Various Artists: 1970's Algerian Folk and Pop / 1970's Proto-Rai Underground
Both of these compilations provide interesting ways into a time and sound all too overlooked in certain circles, at least (hopefully) until now.
The simply titled 1970's Algerian Folk and Pop is the second such volume of music from label Sublime Frequencies. The first compilation focused on the country's Rai sound, a new kind of music pioneered by musicians on the northwest coast of the country that eventually became internationally known. This second set, as the title implies, expands beyond that one genre and into a variety of different sounds from the time. As if to keep the story of Algerian music imbued with variety, complexity, and tradition, the label has also reissued the 2008 compilation 1970's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground, which turns back to the Rai sound and shows it as a rebellious and independent response to censorship and government control.
The two collections act as nice companion pieces to each other in that they don't step on each other's toes. 1970's Algerian Folk and Pop tries to capture the breadth of sounds emerging in Algeria, and it succeeds nicely. But there's also a tension that rides throughout these songs, as they gained popularity even as they pushed back against the powers that were in socialist Algeria. There's both verve and resistance in opener "Habit En Ich", by brother duo Rachid & Feti. It starts with seemingly traditional sitar and nylon-stringed guitars, but then the song bursts to life with churning drums and backing vocals and just a hint of the electric elements they pioneered in pop music in the country. It's a good place to start for a compilation that takes us through the shambling psychedelic roll of Freedom (Houriya)'s "Abadane" to the bluesy organ skronk of Kri Kri's "Wahdi" to the lean surf funk of Abranis's "Chenagh la Blues". The variety here keeps things fresh, but it also paints the picture of a group of musicians bobbing and weaving in all directions away from an iron fist. There are elements of Western music here, and influences from other places outside Algeria, but these songs don't feel like they're borrowing from James Brown or Hendrix so much as they are trying any and all paths to a new voice of resistance. That search, as is clear on this set, yielded some powerful songs.
1970's Proto-Rai Underground takes a more specific focus, showing a moment in time where the quintessential Algeria sound also became a sound of rebellion. In Arabic, "Rai" means "opinion" or "point of view", and these songs together give us a seemingly united one. The compilation only focuses on a few voices but those voices stretch out in these songs in attempt to make grand statements, to be heard over the sound of those in power. Bellemou & Benfissa -- the former is considered the sort of godfather of this genre -- start the collection with "Li Maandouche L'Auto", a song about simply owning a car. This was a defining part of the movement. These songs often aren't overtly political, but instead take on quotidian concerns as if to make the everyday and the personal itself not just political, but also a story these singers and musicians owned. Groupe el Alzar's "Mazal Nesker Mazal" show the connections between Rai and other pop sounds at the time. There's a foundation of tradition, but you can also hear sounds from Bollywood clashing with rock music as horns double up stringed hooks. In the work by Boutaiba Sghir -- we get three songs here -- you hear the influence of jazz working its way into the Rai sound, and his songs most clearly show two traits of the genre. It's an often frenetic sound, but it also repeats frequently, giving many of these songs a transfixing feeling.
Both of these compilations also celebrate the 45 record. The pressing of singles became big in Algeria at the time of these recordings, and it became a way to document these burgeoning scenes and also to spread what they were doing. On 1970's Algerian Folk and Pop, the compilation feels like a series of singles, small islands of sound to be discovered, while 1970's Proto-Rai Underground sounds more like singles as a back-and-forth conversation between musicians, between members of a scene. In looking to represent a moment by capturing it's most representative sound, both sets succeed, though both also sacrifice any true stand-out tracks in the bunch. The Folk and Pop set seems to pick up where the fringes of the Proto-Rai sound start to go, and in that way it's a bit more immediately bracing. But both compilations are interesting ways into a time and sound all too overlooked in certain circles, at least (hopefully) until now.