Raï

It’s no coincidence that a style as rebellious and eclectic as Raï emerged in Oran, a vibrant port city in northwestern Algeria where Arab, Berber, Jewish, and European culture has mixed for centuries. In classic port-city style, Oran was known for its debaucherous nightlife, for the nightclubs and bordellos where the strict rules that governed the rest of Algerian society were left at the door. It would have been impossible in the 1920s to see Muslim women performing for men in any other part of Algeria, for example. Rather than recite classical Arabic poetry, the cheikhas sang about the harsh realities of everyday life using crude and sometimes vulgar language, accompanied by drums and reed flutes. 

The cheikhas usually improvised their lyrics, but always included their — often controversial — opinions on a current matter, or a piece of advice to the younger generations. The style of music became known as Raï, meaning “opinion” or “advice” in Arabic, and quickly became popular among Algeria’s working classes for its mix of irreverent vocals, Berber rhythms, flamenco, French cabaret, and gnawa. One of Raï’s earliest — and most enduring — stars was Cheikha Rimitti, who by the early 1940s rose to prominence with her salacious songs that celebrated sex, love, and hedonism. “I sang all the subjects back then. I sang about misery. I sang about love. I sang about the condition of women. I sang about ordinary life, concrete things. I sang the life I had seen, my own history” she said in a 2001 Afropop interview. But, she added, “Raï music has always been a music of rebellion, a music that looks ahead.”

The subversive force of Raï didn’t go unnoticed by Algeria’s government, and Raï musicians became personae non grata among parts of the country’s conservative society, so much so that Cheikha Rimitti, whose real name was Saadia El Ghizania, changed her name in order to protect her family from the “shame.” But with independence from France in 1962 Raï’s popularity only grew: though both Houari Boumédiène and President Ahmed Ben Bella sought to repress Raï, fearing its subversive potential and placing emphasis on the “Arab and Muslim” aspects of the new Algerian identity (with which Raï was at odds), Raï continued to flourish especially among the working classes. Musicians began replacing traditional instruments with sax, trumpets, pianos, and accordions, and Raï took hold among Oran’s youth. 

In the 1970s cassette tapes enabled musicians to record cheaply and sell their music widely, giving life to a whole new generation of musicians, and Raï spread across Algeria. New musical technologies also began changing the way Raï sounded: Ahmad Baba Rachid for example was among the first, in the late 1970s, to blend pop and electronic production in his music. In the late ‘70s a new government also changed its stance on Raï, recognizing it as an important part of Algerian culture, especially amongst young people. Though they still maintained tight control of lyrics, Raï was finally aired on radio, and in 1986 the government even funded the Oran festival. 

By the 1980s singers had abandoned the titles of Cheikh and Cheikha, and instead went by Cheb and Chaba to differentiate themselves from older musicians playing the more traditional style. They further incorporated synths, drum machines, and electric guitars into their music, and embraced a much more pop aesthetic. Raï became Algeria’s most popular dance genre, and the simultaneous rise of the “World Music” Industry propelled it to a global audience. 

Raï superstars like Cheikha Rimitti, Chaba Fadela, Cheb Sahraoui, Houari Benchenet, Cheb Hamid, Chaba Zahouania, and Cheb Mami began touring the world. But no one would come to represent Raï on the globe stage as much as Cheb Khaled, the much-loved “King of Raï” who would become a controversial figure in Algeria. 

His song “El Harba Wayn (To Flee, But Where)” became a protest anthem in 1988, a year that saw some of the country’s biggest anti-government riots and the death of hundreds of protestors, a sign of the bloody conflict that would break out three years later. Over his career Khaled would have a complicated relationship with the Algerian government, albeit not as antagonistic as usually depicted — in fact, it was originally Lieutenant-Colonel Hosni Snoussi, the director of the state-supported Arts and Culture Office, who supported Khaled and invited him to perform at the Festival de la Jeunesse pour la Fête Nationale in Algiers in July 1985, an major event which helped boost his career.

After a brief period of openness however the Algerian government once again tried to suppress Raï in the wake of the 1988 riots, tightening the cultural policies which promoted classical Arabic culture at the expense of the multi-cultural aspects of Algerian culture, excluding regional dialects and languages like Berber from state-controlled media. Raï is sung in Warhan Arabic and borrows words from Spanish, French, and Berber, so most Raï music was banned from state radio, a policy that, coupled with the bloody civil war that took over the country in the early 1990s, led artists like Cheb Khaled to leave Algeria for France.

His 1992 hit “Didi” made Khaled (he dropped the “Cheb” title from his name in the early ‘90s) an international superstar, and gave Raï an unprecedented global reach. But while artists like Khaled and Cheb Mami played to arenas around the world and collaborated with global superstars, Raï in Oran continued to evolve, influenced by an even wider array of styles as the cell phones and internet connections became more available. Even U.S. R&B and dancehall have bled into modern Raï production — just listen to Cheba Wahida’s hypnotic party bangers. As the true music of the people, Raï never needed big promoters, festivals, or official support in order to thrive. First through live performances, then through cassette tapes and now through social media and bedroom producers, Raï has continued to flourish outside official channels.

The Best of Chaba Zahouania cover

Cheba Zahouania is an incredibly prolific Raï artist who rose to fame in 1986 with her hit "Khâli ya khâli" with Cheb Hamid. A few years later she recorded “El baraka” with Cheb Hasni, who was known for his love songs, but also for singing about taboo subjects like divorce and alcohol. While the song was a popular hit, it also attracted some controversy due to its provocative lyrics, and both artists were threatened by fundamentalists. Tragically, in 1994, Hasni was murdered in Oran, allegedly as a result of his controversial music. Following the murder of her singing partner Zahouania relocated to France, where she continues making music.

Maghreb K7 Club: Synth Raï, Chaoui & Staifi (1985-1997) cover

This great Sofa Records / Bongo Joe compilation gives us a snapshot of the small but enormously influential North African music scene that centered around the cafés in the Croix-Rousse and Guillotière neighborhoods in Lyon. During the 80s and 90s musicians from all over North Africa, but especially the eastern part of Algeria, came together to play their own traditional music and experiment with new music technologies tlike cheap keyboards and rum machines. These spaces became a place of unique musical syncretism, where Berber chaoui music blended with Oran’s raï-pop, and staifi rhythms from eastern Algeria were adapted to disco and funk. The compilation features some major stars whose influence went far beyond Lyon, and had an impact on the development of France’s Maghrebi music as a whole. Zaidi El Batni for example is a pioneer in the modernization of chaoui music — something which comes through loud and clear on psychedelic opener “Malik ya Malik”, with its traditional rhythms and futuristic synths — while Nordine Staifi was the first to reinterpret staifi through a disco and funk lens. His “Zine Ezzinet” is an earwormy, funky killer tune.

Mraya cover

A favorite on the 1990s “World Music” circuit, Abdel Ali Slimani was one of few Algerian musicians to settle in London (rather than France). Here he joined Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart band in 1991, and a few years later released his debut on Real World Records. Mraya is a polished listen as far as Raï goes, even in terms of its subject matter (Slimani said that his music was “very clean” and didn’t contain any of the suggestive language typical of Raï), but it does harness its trance-inducing grooves and percussive patterns. “Zeyna” and “Yasmin”  are classic Raï pop with their mix of synthetic dance rhythms and traditional instruments,  while “Hadi” swirls around a hypnotic vocal and accordion refrain, underpinned by the driving bass of Jah Wobble, who provides a dubby undertone to the whole album.

Les Cheikhat: Aux Sources du Raï cover

The daughters of port workers and peasants, the women that would later be known as “Les Cheikhat” had always been shunned by other parts of Algerian society. Perhaps it’s for this reason that they felt free to challenge conventions and rules, singing about sex, freedom, and the rights of immigrants and workers. They were viewed as a threat by the establishment, but have left an indelible mark on Algerian society, inspiring women to challenge limitations and prohibitions on their freedom. This compilation collects some traditional Raï by the queen of Raï herself, Cheika Remitti, as well as other prominent Cheikas from the same period, their weathered, powerful voices accompanied only by percussion and serpentine reed flutes.

Kutché cover

Khaled had already become the “King of Raï” with the release of his Hada Raykoum in 1985, which had already moved towards a poppier direction. Kutchè, which he made with Algerian arranger and composer Safy Boutella in France, includes more traditional instruments like the bendir, the tar, the accordion, and the violin, while at the same time embracing an electro-pop sound even further with the addition of a punchy horn section, soaring synthesizers, and drum machine rhythms. “La Camel” (originally by Cheikha Rimitti) is one of the album’s standout tracks, and has become a classic Raï anthem with its funky rhythms and jerky production, with its refrain lurching back and forward as if the record were being spun by an ‘80s hip-hop DJ.

1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground cover

The word raï has become almost synonymous with its synth heavy 1980s iteration, but the Algerian music style actually emerged decades earlier, around the 1920s, in the port city of Oran, where multicultural influences blended with traditional rural sounds. The tracks collected on Sublime Frequencies' compilation are all recorded in the 1970s, somewhere in the middle of  raï’s evolution timeline, just before it transformed into the more electronic dance style of the chebs and chebbas (when singers began being called cheb or cheba, meaning “young man” or “young woman,” to highlight the new and rebellious vein of raï), but when it had already incorporated elements like the electric guitar (Cheb Zergui’s wah wah licks on “Ana Dellali” are especially good on here), organ, accordion, and trumpet. But while the instrumentation has changed over time, the ingredients that make raï what it is have remained constant throughout its evolution: the pounding, driving rhythms, first played with pots, pans, and traditional drums, and later with drum machines and production software, and its irreverent, emotion-filled lyrics. 

Rani m'damar cover

Houari is one of the protagonists of the pop generation of Raï singers, along with Khaled, Cheb Sahraoui and Cheb Hamid, and although he might not be as much of a household name in the West, he was the first to incorporate electronic synths into his arrangements and to tour North America. You can hear his eagerness to experiment with the new technology in Rani m’damar, which combines drums, derbuka (he originally started out as a derbuka player in the 1970s) and lush strings with funky synth melodies.

Jrouli cover

Hooks that swirl around and around and never let go, rattling percussion, earworm synths, and auto tuned vocals come together in this psychedelic party music from Oran, Algeria. Cheba Wahida is the irreverent star of 21st century raï and her music gluttonously pulls in elements from R&B, moroccan gnawa, and dancehall for a hedonistic, unrestrained atmosphere that feels like it should be experienced on the streets of Oran. There is not one dull moment — just one banger after the other. 

Rai Rebels cover

Ahmad Baba Rachid had been pioneering the pop-Raï sound since the late 1970s, inviting local stars to record in his studio in the northwest of Algeria and adding electric guitars, drum machines, and synths. This 1988 Earthworks compilation captured that moment of transformation in Raï’s story, and was among the first to introduce it to the world, along with some of the artists who would become the genre’s biggest stars, like Cheb Khaled and Zahouania. Chaba Fadela And Cheb Sahraoui’s “N’sel Fik” is a killer, with their impassioned vocals and repetitive, hypnotic refrain, a rolling bass riff, springy synths, and a smattering of percussion.

You Are Mine cover

After Khaled’s hits, Chaba Fadela and her husband Cheb Sahraoui’s “N’sel Fik” must be one of Raï’s most recognizable tracks. Featured on the seminal “Raï Rebels” compilation, it is also the opening song on Chaba Fadela’s 1988 album “You Are Mine,” which was produced by one of the protagonists behind the new generation of Raï pop, Rachid Baba Ahmed. The intoxicating amalgamation of traditional instruments like the derbouka with synths and drum machines is his doing, and one which would leave an indelible mark on Algerian Raï. But it’s Fadela’s voice that hits squarely in the chest, with its throaty sensuality, vulnerability, and strength.

Sidi Mansour cover

This couldn’t be more of a departure for Cheikha Rimitti, the OG of Raï, who began singing accompanied only by percussion and flutes. This 1994 record can be grating at times — a tad overproduced, noisy guitars right at the start — but Remitti’s unmistakable voice rises above it all: deep, raw, self-assured. Besides, the lineup here is pretty interesting: Flea on bass, East Bay Ray on rhythm guitar, Zappa’s associates Bruce and Walter Fowler on horns, and Robert Fripp on lead guitar. With that cast you’d think there would be little of Algeria left on the record, but Algerian producer Houari Talbi supplies some North African rhythms and lush keys. Remitti released this when she was in her 70s, which is a testament to her willingness to push boundaries and experiment.

Khaled cover

This was the first album after Khaled dropped the “Cheb” from his name, and symbolized the beginning of a new era for the trailblazing Raï artist. For his self-titled record he enlisted Don Was and Michael Brook as producers, and worked with a host of musicians from Algeria, the UK, the US, and Belgium (Khaled himself plays keyboards, accordion, oud, and bendir on several tracks), incorporating soul, reggae, and funk into his Raï. “Didi” was a huge hit, with its smattering of Algerian percussion, earwormy synth, and funk groove; “El Arbi” is smooth and soulful, while “Ragda” has an unmistakable reggae bounce to it; Flamenco guitar and accordion work their way into songs like “Wahrane,” while songs like “Harai Harai” go back to a more traditional sound.

A Moi La Liberté: Early Electronic Raï (Algérie 1983-90) cover

A great compilation of some of the most experimental and psychedelic Raï cuts out there. Many of the artists on here — Houari Benchenet, Chaba Fadila, Nordine Staifi, Cheb Hindi — were at the very center of the electric Raï generation in the 1980s, and helped propel the new sound to global audiences. Expect squelchy synth basslines, swirling keys, drum-machines, passionate vocals, electric guitars, and darbuka rhythms.

Le Prince du Raï cover

Cheb Mami had been a prominent musician in Raï circles throughout the 1980s, playing live gigs and big festivals in Algeria — with the support of Cheb Khaled, the King of Raï himself — and later in France, where he moved to escape oppression and violence in the midst of rising tensions at home. Here he became a regular on the Parisian club circuit, but it was this 1988 album that made him an international star. As a member of the “new” generation of Raï musicians, he mixed traditional instrumentation like darbuka and violin with bright synths, funky electric guitar, and synthetic, drum-machine rhythms.

El Ndjoum cover

This collaboration between Algerian-born, French based singer Sofiane Saidi and French supergroup Mazalda combines all the hypnotic energy of Raï with the funk and groove of Mazalda’s massive sound system, analog synths, low-slung basslines, and a spirited brass section. Saidi began singing first at weddings and then the legendary clubs of Oran when he was only a teenager, but eventually settled in France, where he expanded the limits of how he could play his particular brand of Raï — after all Raï has always been an amalgam of different styles. The tracks on El Ndjoum weave between the evocative North African atmospheres of “Wahidi Ana W Galbi’’ to the feverish 90s synths of “La classe Fi Las Vegas’’ and the electro-soul of “Bourkan,” inspired by Saidi’s hero Otis Redding, and featuring the wistful vocals of Julien Lesuisse, member of Mazalda and founder of Raï-inspired, Sicilian folk outfit Crimi.

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