In his black jeans and striped shirt, Khaled resembles the stocky boss of some Algerian trucking company. You’d never guess that he is “the king of raï”, and one of the greatest celebrities of the Arab world. Khaled is the man who brought north-African music to a new audience in Europe, shaking up the pop scene in France and becoming as influential as Bob Marley in the process.
Cheb Khaled, dubbed the King of Raï, is perhaps the most prominent star of this wonderful Algerian musical phenomenon known as Raï (which means “opinion”). On the surface, and in numerous videos, Raï appears to be little more than party music, a pop variety from North Africa, with little overt sense of being subversive, critical, or even particularly opinionated despite the literal meaning of its name. As it turns out, that is a superficial and distant reading of a phenomenon that might be better compared to rap:
American rap and Algerian raï are both styles born out of a strong local culture which use the language of the street to express opinions about street life. They value lyrical improvisation and “borrow” musical ideas from many sources if and when necessary. They antagonize the values of “decent” society and the cultural mainstream. They are the musical styles most favoured by the dispossessed in their respective countries, by those who have little to lose and a lot to say. And for both, their paths to international fame have been littered with controversy and misunderstanding. Just as folk who live comfortably within the cultural pale in America wince when they hear words like “bitch” and “uzi” coming from the mouth of a rap artist, so the cultural muftis of the Maghreb turn red when they hear tales of drunkenness, despair, sex, and hedonism from the lips of a teenage cheb. [Morgan, 1999, p. 413]
The raï phenomenon is part of a Mediterranean mélange that defies easy categorization. In fact, raï has varied and transformed so much over the decades that it is hard to delimit its boundaries: there is no fixed subject matter, no typical or emblematic instruments, and even the gender of the performers has shifted from female dominance in its early history, to male dominance in the present. Nor is it fixed to any one place any longer, having become a transnational phenomenon that emerged from a locale that, of course, was itself at the crossroads of numerous Mediterranean cultures, ranging from Arab to Berber, to Jewish, French and Spanish. The one, enduring and distinctive feature of raï is its situational quality of opposition to whatever dominant regime is in place that dictates limits to people’s freedom, whether that be the French colonial regime, the post-independence regimes, Islamic fundamentalism, or anti-Algerian discrimination in France. Women, passion, dance, and alcohol are now characteristic features of the raï message, and not surprisingly some raï performers have been beaten and assassinated in Algeria, and Cheb Khaled also fled Algeria for France.
Cheb Khaled was born in Oran, Algeria’s second largest city, which is also the often cited birthplace of raï which emerged in the 1920s. Oran is a port city, in northwestern Algeria, and that fact is itself significant because as a port city it drew in influences from the wider Mediterranean world, and from the rural interior of Algeria. Oran was a place for the dispossessed, the displaced, and the transient, and raï was played in nightclubs, brothels, and taverns, by and for distillery workers, peasants, and prostitutes. Originally, as mentioned before, women were the dominant performers. With stricter Islamic guidelines coming into place during the war for independence, and especially after, women were gradually displaced by men. Raï went underground again soon after independence, then was virtually nationalized as part of the national patrimony and was accompanied by a boom in cassette sales, and then was driven underground once again with the Islamic resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s.
The first video below is of Khaled performing the song that made me fall passionately in love with Raï, and since the sound is a little low, I recommend turning up your speakers. Those who can read Portuguese will benefit from the subtitles that translate the song.
Khaled — El Arbi (“The Arab,” performed live in Brazil)
Khaled — El Arbi (higher quality audio)
Cheb Khaled — dekou dekou
(Great burning passion in this song, and a melody and instrumentation that I suspect will class this particular expression of raï as “traditional.”)
Cheb Khaled — Aicha
(One of his greatest international hits.)
Shifting, flexible, borrowing, moving…enduring. Perhaps this is one of raï’s important lessons of mutability within continuity. I will leave the final word to a scholar whose work very effectively sums up the longevity and impact of raï:
Raï is compelling and challenging in all its facets: ideology, lyrics, and music. In its rebellion against the establishment, whether Algerian or French (Western), raï artists negotiate and appropriate issues regarding tradition, originality, authenticity, universality, identity, and sexuality. As a musical genre and a cultural youth movement, raï has had to travel through the tremulous terrain of cultural transformation and adjustments. Through the process, it has gained support and opposition from a variety of groups both inside and outside Algeria. Its reception in Algeria is unique: some groups use it as a tool of resistance while the government promotes it as a part of its national and cosmopolitan heritage. An artist like Khaled, for example, emerges as a hero and an enemy, Arab and French, a rebel and a model citizen. With its infectious groove, rebellious nature, and appealing popularity, raï most likely is here to stay; to document, to contest, to bridge gaps, and to participate in the creation of a better future for its Algerian citizens and music fans all over the globe. Raï artists reveal their social, political, and moral identity through lyrics of pain, anger, frustration, sexual desires, and quest for freedom. In the process, they will continue to challenge laws, shatter conventions, and overcome standard musical national classifications, further articulating complex issues of authenticity, identity, and social boundaries. [Al-Taee, 2003, p. 23]
Music will continue to be an important part of the Open Anthropology Project, and this post on Raï joins others on calypso; rapso; more rapso; chutney soca; reggae; bollywood; ‘gangsta rap’; Aboriginal Canadian hip hop; Navajo Nation steelpan music, and Aboriginal Australian reggae; country and folk; and even rock.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Al-Taee, Nasser. (2003). “Running with the Rebels: Politics, Identity, and Sexual Narrative in Algerian Raï.” Echo: A music-centered journal, 5 (1) Spring.
- “Arabic-Speaking Pop Stars Spread the Joy,” by Jon Pareles, The New York Times, February 6, 2002.
- Gross, John; McMurray, David, and Swedenburg, Ted. (2002). “Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Raï, Rap, and Franco-Maghrebi Identities.” In Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (eds.), The Anthropology of Globalization, pp. 198-230. London: Blackwell.
- ” ‘I was spat at and called a traitor’ -Khaled,” by Robin Denselow, Dawn/The Guardian News Service, December 12, 2004.
- Khaled (from Wikipedia)
- Khaled Liberté — Site officiel: news, videos, photos, discography, biography (French)
- Khaled Mania — unofficial/fan site: news, videos, photos, discography, lyrics, etc. (English)
- “Khaled — Algerian Rai Music,” by Paul Tingen, SOS: Sound on Sound, October 1997.
- La musique Raï: short history, overview, in French, from an Algerian-focused site.
- Morgan, Andy. (1999). “Algeria — Rai: Music Under Fire.” In Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, Richard Trillo, Orla Duane, and Vanessa Dowell (eds.), World Music: The Rough Guide, pp. 413-424. London: Rough Guides/Penguin.
- Raï (from Wikipedia)
- “Raï – Rebel Music from Algeria,” James Han, January 28, 2008.
- Skilbeck, Rod. (1995). “MIXING POP AND POLITICS: The Role of Raï in Algerian Political Discourse.” Paper presented at the Australasian Middle East Studies Association conference at Macquarie University, Sydney on September 22, 1995.