Two Algerian rai tunes make the top ten of the Village Voice music critics’s poll in 1989. Rai is now heard daily on college radio from the University of Pennsylvania to Oregon State. Urban dance clubs with “world music” nights feature rai discs along with their usual mix of reggae, salsa, zouk and ju-ju. Tower Records stocks rai cassettes and CDs in its nationwide outlets. What, in the words of Marvin Gaye, is goin’ on? Why are post-liberation Algerian pop singers winning a wide Western audience while an earlier generation of popular Arab singers like Umm Kulthoum, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Fairouz never did?

Two explanations come to mind. First, the development of a “World Beat” sensibility and market among Western music consumers provided the potential audience. The growing interest in reggae in the 1970s, the advent of multilingual/national rock concerts, recordings and televised specials in the 1980s devoted to fundraising for international issues, tours by African artists (King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti, Malathini, the Bhundu Boys) have steadily created an interest and demand for what is variously termed “world” or “ethno-pop” music. Second, in the early 1980s, rai itself underwent a transformation, becoming more accessibly “pop,” less forbiddingly “oriental.” Synthesizers and drum machines replaced the oud and rabab. Violins were electrified. Production techniques were modernized. Club crowds in Paris and New York — not just Algiers and Oran — could now dance to its rhythms. [1]

Cheb Mami’s song, “Ana Mazel,” from the album Le Monde du Rai, exemplifies rai’s new pop style. It opens with Mami’s pure, plaintive voice, accompanied by a single, prolonged note from an organ synthesizer. The muted tapping of cymbals begins. The bass slides in, followed by an electrified violin cleverly mimicking ululation. “Traditional” drums like the derbuka establish a strong beat. The song takes off, instruments and voice combining and recombining to create an irresistibly catchy dance mix.


But the story of rai’s cultural politics is much more complicated than the mere convergence of North African commercial music savvy and Western tastes in exotic music.

Rai originated in the margins, in the music brought into the urban centers of western Algeria by migrants from the countryside during the 1920s. As it won popularity among the urban populace, it threatened the performance monopoly of the professional cheikhs who sang a more sedate and traditional style of music known as melhoun. Rai’s practitioners improvised rhythmed couplets dealing with the concerns of the day and, accompanied by rabab (a single-stringed instrument), gellal (hand drum) and gasha (rosewood flute), developed a style of playing that was faster and more rhythmically varied than earlier popular genres.

Rai in its earliest form was sung mainly by two groups of female performers — the meddahas, who sang to women at private gatherings and weddings, and the cheikhas, women of the demi-monde who sang before men in cafes, bars and bordellos. [2] Romance was a popular theme, and despite the music literati’s protest, rai’s popularity spread with the rural migrants into the public spaces of western Algeria’s cities, notably Oran. [3]

Low-level harassment of itinerant rai singers in and around Oran dates back at least to 1935. Policemen chased these popular bards from the main thoroughfares because they sang not only of wine and love — offending the local respectable middle class — but also of problems stemming from the colonial regime, such as imprisonment, poverty and typhus. During World War II, rai lyrics dealt with the black market, the Allied invasion and rationing. Nationalist concerns crept into post-war rai lyrics, reaching a peak during the liberation struggle; women singers were partly responsible for popularizing resistance lyrics.

Even as rai took on new topical concerns and absorbed new musical influences (Berber music of Kabylia, flamenco via Morocco), its chief focus remained partying, sex and drinking alcohol. Women artists, the cheikhas, were often responsible for rai’s more risque lyrics — for instance, these lines of Cheikha Rimitti, famous star of the 1950s: “Break the fast, young girl, I will shoulder your sin,” and “He scratched my back and I gave him everything.” [4]

Rai underwent a transformation during the post-liberation 1960s. Ouds, violins and accordions, and later the trumpet and saxophone, were incorporated into the tradition, giving the music a more urban, modern feel. Meanwhile the morally austere Algerian regime barred women from performing in public; perhaps as a substitute, adolescent boys began to break into rai’s ranks. In the 1970s, “pop rai” made its debut. Synthesizers, drum boxes and electric guitars either replaced older instruments or were incorporated with them. Blues, rock, reggae and disco influences were assimilated as well. Earlier recordings for the booming market in cassettes were primitive and cheaply produced. Once the brothers Rachid and Fethi Baba Ahmed built their first eight-track recording studio at Tlemcen in 1980, the technical quality of the music improved dramatically. [5]

“Pop” rai’s first smash hit was “Ana Ma H’lali Ennoum” (I Don’t Care About Sleeping Anymore), recorded by Chaba Fadela in 1979. In 1983 Fadela teamed up with Cheb Sahraoui on the now classic tune, “N’sel Fik” (You Are Mine); she later married Sahraoui, which gave her respectability as a female performer. The other female rai star, Chaba Zahouania, performs only at women’s events and refuses to be photographed, due to the demands of her family. Nonetheless, Zahouania’s lyrics (such as “We made love in a run-down shack”) and her seductive grain of voice belie the public conservatism. [6] The other major rai singers, like Cheb Mami and Cheb Khaled, overtly expound typical rai sentiments in favor of free expression in love. Cheb Khaled’s “Hada Raykoum” (It’s Your Opinion) exemplifies this sensibility:

The young girl wants to get married
The divorced woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants a divorce
The married woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants to go wild

You’ve done what you wanted
You’ve done what you decided
My God, my God, the husband’s asleep [7]

A youth subculture devoted to dance music worshiped these chebs and chabas (literally, “youth”), the stars of “pop” rai who now eclipsed the cheikhs and cheikhas of an earlier era.


Propelled by Chaba Fadela’s 1979 hit, updated rai swept out of the western cities of Oran and Sidi Bel-Abbes and conquered Algiers. The phenomenon was underground, or at least unofficial, as the government kept it off the state airwaves. Government neglect soon turned into official suppression of a cultural expression that seemed to represent the sentiments of a growing generation of disaffected, marginal, unemployed youth, seeking new sexual and cultural freedoms. Police even rounded up single women patronizing nightclubs featuring rai. [8] The authorities banned the importation of blank cassette tapes in an attempt to halt the music’s distribution. Cassette producers and amateur enthusiasts merely recorded over prerecorded cassettes. [9]

Official media bureaucrats condemned the music for lacking merit, but the rai tide would not be stemmed. [10] Finally, in 1985, an Algerian ex-liberation army officer-cum-pop rock impresario, Col. Snoussi, realized the potential of rai if it could be mainstreamed. (Cheb Khaled, the biggest rai star, sold over half a million cassettes in 1985 alone.) Snoussi and Jack Lang, the French minister of culture, independently pressured Algiers to allow rai musicians to travel. The government returned their confiscated passports. [11] Faced with the massive popularity of rai, Algerian officialdom grudgingly backed down, allowing the music’s inclusion at an international youth festival in Algiers in July 1985 and then giving rai its own eight-day festival in Oran in August. [12] Soon the music was receiving radio and television exposure as well.

Meanwhile, the music had made its way to Paris, Lyons and Marseilles. Rai became associated with the beurs (second-generation Algerian immigrants) and their struggles against anti-Arab racism. In fact, although rai had long been brought into France by migrants, it first came into public view at concerts organized by SOS-Racisme, founded in 1985 in response to an upsurge in anti-Arab violence. Its popularity in France is not based on French tastes for things exotic, but in the Franco-Maghrebi community, its alternative radio stations, nightclubs, cafes and cassette merchants. [13] In mid-1980s Algeria, the music expressed a kind of disguised youth protest against the austere morality and moribund economic policies of the regime; in France it became the badge of ethnic identity in the face of intensified white racism. Rai’s association with anti-racist movements also won it an audience among progressive white French youth. As it has crossed borders and gained a wider European audience, rai has gained greater cultural force; it was partly due to international popularity that the Algerian regime dropped its opposition to rai and claimed it as part of the “national heritage.”

Some have wondered whether government acceptance of the music merely entails a more sophisticated form of control. [14] No doubt, the regime is encouraging the production and dissemination of “clean” and smoother sounding versions of rai. Moreover, there is the fact that Cheb Sahraoui and Cheb Khaled publicly distanced themselves from the October 1988 Algerian riots, in the wake of insinuations that rai music helped incite the youth revolt. [15] But despite the artists’ disavowals, the music remains a token of oppositionality for its fans. Cheb Khaled’s “El Harba Wayn” (Where to Flee), a “song of outrage and despair” as Miriam Rosen terms it, was taken up as an anthem by the young rioters. [16] Little wonder that those responsible for the 1988 outbreak are routinely referred to as the “rai generation.”

The pressures of Algerian state endorsement, sophisticated recording techniques and the embrace of Western audiences raise questions about rai’s “authenticity.” Cheb Sahraoui has hinted that Cheb Khaled abandoned his Algerian audience and departed from “authentic” rai when he recorded Kutche with Safy Boutella, citing the fact that Khaled employed European musicians and recorded in a European studio. The album’s credits, however, list many Arab musicians. Probably the charge stems from the fact that Safy Boutella, Kutche’s arranger and co-producer, was not previously associated with rai and made his name as a jazz musician. Cheb Sahraoui claims to have solved the problem of remaining true to the music’s roots while still capturing the European market by releasing two version of Hana Hana, his latest album recorded with Chaba Fadela. One version, aimed at European audiences, emphasizes rhythm; the other, targeting the Algerian market, is mixed to accentuate the vocals. [17]

New pressures on rai have come in the wake of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria and the victories of Madani’s Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS, in the municipal elections of 1989. [18] The FIS, after winning control of the city council of Oran, home of most rai musicians, decided to defund the annual rai festival scheduled for August 1990. City officials claimed the reason was a budget crisis, but many Algerians see the move as a sign of the stricter public morality the fundamentalists plan to enforce if they emerge victorious from national elections in 1991. Rai musicians who play in Algeria are now routinely harassed, even threatened, by fundamentalist militants; rai’s major stars (Khaled, Mami, Sahraoui and Fadela) are now based in France. Paris has now emerged as the world center of rai music.

The complex history of rai highlights its transitional character, the fact that it is a hybrid cultural form, constantly traversing boundaries, shifting meanings and undergoing transformation. Rai arrives in the US, in some ways, as the latest rage to hit the World Music record bins, the result of a new post-modern global marketing strategy. Yet in a country heretofore largely ignorant of, if not downright hostile to, Arab culture, the fact that rai has won an appreciative audience for Arab music must be regarded as a positive development. Cheb Mami, Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui, and Cheb Tati have all toured the US. Wall of Sound, a Seattle record store specializing in international music, informs us that Middle Eastern music is now outselling that of sub-Saharan Africa. In France, rai serves as a token of Maghribi ethnic pride in an era of heightened racial attacks on young people born in France but still considered “immigres.”

Meanwhile, in Algeria, disaffected youth and a discredited state struggle over whether rai will be subsumed as part of the “national patrimony” or will continue to call for emancipation from tired traditions. Will fundamentalists criminalize rai, forcing it underground and into exile? The complex interaction of political, personal, aesthetic, emotional and commercial investments at work, as well as the questions rai raises about gender, youth emancipation, Arab cultural authenticity, ethnic struggles and Western consumption of “exotic” music, promise to make this music worthy of continued listening. Besides, it’s good to dance to.


[1] Rai means — literally — advice, opinion, view. Since Algerian dialect has no hamza, the word is pronounced like the English, “rye,” and written (in French) with an umlaut to mark the diphthong. The name for the music came from the informal practice of singing the word, stretching it out in a plaintive voice across gaps in improvisational inspiration. This stylistic aid evolved into a musical convention by which the genre is now known.
[2] Miriam Rosen, “Rai,” Artforum (September 1990), p. 22.
[3] Marie Virolle-Souibes, “Ce que chanter erray veut dire: prelude a d’autres couplets,” Cahiers de Litterature Orale 23 (1988). The view that popular music was illegitimate or a corruption of the standard and therefore unworthy of notice was not confined to the cheikhs. Jacques Berque in French North Africa: The Magrib Between Two World Wars (New York: Praeger, 1967), p. 356, writing on Algerian music of the late 1920s and early 1930s, sounds just like an urban Algerian mandarin: “The only authentic factor in the Maghrib of that time was the impotence in expressing themselves, expressing anything, that afflicted people and things.”
[4] Virolle-Souibes, pp. 188-189; Rabah Mezouane, liner notes to Le Monde du Rai.
[5] Philip Sweeney, liner notes to Rai Rebels.
[6] Rosen, p. 23.
[7] Rosen, p. 22.
[8] Such police harassment of young women going out in public is nothing new, as depicted in Ali Ghalem’s A Wife for My Son.
[9] Jean-Franois Bizot, “Sex and Soul in the Maghreb,” The Face 98 (June 1988), pp. 88-89.
[10] Virolle-Souibes, p. 193. Cheb Mami relates that he once won a television talent show but was passed over in favor of a more traditional Middle Eastern-style performer. Afrique Magazine (April 1990), p. 12.
[11] Bizot, The Face, pp. 87, 93.
[12] Rosen, p. 23.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Jean-Francois Bizot, “Le blues de l’espoir,” Actuel 105 (March 1988), p. 132.
[15] Martin Johnson, “Do the Rai Thing,” Pulse! (November 1989), p. 50.
[16] Rosen, p. 23.
[17] Afrique Magazine (May 1989), p. 14.
[18] See Arun Kapil, “Algeria’s Elections Show Islamist Strength,” Middle East Report 166 (September-October 1990).

How to cite this article:

David McMurray, Ted Swedenburg "Rai Tide Rising," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).

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