Intoxicating collages of radio-transmitted rai, chaabi, desert blues, and synthy pop open an impressionistic window onto Algeria's musical culture. But if you don't already know what you're listening to, you're out of luck.
Radio Algeria is the latest in a series of musical compilations put together by Alan Bishop of Sun City Girls. The Radio records (in addition to Algeria, there's one for Thailand, Sumatra, Java, and perhaps others) are meant to approximate the experience of turning on the radio in their point of origin. In fact, that's how the material was collected -- through AM, FM and shortwave broadcasts, accumulated over a period of years, and painstakingly arranged into genre-hopping compositions. You hear shreds of music, advertising, DJ announcements, all mysterious and unidentified.
Radio Algeria is, like the rest of its series, a tantalizing glimpse at a very foreign milieu, totally enjoyable on its own terms, but more about mood and sensation than musicology. Although the titles reference regions within Algeria, you're on your own if you want to know the artist, instruments, style, title or time period of any specific piece of music. What is the nasal, saxophone-ish wind instrument that opens "Disco Magreb", or the not-quite-guitar that picks up after a slick, Westernized radio announcement? No idea. Who lays down the hypnotic and Tinawaren-ish blues line in "Saharan Music", with its handclapped rhythmic backing? Not a clue. Is "Radio Oran" rai or chaabi or something entirely other? The liner notes give no answer. The whole experience is very much like landing in a foreign country, not knowing the language or the lay of the land, and simply absorbing the sights and sounds and smells.
If you've ever done that, you'll know how much fun it can be.
There are hints at Algeria's difficult political history -- some 100,000 people died in the early 1990s civil war -- in the note that English is entirely banned from state radio, and at the cultural diversity in the sheer number of musical styles represented here. You also get a sense of the disorienting pace of modernization in this oil-rich state, in the way that flimsy dance pop is juxtaposed against age-old prayer singing, and cool voiced, French-speaking announcers lead into fiery, traditional chants. And, finally, you are reminded of the subversive role that music can take -- putting women in the spotlight, as on the wailing opening of "Folk Mysteries", in a conservative Islamic state, marrying Arab rhythms to gritty urban rock styles, and continually reinforcing and reimagining traditional culture. But unless you come to the disk with a solid understanding of Algerian music and culture, you are not likely to get more than a dim sense of all these issues.
What you will get, however, is a load of good music, diverse, well-selected, and intelligently arranged, as well as the indefinable sense that you're right there in Algeria every time you put it on. It's like opening a window from your backpacker hotel and smelling the spices in the local market. You may not know what they are or how to use them -- that comes from books -- but you know what they are, in some real sense, just because you've experienced them.