From La Chanson Raï
© 2001 Marsa Editions
This article is a multimedial elaboration of extracts from the volume La chanson raï (Paris 1995). Translation from the French by Rachid Aadnani and Michael Toler. Used by permission of the publisher ( Kathala ). Article available online here.
Reprinted here is the text of an article that appears elsewhere on the web accompanied by photographs and sound samples. The article is adapted from Marie Virolle’s book La chanson raï (Kathala, Paris 1995), one of the few book-length studies on this style of music that has so forcefully exploded on the world scene. The article focuses on the origins of Raï in Western Algeria, and on women as performers. The first part of the articles focuses on the social position of women as singers in a relatively conservative social environment; the second part analyzes the lyrics in some detail, documenting the focus on taboo and transgressive topics. The original online article is also accompanied by a supplemental reading list and a discography of Raï recordings.
1. Being a Woman and a Singer
In Maghrebi society a musical vocation, whether for men or for women, is often lived as a transgression. However, the title "singer," or "master" incites respect and is appreciated by the layman, while its feminine counterpart, even for those who appreciate the talent of the ones who bear it, signifies social ostracism and evokes a hellish existence.
In the Algerian west, it is the whole universe of Raï and the sheikhat [female singers of traditional music styles] of Oran and the region south of Oran which makes itself felt. Although it is laden with anathema, and associated with low social status and debauchery by those who are not from Oran, Raï by women is an integral part of the local popular culture and indissociable from specific social rituals. It has existed for nearly half a century, during which particular traditional aspects have gained attention through the national and international success of some cheb and chebbat [title given respectively to male and female Raï singers] of electric Raï.
The Inaccessible ones
Oran, Sidi Bel-Abbes, Mascara, Ghelizane, Ain Temouchent, and Saida are birthplaces, adopted cities, or cultural heritage sites for the sheikhat . A sheikha does not bear her family name; she sheds it upon entering the public domain and crossing the limits of the horma . She is called by a given name, sometimes followed by a nickname and/or the place where she works: Rahma el Abassya (Rahma of Belabas), Hab Lahmeur (the red buttons), Keltoum el Balini, (Keltoum of the Balini [quarter]), Habiba el Kebira (Habiba the elder), Habiba Sghira (Habiba the younger), Rimitti el Ghelizanya (Rimitti of Ghelizane), etc. For the purpose of clarity, 'particles' are added in order not to confuse sheikha Djinya el Kebira el Haqqanya bent Saida (Djinya the elder, the true daughter of Saida) with sheikha Djinya el Mascarya (Djinya of Mascar).
With the exception of Rimitti, the most transgressive and the most famous of them, these artists are never pictured on the jackets of their disks and cassettes. They are replaced by an alluring image, always new, of a model from a magazine or a "kitsch" post card: bait for erotic dreams or the last bastion of respectability? When they appear in person they are often veiled in muslin. They arrive out of nowhere and leave again into the night, surrounded by "their men": the "crier" and those who play the gellal and the flute. It is not unusual for a sheikha to be the wife or mistress of one of these artists. Inaccessible.
Thus the myth of their presumably tumultuous lives, their hardships and their incessant flirtations with marginality is created and reproduced by word of mouth and enhanced by rumors and fantasy: divorce, legal difficulties, bloody fights at parties, police raids on the private homes where they perform, accusations of prostitution in the places they frequent, and the imprisonment of certain friends.
All these episodes appear as elusive traces in the songs. Everyone can find in them something that can be related to one's own distress and, under the paroxysm, to tendencies in daily life.
The world of the meddahat [female singers in honor of the Prophet and the Saints] is less turbulent. The fact that they sing in the feminine milieu shields them from certain charges. But this job, occupied only by women most often without husbands or male protectors, does not allow for the cultural recognition that would protect them from obscurity. Their earnings, concentrated around the season of marriages and the evenings of Ramadan, are precarious. Moreover, competition between and inside groups is intense. The financial obligations and psychological pressures on the meallma, the group's leader, are often very strong.
The miseries of life
It is a world of violence, precariousness, marginality, and for most a perpetuation under different guise of the miseries endured during childhood. It is an insufficient response to the need to find a place in a society that is hard on helpless women, or those who have "cold shoulders" 1 as they are described in songs. With respect to the anonymity to which these women are so attached, let us consider some of the lives of these rejected and marginalized women who nonetheless dream as much as any others of respectability. All of them express the desire to go on the redeeming pilgrimage to Mecca, to marry well, to establish themselves, and to forget the past.
One singer was born into a very poor family. Her handicapped father drove a cart "that transported other people's goods." When he died her mother remarried and it was hell for the orphan. She left the house at the age of eighteen and found herself pregnant and unmarried. She met a singer who adopted her child, and she entered the world of arts, singing at weddings and in cabarets. She divorced and married a berrah by whom she had four children; they still sing together.
Another singer is the daughter of a prostitute and grew up in a world where only the resourceful can survive. She experienced great poverty that forced them "to search for something to eat or a place to sleep." She has a lovely voice and met some people who brought her to sing at the age of sixteen.
Yet another singer, who was married to a man who was "very harsh and violent," was cloistered by him and swore that when he died she would "sing in front of men." Widowed with two young daughters to support, she began to sing to survive and never remarried.
One was a shepherdess. Orphaned very young, she wandered the roads and streets, sleeping "in otherpeople's places." She was noticed for her singing at a business party, began her career, married a flutist and had six children by him. During this time she continued to sing because she wanted to do so.
Another sheikhat from a poor family was widowed at the age of twenty. Her father had also just died. Without hope and with a son who was still a baby, she began to sing in an ensemble of meddahat . She then met a flutist and set off with him on a career as a sheikhat . She never remarried.
In these biographies the need to survive and a love of music are intertwined. They tell of the establishment of artistic couples, (the most famous of which is that of Cheba Fadéla and Cheb Sahraoui, who sing in a duo and separate from their young son as seldom as possible), and the lives of mothers who try to strike a balance in their lives on the road. Perhaps in order to find what attracts these singers to a situation that weighs so heavily on them, we must look at some of the finer aspects of this art.
Practicing an art
The Raï of the sheikhat is a song created for libations on hot summer nights under the stars in the countryside around Oran. Leaning against the surrounding wall of a farm where a wedding night is consummated, the singer, accompanied by her musicians and "crier," tortures a microphone with her "jazzy" voice. A generator hums, bulbs sparkle, and gunpowder explodes in bouquets of sparks toward the sky. The men in the family, and neighborhood as well as young and elderly friends, arrive in cars, on motorcycles and tractors. They stretch out on the still warm earth under the arch of the sky while the alcohol flows through their veins along with the lamentations, love, pain and nostalgia. A bottle circulates, filled with the sap of the earth that their sweat has watered. Words are uttered, carrying heart-felt thoughts from tormented lives. Dedications are made: friendly, comic, aggressive, allusive, affirming and reforming alliances. Banknotes are exchanged and put forward in request of songs, reaffirming intentions, materializing the surrounding prosperity, as well as distinguishing and then reformulating the individual and the group.
The plaintiff song is, thus, a work of complicity and an intimate ritual: each yraima is a sort of welcoming family for the singer who pours out her Raï rocking that of the others to sleep.
In the women's gatherings animated by the meddahat, the passive nonchalance of the assembled drinkers is replaced with a frenzy: the women become intoxicated with dance, stimulate themselves with tea and coffee, and shake to the rhythm of the three percussion instruments of the orchestra ( gellal, obaya, and ar ).
The cosmic half-light which shelters the men is replaced by the sparkling of the fabrics and jewelry in a covered, well-delineated space through which the women move about.
But even in the midst of the most feminine ritual, what the singer carries in her trail is a trace of masculinity. This is, in part, owing to the fact that everyone knows that she associates with men in her work. More symbolically, however, and more profoundly, it is based on the androgynous side of her personality.
As we have seen, a sheikha no longer bears her family's name, so symbolically she no longer belongs as a woman to the patrilineage before which she would n
ormally be held accountable both for her actions and gestures. As we have seen, she is known by her stage name, which is frequently that of an adopted place or a nickname. Her past is almost always marked by an episode in which she finds herself as a "nameless woman". Because of this, she moves about like a man. Her spatial idiom is that of a man. Like men, a sheikha smokes and drinks alcohol, and can whistle with her fingers to call on any man. A sheikha (it is also true of prostitutes, as the collective imagination more or less mixes singer and prostitute, or at least singer and "liberated woman.") cultivates the type of physical behavior prohibited in the bodily education of women and in principle the prerogative of men. She can easily spread her arms away from her body, keep her legs apart, stretch out her chest, and walk with big strides. During her performances Rimitti likes to parody a soldier's salute in the most masculine manner possible.
These gestures and postures are not only unfeminine, they emphatically mimic masculinity and male dominance. The male proxemic code is the almost complete appropriation of the body language through which men often express their superiority, and which enables them to occupy a larger space than that of women. It does not require hiding a body that must normally be made discrete; instead it displays a body that is imposing and impressive.
Some sheikhat go so far as to transgress taboos regarding the use of musical instruments. As a rule, in the Oran region - and in the Maghreb in general - women could only use percussion and given string instruments. But Raï women singers do at times touch the flute, regarded as the masculine instrument.
Finally, the lyrics of the sheikhat's songs are of the kind that no woman can pronounce in public, especially in front of a male audience. As we shall see, just like men they sing of love, including physical love, adultery, or even casual sex; they sing of the pleasures of alcohol and soirées in which the men and women mix. These themes intertwine with laments and religious evocations, which are more in tune with the usual register of feminine songs. The combination of sacred and profane and of masculine and feminine discourses is even more fascinating as it is juxtaposed without transition as a textual patchwork. Transgressively, the sheikhat's singing unites the most feminist aspirations: it does so by overturning hierarchies and sexual protocols in expressing women's desire for men - a desire hardly present in the Maghrebi oral tradition. They have invented the blazons of the masculine body and an egalitarian eroticism.
2. The Discourse of Feminine Raï
Out of an extensive body of exclusively feminine work of over 1500 verses, I have distilled the recurring themes of songs as they relate to the characteristics of female emotional life as seen by the sheikhat : complaints, answers, and counter-proposals. It is a makeshift structure around the norm, between values of the past, importation of a present coming from elsewhere, and the invention of a new self caught between pain and pleasure, threnody and libertinism, masochist morbidity and conquering vitality.
The complaint, the lament
The nucleus of the female song is the complaint, or the exhalation of pain. In these terms, this most common theme in this type of poetry is the heir of all Maghrebi verse, which is a poetics of love, absence, and upheaval. However, tradition finds itself pushed aside by the nakedness of expression and all that is said about the physical sensation of pain.
Suffering is expressed mostly through the mode of physical burning and crumbling:
"Me, my heart is consumed and burned and it cooks on the embers." (Rimitti)
"O, my limbs come undone!" (Fedéla/ Saharaoui)
"Love is a worm, it lives in bones." (Fedéla/ Saharaoui)
"I have turned black, I am withering and despair has taken hold of me." (Zahwaniya)
The specificity of the Raï lament also comes from the relationship - through contiguity - between the pain of love, social injustice and the domination of women illustrated in the texts:
"They have suffocated me [this is said of a girl who is not allowed to go out], they have wronged me, they have hurt me, they have accused me." (Habiba el Kebira)
"They told me: Swim! and I didn't know how to swim" (Rimitti)
"Oh the mother of an only son; she dies of thirst on the roads [It is not a sufficient support]
Oh she has only one thing to sustain her, I must help her!" (Rimitti)
The man is usually represented as a selfish creature, a manipulator:
"Me, my burning is unique, he, he will grow feathers." (Zahwania)
"So sincere I am with him, yet he cheats on me!" (Zahwaniya)
Social injustice often takes the shape of malicious gossip. Passages that center around "what have they not gossiped about?" are countless.
A remedy is sometimes suggested: indifference. One must resist and respond through contempt:
"All those who gossip do not wound me, it is like
the wind on the mountain." (Rimitti)
However, there is a great helplessness in front of bad fate and ill luck. Marine images emerge to illustrate negative fatality:
"God of the two worlds, where is my luck?
My luck is lost, a fish ate it in the sea." (Rimitti)
Confronted with hardships and injustice, one's initial attitude is to go back to ideological norms:
"A woman who is without a man, it is sure that she would be held in contempt." (Zahwaniya)
Another concomitant attitude manifests itself in the desire to reactivate traditional solidarity:
"I wanted to build ties [outside the family] and
I realized they were enemies"; following is a cry:
" Poor me, bring me my father!" (Djiniya el Kebira)
The same singer cries elsewhere:
"They saw my shoulder going down, they crushed me";
She adds in the same song:
"My shoulders are cold, I have no support, I am
alone and unhappy";
Finally, the same cry comes:
"I want to see my father!" (Djiniya el Kebira)
Another response, reserved to traitors in love, is to resort to old and popular religious practices (magic, the culture of saints):
"I am going to visit Sidi Khaled and he will give me justice." (Djiniya el Kebira)
"I will take my love to the Wali (saint) for him to be judged." (Zahwaniya)
In parallel with these appeals to the past and to ancestral norms, there is an exploration of the limits of moral transgression, following the model of the adulteress who is generally made to feel guilty. However, the expression of guilt is not the most important element: the space of the song gives access to a fantastical pleasure through the expression of transgression. The stronger the enunciation of the transgression is, the greater this kind of pleasure is for the listener who projects himself into the transgression pronounced:
"My love has children, it is sinning for me to take him." (Zahwaniya)
"Oh, he who is married, why have I become a regular (physically involved) to him?" (Rimitti)
"Oh Habit! My love has made us accustomed to the black market (illicit love)." (Zahwaniya)
The tainting of women by men is expressed in song through the metaphor of "habits," a euphemistic word designating what may be sexual habits, drinking, or various social perversions.
"He has bad habits and he is debasing mine." (Rimitti)
Women may be the more or less consenting victims of corruption by a lover:
"My love, the road is long, where are you taking me?" (Zahwaniya)
"My love whips me and my enemies watch; all that he has done to me God will make him pay for!" (Zahwaniya)
Sometimes the situation is even worse, when feelings are not a factor and only male force enters into play. Here, as well, one must not neglect the fantastic dimension directed to a male audience. The restraints imposed on women can be expressed in an erotic image:
"They have closed all the doors to me and made me drink four ricards." (Zahwaniya)
It is possible for the victim to effect a justification-vengeance by rejecting the responsibility placing it on the man:
"By God who watches me, my love, my sins will follow you!" (Zahwaniya)
In other instances, free choice and the emergence of a willful individuality accompanied by an unhappy conscience are clearly manifest in the expression of responsibility:
"Everything that has happened to me I asked for, I wanted suffering and I suffer." (Zahwaniya)
The singer might even profess the conviction that her deviant behavior is symptomatic of an epoch and a troubled life.
"I change, I renounce, I betray, I blend." (Hab Lahmeur)
Much of this misfortune and moral discomfort finds solace in alcohol, which allows it to be forgotten:
"Let me drink so that I relieve myself of my lucidity.
What is better for taking away traces than 'that which erases' [wine]?" [Rimitti]
However, drinking may also bring on other sufferings. The praise of wine is one of the classic themes of Arab poetry, yet what makes Raï songs on this theme original is a key-notion of its over-semanticized ideology: elmehna . If one looks it up in the dictionary (Beuassier 1958: 921), the verbal-radical means: "to cause to die by drinking, to make drunk, to cause to die, to fill up". The first meaning of the substantive elmehna relates to this idea; it refers to a "drinking session", or a "drinking spree". However, two other meanings by extension are mentioned: on the one hand, it signifies "ordeals", "torments"; on the other hand, it is one of the words that may designate the beloved, the object of desire and love torment.
A Raï text brings together and associates a multitude of sorrowful evocations of despairing complacency on the state of those on "drinking sprees" and the mehna .
"Oh you who get drunk and live in the torment of
drinking sprees, death is best for you!" (Rimitti)
"These are people of the mehna
They have destroyed their lives." (Rimitti)
"Oh path of torments! The path of torments takes me away
and the other [path] brings me back! O path of torments!" (Rimitti)
"Leave me in this drinking spree, I have seen the world down here
and beyond!" (Fadéla)
In Raï, there are many interjections of sacrificial compassion such as "too bad for me, but not for my lover". A more elaborate version is:
"Oh Raï, I am burning your heart with one fire, but my own with two." (Fadéla)
However, a rebellious roughness sometimes emerges:
"Oh those who do not sympathize with my mehna, I wish them my fire!" (Rimitti)
During the unfoldment of the long complaint on injustices inflicted by society - the ravages of love, the tortures that they are subjected to by men, suffering and guilt, and the torments of the mehna - an entirely different discourse is developed. This is a discourse of a certain hedonism and a vital expression of individuality, in accordance with the already mentioned principle of composition: paratactical contiguity.
Defense and illustration of the pleasure principle
While the Raï of complaint, of a conscience ill at ease, supports itself on a moralist discourse (i.e. religious, referring to the norms of the past), a concurrent text rises in the course of the laments: amoral and not requiring justification, it incites to transgression, and praises free and egalitarian physical love, alcohol, and the pleasures experienced by an assembly of drinkers. The contradiction between the two does not disturb neither the singer nor the listener. Indeed, Raï has never hesitated to juxtapose calls to God, the Prophet, and the Saints with the evocation of practices unequivocally condemned by religion, turning this very dissonance into one of the characteristics of its contents. In fact, the sulfurous aura surrounding Raï arises from this intimate mixture of incompatible ideologies, much more than from the rather crude nature of its lyrics. Another mixture causes the atypical effect of the spaces where Raï songs evolve. The forbidden comes through the autonomization of spaces; transgression is based, in part, on the blurring of female and male spaces, and public and private spaces.
The fact that women express their desire in a straightforward manner is still particularly subversive: they discuss the male body and deliver erotic inventories, praising female freedom and mixed Epicureanism. Unapologetically and in spite of the ceaseless affirmation of the existential impasse faced by unhappy beings, they briefly seize their right to proffer a counter- discourse in an area relegated to the emotions in the confines of popular culture.
The provocative tone may be light and the subject matter seemingly insignificant; however, it is in fact crucial. Sometimes humor also becomes part of it:
"The Zastava [imported car that was popular about a decade ago; in other versions, or other songs, it would be another brand name], take it and give me its driver." (Zahwaniya)
Elsewhere a more caustic irony is used:
"I would like to ask the scholars if the act of kissing
breaks the fast in the season of abstention."
Then in the same song:
"Oh my beloved, watching you is a sin, it is you who made me break my fast!/ Oh the lover, watching you is a sin, it is you who made me 'eat' Ramadan! I asked the scholars; they told me: "It is God who curses Satan!" (Rimitti)
But the provocation can be made more direct:
"Break the fast, young girl,
I will bear the resulting sin for you." (Rimitti)
The female singer sets herself as the scapegoat of feminine transgressions, the redeemer of women sinners, but also as the mender of rips in morality as we have seen in an earlier section.
"Tear and cut and Rimitti will mend!" (Some saw in this a metaphor of virginity). (Rimitti)
Men can take the initiative and have the power to make sexual decisions, but so can women. Thus the man becomes an object of desire out of which a physical ideal is drawn.
"Oh mustache of a tiger and look of a lion! Yes, and it suits him, as does the birthmark under the mustache." (Rimitti)
"My love has a long neck and a big chest." (Zahwaniya)
"My love is nicely proportioned and has gold teeth." (Rimitti - ana nebghih ) [Rimitti belongs to a generation in which gold dentures were valued for men as well as women; I have not heard this aesthetic criteria in the songs of younger singers]
"He is big and it suits him; he is well proportioned." (Zahwaniya)
"The one I love is short and cute, in my heart he has quivered." [Can we interpret a more erotic allusion here?] (Rimitti)
The singing is an enticement to union with this physically imposing man.
"I thought that kisses would make me patient, but they only increased (my desire). As I die for him (I love him)." (Rimitti)
"My love will come to the house and we will make (love) night and day." (Zahwaniya)
Sometimes the eroticism is more torrid.
"Sleeping alone has numbed my sides, warm me and cover me!" (Rimitti)
"He rubbed my back and I gave him everything." (Rimitti)
It may be expressed in metaphor.
"Let him play on the rearing horse." (Fadéla)
"Oh mama, a sharpened stake, torment and love make me crazy!
A sharpened stake and passion make me crazy!" (Rimitti)
An expression of reciprocal value summarizes the successful, egalitarian relation. It must be understood in the sexual sense.
"I take my love, he does to me what I want." (Zahwaniya)
"I do to him what he wants done." (Zahwaniya)
Libertinage is accompanied by a joyous and free conception of life. These free individuals form nice handsome assemblies.
"What is best is the gathering of friends in intimacy and savoir-faire!" (Rimitti)
These pleasures are associated with alcohol:
"Call on Malik, for he brings the iced (beer)!" (Zahwaniya)
"Let the glass reach me. To share a glass is good!" (Rimitti)
It may even be the highest pleasure.
"Ah, how nice a good binge of whisky drinking is?" (Djinya el Kebira)
This praise song for drinking can go very far, as in Rimitti's song:
"People adore God, but I beer";
Rimitti fears nothing. As we have seen, she bears an overflowing vitality and a deep sense of revolution.
"Me, me, why do you smother me? I can accept anything, but not suffocation"; and later, in the same song, "Patience, [a virtue extolled in women and by women, in the way of accepting their condition] makes me crazy." (Rimitti)
A pillar of Raï for fifty years, she has, as we have seen, managed her singing career highlighting aspects of her private life which would give grounds to harsh judgment and rigid stands; she has thus become the living emblem of the emotional themes of Raï.
However, one must look elsewhere for a sort of general manifesto of the type of female individuality which triumphs in Raï. This is evident, for instance, in the text matsalunis "don't ask me to account (for myself)", interpreted by Zahwaniya, which has seen several years of great success and from which I have already provided a large extract,
"Don't ask me anything, let me cry on my Raï!
Don't ask me anything, let me do what I want!"
Functions of discourse and counter-discourse
This brief excursion - through the privileged lens of feminine expression - into the sheikhat's texts provides a glimpse of the rather transgressive discourse and counter-discourse emerging in parallel with the more or less coherent dominant social dialect. It is clear that, under an apparently contradictory structure of enunciations, a system that calls for a dynamic reading of the songs can be ascertained. It is articulated in several modules, which consist of bipolar and multipolar relations.
At the center of the utterance there is a complaint which constitutes its core. It is the lucid and unhappy report of a malaise attributable to various factors: destiny, social injustice, malicious gossip and the dominance of men over women at one level; at another level - which in itself is a consequence of the first, or a failed attempt at compensation - unhappy love, transgression lived with difficulty, or the torments of alcohol and evening parties.
Attempts at a partial response are woven around these complaints: on one hand there are makeshift repairs in the frame of ancient norms, searching for traditional solidarities, and resorting to the sacred; on the other we find the withdrawal of the limits of custom, indifference toward what is said, and the solidarity of the marginalized amongst themselves.
A counter-discourse, based on hedonism (eroticism, alcohol, gathering of friends), the egalitarian affirmation of desire and decisions in love, and an invitation to transgress, is elaborated beyond these limited responses. This counter-discourse is almost entirely concerned with love and alcohol, and poses only a vague revolt in opposition to the social elements which make up the first level of the complaint: destiny, and social injustice. It is not understood as an ideal for society or a project for the transformation of society. Rather, it is symptomatic of the emergence of certain ideologies: that of individual liberty - from which the frequent use of ana (me) and of the verbs "to want" and "to desire" emerges -, and that of pleasure - free love, access to alcohol and freedom of movement.
This fragile pole of resistance and counter-propositions in the face of sexual segregation and the interdiction of certain behaviors - all the more fragile in that it has a tendency to refer to an existential ghetto, "the people of the mehna ", and its sub-culture - is shored up by force of affirmation of a vitality that has now found massive mass-mediated expression.
The profusion of this vital impetus may influence the work "from the inside" on the images created by the listeners themselves, who are caught between different models of identification and subject to exogenous ideological pressures of western origin (images of "liberation" through material consumption, images of the petite-bourgeois couple). Beyond the traditional function of the love songs and complaints - mirror of freely admitted social unhappiness and impasse - would it be possible to create a communication between the now diversified aspirations of "ordinary" women, and the "flowers of evil" - a sort of ambiguous message - of these extraordinary, "deviant" women known as sheikhat?