Rai’s popularity in the West since the late ‘80s has had contradictory effects. On the one hand, as the first Middle Eastern genre to enter the World Music scene, rai music opened the way for other Middle Eastern and North African music acts. On the other, rai still tends to overshadow other genres of North African music in particular, due to the ongoing popularity of older artists like Khaled and Cheb Mami and newer ones like Faudel. Since Algeria, the cradle of rai, appears to be all about rai music, this makes it hard for an Algerian artist doing something else to make any headway.
It is of course a ridiculous notion that a country as large and diverse as Algeria could produce only one kind of music. One of the most significant trends in modern Algerian music comes from the region of Kabylia, the most important center for the country’s substantial Amazigh (Berber) minority. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Hassen Zermani, who records under the name Takfarinas (named after a Berber chief who routed the Roman army in the second century), comes out of the Kabyle tradition. And like the major rai artists, Takfarinas has been at it for a long time. He recorded his first cassette in Algeria in 1976. Since 1979, he has been based in France, where he released four albums prior to Yal. Along the way, he has attempted to renovate the Kabyle song, and garnered some popularity both in France and North Africa. Conscious of the importance of brand names in the World Music market, he has even christened his music with the genre name “Yal”, which he sees as the Kabyle competitor with rai.
Takfarinas’s Yal may be defined in opposition to rai, but it certainly shares contemporary rai’s willingness to incorporate a wide variety of styles. The album manifests no singular musical vision, but rather, eclecticism. It is Kabyle song, sung for the most part in Tamazight (plus some French), mixed variously with funk, flamenco, French ballad and reggae. The opening number, “Zaama Zaama”, is an uptempo anthem, sung in Tamazight but with a French chorus, and was a big hit in France. “Iness” is a beautiful, romantic love song, perhaps the most “Eastern” sounding of all songs on the album, complete with North African orchestra. “Tanoumi” is a straight-ahead, rousing number in the Algerian sha’abi style, complete with distinctive banjo playing, Kabyle-sounding only by virtue of the fact that the vocals are in Tamazight, not Arabic. My favorite is the funky, funky “Ayessiyi”, which features a Tamazight rap in the middle (one assumes from Takfarinas) and an extremely catchy chorus.
Takfarinas’s voice is a rich, supple, and multi-faceted vehicle throughout, and the instrumentation is consistently sharp. (Although Takfarinas is touted as a guitarist, he mostly leaves that task to others on Yal.) The album has its share of clunkers, however. Particularly weak is “Irwihene”, which opens with a wonderful istikhbar the unaccompanied, extemporaneous chanting that the traditional North African song frequently begins with. But the song quickly devolves into a cheesy ballad, and turns even worse when Takfarinas is joined on vocals by a woman singing in French (identified as “Chérubins de Sarcelles”). The album closes with “Lounès”, a song dedicated to Matoub Lounès, the great Kabyle singer and uncompromising radical, who was assassinated by Islamists in Algeria in June 1998. One can only support the sentiment, but unfortunately the number is not effective.
Takfarinas is sometimes criticized for being a political lightweight, for Kabyle artists pushing for Amazigh cultural and political autonomy within Algeria dominate the tradition he works within. Whereas Kabyle music tends to take the character of “protest music”, Takfarinas’s songs are for the most part, more personal, sometimes dealing with the hardships of living in exile from Algeria, but more often, speaking of love. Nonetheless, Takfarinas strikes a blow for Kabylia with this high profile, Tamazight-vocals album. Unfortunately, the results are somewhat mixed, but the high points demonstrate that Takfarinas has what it takes to compete on the world stage with the Khaleds and the Mamis-especially if his next outing is of a more consistent quality.