Music of the Arab World: Rai

In the third of our eight-part series Music of the Arab World, Saeed Saeed gives us the lowdown on the anti-establishment genre, rai.

Raï’s biggest star, Cheb Khaled. Patrick Aventurier / Equus / Getty Images
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In the third of our eight-part series Music of the Arab World, Saeed Saeed gives us the lowdown on the anti-establishment genre, rai.

The origins

Raï's cultural origins stem back to the early 1900s in the western Algerian harbour city of Oran. Chafing against conservative attitudes, young Algerians mixed Arabic poetry and traditional folk music with western flavours, including electric instruments, drum patterns and melodies. The city's coastal location and its proximity to Morocco and Spain (therefore Europe) resulted in the city's very own French, Arab, Jewish and Spanish quarters. Mix each respective community's musical styles with the addition of rugged Bedouin grooves and raï was born, growing to become a regular mainstay of the city's nightlife.

The music

Raï's musical evolution was often based on both the cultural influences in Oran and the growth of musical technology in Algeria. Early raï compositions showcased an eclectic blend featuring gnawa, flamenco and French cabaret. With Egyptian classical music holding sway in the Arab world and North Africa in the 1930s, raï artists began incorporating pianos and accordions.

By the 1970s, which brought advanced recording techniques and easier access to music from Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America, some raï songs adopted reggae riddims as well as synthesizers, electric guitars and drum machines. It was at this stage that the raï-pop and raï-rock subgenres were born, resulting in artists such as the producer Rachid Baba Ahmed, Belkacem Bouteldja and Cheb Khaled, each tasting international success.

The words

With raï meaning "opinion" in Arabic, the singers are no fence-sitters when it comes to lyrics. Similar to the blues or punk, the abused and downtrodden found solace in raï songs, which often speak of escape through protest or sheer hedonism.

Understandably, the genre became the scourge of all sorts of powerful groups, including Algeria's military junta, which feared raï's ability to galvanise the youth, and extremist groups decrying its salaciousness. There were also the Marxists who viewed raï as a form of western cultural imperialism. Raï played a major role in igniting Algerian anti-government protests in the mid-1980s.

Khaled's El Harba Wayn (To Flee, But Where) became a protest anthem in 1988 with lyrics decrying how "the rich gorge themselves, the poor work themselves to death ... you can always cry or complain. Or escape ... but where?" Algeria's government attempted to stifle the genre by banning the importation of blank cassette tapes and concerts, and at one stage confiscating the passports of singers. However, such measures paled in comparison to the dark period of the mid-1990s, when Islamist organisations assassinated the popular raï singers Cheb Hassni, Cheb Aziz, Lounès Matoub and Rachid Baba-Ahmed as part of Algeria's bloody civil war. Performers such as Cheb Mami, Cheba Fadela and Cheb Khaled fled to France and helped keep the genre alive.

The stars

To underscore the youthful energy of raï, most male and female singers are referred to as "cheb" and "chaba" respectively, meaning "youngster".

The singer-songwriter Cheb Khaled, nicknamed the "King of Raï", has been largely responsible for bringing raï to international ears. His 1992 single Didi was a hit in Europe and the Middle East and was on the soundtrack of the Bollywood film Shreeman Aashiq. His 1996 single Aïcha also became a hit and in 1997, Cheb Khaled's song Alech Taadi was added to the soundtrack of the Bruce Willis sci-fi thriller The Fifth Element.

Cheb Mami, an acclaimed raï artist in his own right, truly hit the big time in 1999 courtesy of his star turn on Sting's single Desert Rose. The undoubted "Queen of Raï" is Cheikha Remitti, one of the genre's first enfants terribles in the 1940s. Throughout a 60-year career which saw her rise to fame, be banned and return to international acclaim, Remitti recorded more than 200 songs while reportedly illiterate. She passed away age 83 in 2006 in Paris, only a few days after a concert where she wowed a 4,000-strong audience.

Next week, we will explore Khaleeji music.