Music

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Raï

Barbara Flaska

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to Raï

Label: World Music Network
US Release Date: 2002-10-01
UK Release Date: 2002-09-30
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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?

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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