by Gabriele Marranci

[Note: The following excerpt is a section from my longer work, archived online, called “A Complex Identity and Its Musical Representation: Beurs and Raï Music in Paris.” Here I will briefly point to the principal stages of raï transformation during its history. It is important to underline that this is only a brief sketch of raï’s musical transculturation stages. In reality they cannot be divided in such a definite way since they sometimes developed side by side.]

The Origin of Raï Music

Raï music stemmed from the relationship between the urban culture of Oran and the rural culture of the surrounding countryside (Virolle 1995). Internal rural emigration towards the coastal towns was the external factor which allowed the meeting of the bédui country singing style and the more urbanized zéndani. The singers in this new style were called cheik (master) for men and cheikha for women. They sang together with Jewish players, experts in the Arab–Andalusian style, in the Arab-cafés. The common repetition in their texts of the expression ya-rayi (my thought) brought some people to define this style as raï.

From Colonialism to Independence

Colonialism made more cultural contacts easier. Many cheikh and cheikha sang in cafés for the French troops. Cheikha Rimitti was one of these singers. In these places the radios often played Egyptian music but also French music. The experience of the two world wars also put some singers in contact with American music. All these cultural contacts influenced raï, which responded by showing a certain degree of rebelliousness against colonialism but also against Algerian social rules. At this time raï songs seemed to ask more for social change than revolution. In fact, in 1954 one of Rimitti’s most famous songs was Charrag gataâ (tear, lacerate) in which the singer urged girls to break the taboo of virginity.

At the same time Houari Blaoui looked for new musical possibilities using for the first time rhythms coming from American music such as foxtrot, bebop, and boogie-woogie. From this time there were different styles of raï music and there were different sound groups identified with one style or another.

From Bars to Marriage Parties

During the 1950s Algerian people considered raï as a music for disreputable places such as bars, cafés located near Oran’s port, and even brothels. But the maddahat, groups of women singers that liven up the marriage parties, started to use raï as part of their repertoire (which was mainly religious). This was possible because during these parties moral rules are less rigid (Virolle 1995). As a consequence, the image of raï music and its audience improved at the social level, because marriage parties have a special status in Algerian society. Moreover, other young singers saw the possibility of making some money by performing raï during these parties, as the maddahat did. The most famous of these young singers was the future Cheb Khaled.

Pop-raï

Messaoud Bellemou coined the term pop-raï in 1974. He was the first trumpeter to accompany a raï singer, Bouteldja. The definition pop-raï was needed to indicate that the new style dealt with jazz, rock and Afro-American rhythms. The introduction of electronic keyboards characterized the sound of this style and allowed the singer to play alone, so many young people decided to attempt a career as a singer. They were called cheb in contraposition to the cheikh and their old style. The texts of pop-raï dealt with love, in particular forbidden loves, sadness, alcohol, etc. The soundtracks of Egyptian, American and Indian films had a heavy influence upon this new generation of singers.

Raï-love

During the 80s raï music was at the top of its success and popularity. In order to increase their customers the raï producers asked raï singers to avoid harsh words and expressions. Cheb Hasni was the most famous singer of this style whose texts spoke in particular of love and France. So it was named raï-love. This music is a point of contact between the Algerian and French coasts because Algerian immigrants, especially women, greatly enoy this style.

Raï made in France

In the same period many raï singers emigrated to France. In Algeria they were scared by terrorism, but they were also looking for new places to sing. In 1986 the concert in Bobigny (Paris) made the contact between these raï singers and the French and international record companies easier. Khaled, Mami, Fadéla, Zahouania and others began working for the most important major company. Contact with the musical market has transformed raï music so much that now one speaks of French-raï. This genre is not very appreciated in Algeria, but in the same time sales in the world music category show a relevant market success.

Raï-beur

Beurs developed a certain interest for raï music after the Bobigny concert because for many beurs this concert was their first direct contact with raï music. Raï music was meant as the most rebellious and transgressive expression of the Algerian cultural heritage, and at the same time it was easily modifiable according to the beurs’ need for a musical identity. Some of them had played and sung other musical styles such as rap, jazz and rock, which, reinterpreted and mixed with raï music, produced a new and peculiar raï. Cheb Khader was probably one of the first raï-beur singers, but in a short time other singers became known (Seba, Swat el Atlas, Chabab artistes, Groupe Hami, Rani, etc.). Today the most successful singer is Faudel. The raï-beur takes again many characteristics of Algerian raï but with a strong and personal elaboration. For example, some of the texts for Faudel’s songs come from the maddahat tradition, and he has chosen to use the appellative cheb, but the music and rhythms are very westernized and sometimes there are some stereotyped Arabic musical elements derived from a western standard image of Arabic, Egyptian, music.