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WORLD AND FOLK MUSIC NEWS
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Focus on: Raï
Raï is Algerian folk and popular music originating in the Western Algerian seaport town of Oran. Raï [pronounced: ‘rye’] means “an opinion”, “an advice”, “a point of view”. At the end of the 19th century raï was simple Berber shepherds’ music from the regions around Oran, with simple improvised lyrics accompanied on a flute. With the migrations to the cities around the turn of the century, the Berbers brought this music to Oran. There it mixed with the local folk and ‘art’ music.
This new music was adapted and developed mainly by medahates (female orchestras), who sang at various celebrations such as weddings and circumcision feasts, and also in bars and brothels. The cheikhates (lead singers, from cheikh: old, wise, experienced) sang about women’s conditions of living and about love, jealousy, sexuality, poverty and alcoholism. Thus raï was stigmatised by established society as being socially inferior.
One of the most famous of these singers was Cheikha Remitti. She made her first recording of raï in 1936 and today, in her seventies, is still active. Her career illustrated a development from the orchestral Medahates style to a more individual Cheikha style, although instrumentation still remained unchanged: the lead singer was accompanied by a group of backing singers (in call-and-response format) as well as a gasbah (rose wood flute) and a gallal (large frame drum).
Modern raï began in the 1950s and 60s. Western instruments such as the violin and accordion were introduced and in 1968 the trumpeter Bellemou Messaoud added electric guitars and saxophones. Raï began to incorporate elements of flamenco, jazz and rock music. This new music with its technically polished arrangements and presentations reached a whole new public. Through Bellemou’s use of the solo trumpet instead of sung lyrics, raï gradually lost its stigmatisation and became socially acceptable.
In the 1970s and ‘80s about 70% of the Algerian population were below the age of 25, many of them unemployed and homeless. Modern raï, studio produced, with electronic instruments and drum computers became the vehicle by which they expressed their anger and frustration. In an effort to suppress this unrest and dissatisfaction the government banned raï from radio and television. This ban was however easily circumvented by tuning into French radio stations and also through a rapidly developing market in music-cassettes. With Cheb Khaled’s meteoric rise to international fame, government opposition ended and the lift of the ban in 1985 was celebrated with a massive, televised festival.
The 1992 military putsch after a landslide election victory of the fundamentalist muslims sparked years of civil war, riots and unrest which cost over 100.000 lives, including the singer Cheb Hasni, the legendary raï producer Rachid Baba Ali Ahmed and Cheb Aziz who were all shot in the street. Many performers, such as Khaled, Cheb Mami, Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui moved to France to seek freedom and to launch international careers.
After ten years of exile Cheb Mami returned to Algeria for the first time in 1999, and Cheb Khaled returned in 2000 after having lived abroad for fourteen years. During their years of exile the artists had been exposed to and worked with international music and they began to incorporate these influences into their music. One of the most important of these crossover artists is Rachid Taha.
Raï flourishes today – its versatility and adaptability, its perseverance and critical distance from established society kept it meaningful and modern and made it one of the most popular forms of music, not only in the Islamic world, but worldwide.