A genre of African music that is not too foreign to Egyptian ears is – Rai. Originating in Algeria, Rai emerged in the 1920s and for decades was the sound of the opposition. Opposition of french colonialism and the fundamental islamic movement alike. It was a genre that was battled and heavily censored for years, but continued to gain popularity and evolved into the sound we are familiar with today by artists such as Rachid Taha, Faudel and Khaled.
The city of Oran is often cited as the birth place of Rai music. And its name stems from the Arabic word for “opinion” as song lyrics stepped away from classical poetry and used common vernacular often fully loaded with social commentary and vulgarities. During French colonialism, women were placed under strict code and Rai saw a rise in male singers as women were not allowed to sing. As a result, female singers of Rai were generally regarded as social outcasts as they failed to conform to these strict codes of conduct imposed on the Algerian society.
During its initial decades, Rai grew to embrace musical influences from French cabaret, Flamenco, Andalusian music and Gnawa mainly due to Oran’s geographical location and being a port city, as well as the city becoming divided into Jewish, Spanish, French and Arab neighborhoods in the early 40s. Over time – namely in the 60s and 70s, the genre evolved and drew more elements from other corners of the globe like Jamaica, Egypt, Europe and America, resulting in the ore modern sounding “Pop Rai”. Pop Rai was the sound of a new generation and its artists would use the title Cheb or Cheba (male and female terms respectively, meaning youngster) to distinguish themselves from the older generation who sang original Rai who often used the titles Cheikh and Cheikha (male and female forms of the word meaning older person).
In the 90s with the rise of fundamental and extremist Islamism, Rai was once again facing censorship and restriction. Artists often received death threats or exiled for not conforming to censorship rules. Cheb Hasni (Rai Singer) and Rachid Baba Ahmed (Rai Producer) were both assassinated at the hands of Islamists because of their music. These incidents led to several Algerian musicians moving to France in search of better opportunities for their music, escaping the strict censorship they faced and out of fear for their lives. Their music quickly found acceptance in France due to their lyrics often mixing French and Arabic languages (Franco-arab).
Cheb Khaled (now known as just Khaled) was one of the first Rai artists to gain international recognition. His song “Aisha” released in 1996 was a hit song in both France and the Arab world and was later on covered by the Danish band Outlandish. He collaborated with Pitbull in 2012 on his track “Heya Heya” and his recent track “C’est La Vie” – released in 2012, had a Spanish version released by Marc Anthony. Rachid Taha is another artist who managed to bring Rai to the global scene through fusing it with Rock. His track “Barra Barra” was featured in the soundtrack to the American movie “Black Hawk Down”. Sting also featured the beautiful and distinctly Rai vocals of Cheb Mami on his track “Desert Rose”.
Rai continues to evolve as a genre, fusing more elements from other genres and other cultures of the world – from Hip Hop to Latin characteristics. Here is a selection of a few Rai tracks for your ears to sample!
Aisha by Cheb Khaled
C’est La Vie by Khaled
Desert Rose by Sting ft Cheb Mami
AbdelKader (Live) by Khaled, Faudel & Rachid Taha
Nouar by Cheikha Rimitti