Spotlight on Raï Music

Banner image: Khaled performing in Oran in 2011 (Photo by Magharebia, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

The recent death of French Algerian superstar Rachid Taha brought to mind the musical genre called raï, so I decided to feature it this week by highlighting a few raï artists. Algerian raï (pronounced like “rye”) music emerged in the port city of Oran as a young people’s music back in the 1920’s. Like most port cities, Oran was a vibrant cultural crossroad filled with people from many places. It was called the Paris of Algeria for its melting pot of Spanish, Jewish, French, and Arab cultures. Raï incorporated Arabic, flamenco, French chanson, jazz, and other styles into its mix. It gained popularity as world music beginning in the mid-1970’s.

I discovered raï back in the 1980’s with a young artist named Cheb Khaled (cheb=young man). Khaled—he dropped the cheb—was to become the first Algerian international music star. He decided to pursue a musical career after hearing French rocker Johnny Hallyday on the radio. On a visit to Los Angeles, he appeared at Prince’s club, Vertigo, then performed at a French musical fête at UCLA’s Sculpture Garden. He also came for an impromptu visit to my show, Café LA, with a local flamenco guitarist. Their set that day proved that raï and flamenco share similar Andalusian DNA—they fit together like a synchromesh transmission.

Khaled’s music, however, was considered un-Islamic and provocative. Videos showing him dancing with a glass of wine angered the hardliners. His big hit “Didi” charted in France and across Europe, but was eventually banned in Egypt even though nobody quite knew what the words meant. (It was kind of a “Louie Louie” type of thing.) He moved to France after a number of raï artists like producer Rachid Baba and singer Cheb Hasni were murdered. Hardcore Islamists did not and still do not like raï music with its themes of drinking, divorce, and other things redolent of Western influences.

It’s not hard to understand why the Islamic conservatives were incensed by “Didi” if you watch this video. This rebellious but joyous clip of men and women dancing together and having a good time got Khaled into a lot of trouble.

Next up, a giant of raï—Cheikha Rimitti (1923-2006)—often called the mother of raï music. As I wrote in an artist spotlight on Rimitti a few years ago, she was fearless in facing up to the social and religious oppression of women in Algeria. I was fortunate to attend Rimitti’s concert at LA’s Grand Performances in 2002, where she rocked the crowd with flavor and massive groove. Rimitti was famous for hits like “La Camel,” a love story set in an oil refinery. Khaled and Safy Boutella scored a big hit with a later cover of it. She even recorded with Robert Fripp and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Early songs like “La Camel” show the early roots style of raï, but I want to highlight Rimitti’s modern side in this song, “Guendouzi Mama” from her last studio album in 2005:

Rachid Taha (1958-2018) was born in northwestern Algeria during the brutal fight for independence so movingly recounted in the Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of AlgiersLike Khaled, Taha became a countercultural force. He moved with his family to Lyon, France, where his father found work as a laborer. In 1982, he formed his first band, Carte de Séjour, and recorded a sardonic, bitter immigrant’s version of Charles Trenet’s vintage chanson “Douce France” (Sweet France) in Arabic. The song became a new wave/punk hit that was banned on French radio but embraced by the young immigrant community.

Raï music as a genre has continued to evolve since its birth in the 1920’s. Trumpet player Bellemou Messaoud created a new form of raï jazz, adding saxophones, violins, accordions and other instruments into his music. Before I went to work for A&M Records in 1990, I remember sending Herb Alpert one of Messaoud’s albums per his request for world music albums I liked at the time. Since Herb is a trumpet player, why not?

Another important raï figure to know is Rachid Baba (1946-1995), who produced an early compilation on the UK Earthworks label that I always liked. His productions used electronic elements and modernized the genre, known as pop raï. Watch this clip of a powerful and passionate recording session by a then 14-year-old Cheb Anouar, produced by Rachid Baba from a must-get album Pop Raï and Rachid Style from 1990.

Finally, I want to mention one of the greatest raï concerts of all times by the artists Rachid Taha, Faudel, and Khaled, which was recorded and released on a live album called 1,2,3 Soleils (3 Suns). The concert took place in 1998 in the immense Palais Omnisports in Paris, with a capacity audience of 17,000 young Algerians, North Africans, and other young immigrants. The crowd goes wild when the group performs the song “Ya Rayah” (You Will Return), the national anthem of North African youth. Listen to them in this incredible video of that memorable night.

As I write these words and watch the various stars of raï music, I am swept up with emotion by this wonderful, powerful musical expression. Raï music is Algeria’s gift to us all.

Carousel photo By Les Hotels Paris Rive Gauche – AlainB (rachid taha séance photo Hôtel des Grands Hommes) [CC BY-SA 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons