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Algeria's traditional Rai music continues to inspire new generations Open in fullscreen

Imogen Lambert

Algeria's traditional Rai music continues to inspire new generations

Cheb Khaled performing in the Netherlands in 1992 [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 September, 2015

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Blog: Rai, a form of popular music from Algeria, proves its enduring popularity as Twitter users share inspirational quotes from songs.
Twitter users have been sharing their favourite inspirational Rai lyrics, demonstrating the enduring popularity of the genre which emerged from Oran in Western Algeria, during the French occupation.

Rai - from the Arabic meaning "opinion" - developed in the 1920s and the lyrics were often controversial, influenced by traditional Algerian poetry while also telling of tales of the hardships of urban life. 

The port of Oran fostered many musical genres which influenced Algerian music, including Andalucian jazz, flamenco and cabaret.

Women were central to the development of Rai; many of the early singers were "cheikhas" who performed in bars to both men and women. Notable cheikhas included Rimitti, Zahwaniya and Fedala.

Hearsay was a frequent theme in the genre, as Rimitti sang: "All those who gossip do not wound me, it is like the wind on the mountain."

In her study on women and Rai music, Marie Virolle describes how such tender lyricism is a legacy of traditional verse exploring love, absence and upheaval. Yet, tradition is also pushed aside by "the nakedness of expression".

"Love is a worm, it lives in bones," declared Fedela.

Similar imagery is expressed in Cheikha Rimitti's songs:

"Me, my heart is consumed and burned and it cooks on the embers," she said.

Other major themes involve the selfishness of men, and society's hypocritical views.

"Me, my burning is unique, he, he will grow feathers," Zahwaniya says. When their earthly lovers fail them, they resort to popular religious practices.

"I will take my love to the Wali for him to be judged," sang Zahwaniya.

Maybe, this unapologetic expression of female experience, emotion and opinion makes the lyrics of the female Rai singers sound just as resonant today.

The singers were just not radical in their lyricism, but also in their politics, with many singers involved in the fight against France in the Algerian Liberation Army.

However, after independence, the genre came under fire from the Algerian government for being a vestige of the French occupation, and counter to a state-enforced morality.

Rimitti's music was denounced as "folklore perverted by colonialism".

Rai made a massive comeback in the 1970s in a new form, which still managed to carry some resemblance to the popular songs of Cheb Khaled that many are still familiar with.

The names "Cheb and Cheba" referred to youth, as the new generation distinguished themselves from their predecessors.

Western instrumentation was incorporated, and Rai again became a massive hit within the Algerian diaspora in France.  

Soon the genre became popular outside the Algerian community, with Cheb Khaled songs such as Didi and Aisha becoming international hits.  

However, the songs did not lose their political and social importance; during student protests in 1988 many protesters chanted the lyrics of Khaled's song El Harba Wayn ["to flee, but where?"]:

The rich gorge themselves, the poor work themselves to death, The Islamic Charlatans show their true face,
You can always cry or complain,
Or escape...but where?


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