Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Raï

[5 November 2002]

By Barbara Flaska

Raï, a music that simmered up and boiled over in Algeria despite two different governments’ attempts to force the lid back down on the roiling musical pot, has spilled over and out into the global confluence, now streaming onwards its unpredictable but always controversial course. Back in the early ‘90s, Raï was beginning find itself under the benign spotlights of the big media centers of New York and Los Angeles. CD compilations of famous Raï singers were culled and transferred from scratchy quick-dupe French/Algerian cassettes and released to Western audiences by a different record company every year for close to a decade. Which was good, because this all allowed for ongoing exposure to a new listening audience, one which simultaneously welcomes the raw driving propulsive rhythms of Raï and are often moved by the soulful, powerful singing of Arabic voice soaring in full easy flow.

This Rough Guide to Raï pretty much follows that previous tried and true formula. The 12 songs (many licensed from the Culture Press label) are a very good selection, the listening marred only occasionally by audio drop-off that probably exists on the master tapes. The notes provide a brief history of the music’s recent evolution, outlining how the form remained popular despite official repression, and its survival through modernization and emigration. The material included seems to reflect that very contemporary flavor, with many of the cuts perhaps better described as pop-Raï. Though the great names of Raï are here (for a current compilation could not be thought of as decent without them), including the wonderful Cheikha Remitti, and “the prince and king of the genre”, Cheb Mami and Cheb Khaled respectively.

The fact that lyrics are in a language other than one’s own will never stop people from growing to love music that originates from other cultures. However, because the very word Raï is often translated as “opinion”, that means the singers are working hard with their words to impart an important message to the listener, which because of the lack of translation is lost to me. On this compilation (as its many predecessors), unless you’re native to the region, you won’t know what’s being sung about, as no translations are provided, and you won’t be enlightened as to whether the words are in any of the local dialects or in Algerian Derja. This has been a common enough reaction to Raï records and concerts during the past decade. Yet, little has been done here to help the Western listener with this language dilemma, even though a lot of power phrases were tossed around about the lyrics—that the “words were rougher and saucier”, “plainspeaking” and “honest” “covert praises” full of “funky power and venom” in the “rootsy and arcane local lingo of Oran”. Cool, but what might they be?

A few song titles were translated (“La Verité” was skillfully tendered into English as “The Truth”), and half a sentence outlined the story line of a love song. The lengthiest explication was provided for “Moul El Bar” (ably translated as “The Barman”). “Serve me another, barman, serve me another / My baby has gone and it’s been ages since she’s appeared / Bring me a bottle and a glass / I don’t want beer / Bring me whiskey”, and the song’s composition being wholly justified by the single fact that “its lyrics aren’t exactly designed to please the local iman.” I could expect no less a presentation from a company that has many resources to draw from and one that wrote the book on world music. Still, in case you don’t catch my drift, all you’re really left with is an invitation to get into the danceable tones of the sufi groove and shake your booty if you dig it. Well, that could be okay even if somewhat shallow. If this music encouraged Algerians to party by the railroad tracks, why did I have the feeling that this compilation wanted to take me to seedy clubs where Eurotrash like to flock for an away-from-home sordid slice-of-life? I didn’t understand a word of the songs, but I could read through the liner notes.

Raï, it is now apparently hoped, will manage another crossover and begin making inroads into the lucrative listening habits of the reggae festival subset. Some record companies and critics are helping this process along, by drawing immediate parallels, saying such things as “Raï is to Oran and western Algeria what reggae is to Kingston and Jamaica: its soundtrack, its cultural ambassador and its pride.” Fair enough, and a most natural confluence, especially if the company handling distribution is now headed by the past master of marketing reggae to middle class white kids. Such effluence becoming more of a distinct possibility now, especially when I read of recent reggae concerts featuring Raï singers. While the album’s subtitle is “Arabic grooves: rebel music of Algeria”, I find Babylon literally in Baghdad with late-breaking reports coming from the banks of the biblical Tigris river, from Western observers watching a boatload of teenagers rocking to the hot rhythms of Algerian Raï. Though I didn’t have the feeling the atmosphere there was just like a rock ‘n’ roll booze cruise anywhere.

If the point of the The Rough Guide to Raï compilation is to introduce Western listeners to a very contemporary selection of Raï that also provides a bit of modern history, they have succeeded. But tell me again how it is that the cross-dressing star Abdou is just like Boy George and Cheba Zahouania’s “Shab El Baroud” (“People of the Gunpowder”) is the Raï equivalent of Johnny B. Goode?

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