This article, influenced by an essay by Louis Werner begins with a very brief discussion of the development of “World Music” as a genre, then moves on to survey the phenomenon of Rai music which originated in Algeria.
This article is adapted from a 1999 essay from Aramco World magazine on Arab pop music’s global appeal.. Louis Werner begins with a very brief discussion of the development of “World Music” as a genre, then moves on to survey the phenomenon of Rai genre which originated in Algeria. Other entries in the Culture section consider other musical styles and artists in the greater Middle East. Arabic pop music and hip hop have gained prominence and influence since the 2000s. To learn more about the development of Raï music, some resources are listed at the end of the article. Video and audio samples of the songs and artists are also included.
Arab Pop on the World Stage by Louis Werner
From ARAMCO World March/April 1999
© 1999 ARAMCO World
Since the mid-1980s, world music has gone from an exotic, marginal business to the big bucks of mainstream niche marketing. The recording industry added it as a Grammy Awards category in 1992, and the proliferation of social media has enabled the spread of musical trends beyond national borders and regions. Throughout the West, world music programs have become staples of public radio stations.
Richard Gehr of New York’s Village Voice is one of the critics who think that within the world music genre Arab music is notably up-and-coming. In that sense, Arab music is the latest link in a chain of musical trends that since the 1950s have crossed borders and oceans to increasingly enthusiastic receptions among western listeners.
Stanley Rashid, owner of Rashid Sales Co., a Brooklyn Arab-music distributorship founded by his father in 1934, says he sees steadily increasing demand from non-Arab listeners for pop music from the Arab world. “I’m constantly getting calls from night clubs all over the country asking for the latest Amr Diab album,” he says, referring to the hot Egyptian singer. “Americans are at last realizing they can dance to this stuff.”
To explore Arab sounds in the world music scene, sampling can be simplified by keeping in mind four informal — but often blurred — categories: “Pop” is where often youth-oriented styles from throughout the Arab world blend traditional sounds with elements of tastes first established in the West; what might be called “crossover” is a fusion most commonly involving Arab musicians and western recording producers; “folk” is often a more localized sound, well-rooted in tradition, usually less heavily produced and made for listening rather than dancing, and finally one might call “arabesque” the inventions of western musicians who appropriate and reinterpret Arab styles and musicianship.
Today, the most familiar Arab pop style in the West is Raï (the word literally means “opinion”, but the genre applies a more figurative meaning), which by the late 1980s had grabbed young Maghrebi (northwest Africa) club-goers in much the same way rock-and-roll hooked teenagers in the 1950s. Although Algerian in its origins, Raï spread quickly across the Arab world to North African immigrants in Europe and on to non-Arab audiences beyond. Its combination of up-tempo exuberance and gritty verité touched young audiences at their core. Khaled, an Algerian singer who has given the music its most electrifying shot, says, “In Raï, you sing your true feelings. The lyrics come straight from your life, from your heart. It’s about real life, not life as it’s supposed to be.” That wasn’t what pulled the non-Arabic-speaking West to Raï — it was the explosive dance beats that feel at home in clubs anywhere in the world.
The roots of Raï actually predate its international popularity by nearly 50 years: It developed largely in sailor hangouts in the Algerian port city of Oran. There, lyric singers like Chaikha Rimitti and Chaikh Hamada earned their honorifics (shaykh/chaik and shaykha/chaikha are the male and female words for “leader”) and melded Spanish, Egyptian, and Oran’s own urban sounds with rural Algerian elements to create a genre with both commercial and artistic appeal. In the early 1970s, Raï became more youth-oriented, and the singers began to be known as cheba and cheb (“kid”), which helped them cultivate a rebellious, generation-specific image.
Instrumentally, it was in the 1950s that electric guitars, trumpets, and organs joined the band, raising the traditional Algerian string orchestra’s volume through the nightclub roof. Then western rock-and-roll arrived, and the Tlemcen-born brothers Rachid and Fethi Baba Ahmed, early veterans of western rock bands, galvanized Raï with synthesizers, drum machines, and fresh lyrics that by the late 1970s had put the form on the road to global popularity.
Rachid and Fethi Baba Ahmed
“Pop-raï,” as the electric style is called, has since spawned its own stars. Oran-born Khaled, known as the “King of Raï,” continues to rule Raï‘s roost. Since his first hit at age 16, Khaled has both charmed and challenged Arab audiences and trendy clubgoers worldwide. In 1991 he teamed up with Los Angeles producer Don Was to bring out Khaled, an album full of the headlong happiness that is his signature style. On subsequent recordings, such as 1997 Sahra and 1999’s Kenza, named for his daughter, Khaled has delivered a lively mix of new songs and fresh treatments of traditional Raï standards.
Aicha (1996) – https://youtu.be/i3_N8OPw8mQ – This French-Algerian Arabic song was subsequently covered/remade in several languages, including an English version that reached the top of several music charts in Europe, by Danish hip hop band, Outlandish.
Abdel Kader (1998) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOzeDELrIZI
Hiya Hiya ft. Pitbull (2012)– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKmKABlgprM
C’est la Vie (2012) – This song shares characteristics, styles, and sounds commonly used in Latin and Carribean as well as Afro-pop musical traditions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7rhMqTQ4WI
Born in Saida, Algerian, Cheb Mami was known early in his career as the “Prince of Rai”. He has taken the genre farthest from its North African roots. He has mixed Raï and rap, made extensive use of special effects and vocal sampling, and recently came to the attention of mainstream pop in his 1999 duet with Sting, “Desert Rose.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3lWwBslWqg
Raï continues to find favor with a new generation of artists and audience members. Faudel, a rising young star born in France but whose family hails from Tlemcen, exemplifies Raï’s cross-cultural resiliency, and his winning personality and success on the European charts lead many observers to tap him as the future of Raï on the continent. Still, the husky-voiced Cheba Zahouania and local Oran favorite Houari Ben-chenat, both of whom first came to prominence in the early 1980s, prove that veterans of the Raï scene have considerable staying power, and that you need not be in your teens or 20s to sing up-to-the-minute lyrics.
Although not strictly a Raï artist, Rachid Taha is another Algerian singer with a strong presence in the world music record bins. The 1999 live recording 1, 2, 3 Soleils, which grouped Taha with Khaled and Faudel, racked up tremendous sales in the Arab world and beyond, while his remake of “Ya Rayah,” first recorded nearly a half-century ago by legendary Algiers artist, Dahmane El Harrachi — who has exerted a considerable influence on Rachid Taha’s vocal style — is heard regularly on radio and TV stations from Rabat to Riyadh. Here, Raï icons Cheb Khaled and Faudel join with Taha to perform a live, collaborative version Khaled’s song “Abdel Kader” from the 1993 album, N’ssi N’ssi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oSCF8Bl-ys.
The Raï genre continues to evolve and influence, and be influenced by, a world that has grown more accessible through social media and migration. Cross-over hits melding different styles and genres show how permeable the flow of culture has become. This progression is hopefully also a sign that cross-cultural curiosity and understanding are becoming more prevalent. Stay tuned for more glimpses into music, the universal language, from the Middle East.
It is worth mentioning the Franco-Arab relationship and its connection to cultural expression. With the capture of Algiers in 1830, France controlled a large amount of territory in North Africa until the 1950s and 60s when Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria achieved their independence after prolonged struggles. French is commonly spoken in all three countries and the colonial legacy is easily observed to this day. Like the colonized across the world, many North Africans have migrated to France in search of greater opportunities. French-born descendents of North African immigrants to France are referred to in colloquial French as Beurs.
Over time, the immigrant community has developed its own identity in contemporary French society. Second and third generation immigrants of North African origin have experienced their own particular challenges as they straddle two separate cultures, and reconnecting with one’s ancestral homeland has produced a hybrid identity that draws from each country’s traditions. Often on the fringes of French society, North African immigrant populations have endured racism and economic hardship. Music has been a successful means to celebrate and honor their connections to Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco. For native North African artists, having the national link to France with its sizable population of formerly colonized countries, there is a strong market for music styles reminiscent of home. An exploration of the development and expansion of Raï music beyond the borders of the North African states is an engaging and interactive way to understand the intersections of history, transnational relations, and the dissemination of cultural traditions.
Additional resources on Raï music and culture:
North African `Beurs’ change the face of France. Arab art, music, and politics make their way into French mainstream by William Echikson, Special to The Christian Science Monitor, NOVEMBER 27, 1985. Though written 30 years ago, this is a valuable look at the diffusion of different cultures among French citizens of North African origin.
Rai rebel , from the Detroit Metro Times is a profile of legend, Cheb Mami
Some Myths and Misconceptions about Rai Music by renowned ethnomusicologist and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas, Ted Swedenburg
Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook by Walid El Hamasy (Editor), Mounira Soliman (Editor), 2012. This book explores the body and the production process of popular culture in, and on, the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey, and Iran in the first decade of the 21st century, and up to the current historical moment. Essays consider gender, racial, political, and cultural issues in film, cartoons, music, dance, photo-tattoos, graphic novels, fiction, and advertisements.
ISBN-13: 978-0415509725 ISBN-10: 0415509726