Rai, the folk music that put Algeria on the international map, originated in 1930 in a small Bedouin Shepherds village in the city of Oran. Rai is a musical genre mixed with Spanish, French, African and Arab music that is listened to by the Algerian population. At the beginning its rise, men were the only singers, but later women joined in on the act. Rai songs usually highlight social and economic issues, along with the French colonial policies that had an impact on the rest of the Algerian population. When it comes to male Rai singers, they are referred to as “Cheb,” which translates to youth or “Cheikh for an older singer. Female Rai singers are called either “Chebba” or “Cheikha.”
During the 16th century, Oran was divided by Spanish troops, who inhabited the city, into four factions: Jewish, French, Spanish and Arab. Each community was known by their own musical style. The Arabs were known for their unique ‘Al-Andaluz’ style, one that was brought by many Arab migrants from southern Spain in 1492. Another type of music played during this era by the Arabs was ‘Gharbi’, which is traditionally Bedouin. The most famous singers of that era were Cheikha Tetma, Fadila D’zirya and Myriam Fekkai. Melhun poetry, chanted by male Sheikhs accompanied by flute and drums was also popular in the 16th century. Melhun singers such as Cheikh Mohammed Senoussi, Cheikh Madani, and Cheikh Hachemi Bensmir were well known. With the different cultures and various types of musical styles there is no doubt that Oran during was a little paradise for artists.
However, the social and cultural structure changed during French colonialism. In Oran by 1920, most Bedouin singers were collaborating with the French, meaning singers were only allowed to sing at traditional Arab events such as weddings. As women were put under a strict social code, there were only a few female singers. Different female outcast groups were the only artists allowed to perform during French colonialism. One of these artists was the famous Cheikha Remitti. By 1930, most musicians began to join Socialist and Marxist revolutionary organizations as a form of rebellion against colonialism. This rebellion was the root of Rai.
During its invention, Rai was a mix of rural and cabaret styles of music. Rai songs were mostly about farmers and peasants who lost their land to French settlers, as well as the rest of the Algerian population who were treated as second citizens. In the 1930s, the artist Blaoui Houari added the Al-Andaluz and Egyptian classical instruments to create a new Rai genre, which became known as Wahrani. Later, Mohammed Belarbi and Djelloul Bendaoud created another style of Rai by mixing in Western instruments such as the piano. During the Algerian struggle for independence, Rai was used as a form of resistance against the French. By 1964, after independence was gained, Rai was not exclusive to the population of Oran and became popular in the rest of the country as well. By 1980, Rai reached the height of its popularity, but during Houari Boumédienne’s term, Rai singers were censored because of their criticism of the regime’s failure to fix social and economic issues.
With the popularity of Rai and the high rate of youth unemployment, Rai became the music of the Algerian youth. Rai gave the youth a voice to express their cultural freedom. However, the rise of Rai was not only seen as a threat to the regime, but also to fundamentalist Islamic groups. After the Algerian army cancelled the result of the elections in 1991, which began the 11 years long civil war, artists of all kinds were targeted by extremist groups, especially Rai singers, many of whom were assassinated. One of these singers was the famous Cheb Hasni who was killed by an extremist group in front of his parents’ residence in 1994. During the threat of the civil war, most Rai artists immigrated to different European countries, either to escape from military enlistment; such was the case of the Cheb Khaled, or to escape death threats from the extremists. Artists such as Cheb Rashid, Feudal and Mami were all among Rai artists who immigrated and kept Rai alive while abroad.
Despite the censorship and persecution that Rai artists went through, it became a well-known genre not only in Algeria, but also abroad. In 1988, Cheb Khaled introduced Rai to a new audience outside Algeria with his first album Kutché. With the release of his second album in 1992, Khaled began to perform in France, which increased his fame. Shortly afterwards, Rai artists such as Cheb Mami, Tahar, Feudel and Nasro followed in his steps and continued to introduce Rai to wider audiences. With the current political situation and the end of the civil war, Rai artists were free not only to spread their music worldwide, but also to continue to represent Algerian people from all walks of life.
Agaila Abba (@Agailita) is a freelance writer specializing in African, North African and Middle Eastern affairs.