of Love Raï, and the Algerian Julio Iglesias. On the 5th of July, 1993, ALgerian Independence Day, he performed to an estimated 150,000 fans in Algiers. He then embarked on a tour of Europe and the USA before returning home to Algeria. In September 1994, Hasni was killed outside his parents’ home in Oran. The GIA took responsibility. To Chebba Zahouania, “They didn't shoot Hasni; they shot the Algerian youth” (DeAngelis, p.293). Virolle echoed this: the attackers understood clearly that “to kill cheb Hasni is to kill the love song” (Wilford, p.48) .

*Musical Excerpt: Cheb Hasni - Matebkich*

In 1980, it was Rachid Baba and his brother Fethi who built the first 8-track recording studio in Algeria. In the 70’s he had formed a rock band with Fethi called Les Vautours, modelled after Hendrix, Santana, and the Sitar maestro Rivar Shankar. The duo would pivot and apply that same adventurous spirit to production. As one journalist reflects, he became “a maker of kings and queens… [who] put into orbit young singers, like Cheb Hamid, Houari Benchenet, Cheb Anouar… and the duo Fadela & Sahraoui” (El Watan, 2015) His work with the later on the 1989 album N’sel Fik became an international hit. He was killed leaving his record store in February 1995.

*Musical Excerpt: Rachid et Fethi – Habit en ich*

An estimated 150,000-200,000 Algerians died in what has come to be known as the Black Decade. Numerous other intellectuals, musicians, and artists were among the victims. Without its own comprehensive study, one can’t address the effect of this decade on artistic production in any meaningful way, yet there is little doubt that its center was dislocated further outside of Algeria’s borders.

By the mid-90s, Raï had already firmly embedded itself within the global World Music genre. In the process, it had undergone important musical shifts that have had lasting effects through to the present day.  As Bentahila and Davies suggest, “while in its origins the boundaries between raï and other North African musical genres were not clear […] at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the boundaries between raï and popular music[…] are becoming less and less clear. Thus it is perhaps no easier to say where rai music begins or ends [in 2002] than it was 30 years ago” (p. 180). Indeed, by the turn of the century, Raï had incorporated elements from rap, reggae, blues, and other genres. It was increasingly produced by foreign record labels for the diluted tastes of global audiences. Since then, this process has only accelerated. However, by maintaining certain linguistic patterns and continuously conversing with its past pre-global repertoire, Raï has carved itself out a distinctive local identity on its global travels.

The genre’s linguistic localization on the global stage is treated in Bentahila and Davis’ seminal study, Language Mixing in Raï. It analyzes a corpus of 150 Raï songs for their patterns of language use. As the authors observe, Raï music is embedded with many of the same patterns of code-switching that people use spontaneously and unconsciously in their daily-lives. This is remarkable as “lyrics lack two crucial properties of the kind of speech where code-switching normally occurs, spontaneity and intimacy” (p.198). Instead, lyrics “constitute discourse which is premeditated, prepared, and edited” with a public audience. As the paper concludes, “in using the types of switch patterns characteristic of conversation, [...] raï performers are clearly situating themselves within their own North African community, in a sense localising their repertoire” (p.202) .

Raï is also further localized in the global age through its musicians’ continued conversation with the genre’s history. Contemporary artists frequently draw from the rich body of work that constitutes Raï as a genre. In adapting existing works, musicians necessarily play with what Briggs and Bauman have termed the “intertextual gap” (Briggs and Bauman 1992:149). If one distills a song to the triad of lyric, melody, and embodiment, then this gap can be conceived of as a three dimensional vector of difference with a magnitude, a direction, and infinite possibilities for their combination. Indeed, in maintaining these strands of continuities Raï musicians have deployed diverse strategies with respect to this gap. This is illustrated in the brief survey that follows. 

Some tracks, such as Khaled’s 2009 Zabana and Faudel’s 2010 Zina, have minimized this distance by maintaining the lyrics, melody, and instrumental embodiment of the original songs to great extents. In doing so, they pay homage to the original works and isolate the singer’s voice as the medium of difference. Moreover, they situate the singer further within the genre and thereby provide greater them authority and legitimacy.

Let’s listen to Zabana: Khaled’s cover of Ahmad Wahby’s eulogy to Ahmed Zabana; the first Algerian guillotine victim of the war of independence -

*Musical Excerpt - Khaled - Zabana*

Others, such as Cheb Aissa’s 2011 Rouhi ya Ouahrane, have maintained the melodies and lyrics of previous works but emphasized stylistic differences in their embodiment. In Aïssa’s rendition of Khaled’s track these differences come in the form of language and instrumentation. Aïssa’s song, performed with Chico & the Gypsies, gave a central role to the Spanish guitar and even included a section sung in Spanish. 

*Musical Excerpt - Cheb Aissa ft. Chico and the Gypsies - Rouhi Ya Ouahrane*

Finally, works, such as Cheb Mami’s 1999 track Bledi and Najim and Kenza Farah’s 2008 Ya Mama, adopt the melodies of previous works but overlay different lyrics and on top of them. This device focuses attention on the lyrics. Mami’s Bledi is a loving ode to Algeria in which the singer praises its cities and laments his departure. The song is a reworking of Mohamed Zerbout’s Chehilet Laayani which is itself a love-song dedicated to a hazel-eyed woman. To show his intentionality in substituting the woman for the motherland, Mami keeps Zerbout’s chorus - it’s so easy to grow close to you but to separate is unbearable. Najim and Kenza’s Ya Mama is a plea against the Harraga, which I have written about here. It warns of both the wretchedness of ghorba (absence) and the dangers of clandestinity while celebrating a staged image of Algeria, revolving around family, food, and beaches. It adopts the melody of Bellemou Messaoud’s Zarga Ou Mesrara. 

*Musical Excerpt - Cheb Mami - Bledi*

*Musical Excerpt - Najim and Kenza Farah - Ya Mama*

Thus, in mimicking the code-switching patterns of intimate and spontaneous conversation as well as frequently reliving and readapting its own pre-global repertoire, Raï music has sought to maintain elements of its local “frame of reference” on the global stage. To what extent this has succeeded requires its own separate study.

In looking back on the history of Raï from its inception onwards, this podcast has hoped to offer an alternate narrative to the reading of Algerian history. Instead of focusing on the domain of formal politics and the reified category of state, party, or insurgent group, this podcast has privileged the sociocultural domain which is characterized more by strands of continuity and connection than of rupture and separation. In tracing Raï specifically, it has unearthed a rich tradition of social transgression and public contestation of self-identity and collective imaginaries that was most pronounced in the bifocal struggle of the 1980’s which opposed Algerian FLN and the French PS alike. Even as Raï was absorbed into global markets of production and consumption, firmly embedded within the category of World Music, it pursued localizing measures to maintain its position as an accessible and rooted Maghrebi genre. To what extent it has succeeded in these localizing efforts, and similarly whether it has indeed “made Algeria more well known to the world than its gas”, require further study. Yet there is no doubt that Raï has charted a symbolically fertile trajectory that deserves celebration and reflection.

*Musical Excerpt - Messaoud + Bouteldja - Shab el Baroud*

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