Cheb Khaled (خالد حاج ابراهيم), King of Raï (راي‎): Algerian Freedom, Fusion, and Fête

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.
Robin Denselow

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:

12 thoughts on “Cheb Khaled (خالد حاج ابراهيم), King of Raï (راي‎): Algerian Freedom, Fusion, and Fête

  1. Nullifidian

    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….

    I found this interesting because it ties into much of classical Arab poetry and Arabic-language poetry generally. Some of the best of it was either religiously skeptical (e.g. Omar Khayyám’s poetry) or devoted to acts and things forbidden by Islamic canon law (e.g. the poetry of Abu Nuwas, with its celebrations of alcohol, ribald humor, and homoerotic love). Like some of the raï performers, many poets of the Arab world were imprisoned, exiled, or killed for their verse.

    Unfortunately, the classical Arab poets are not fully appreciated in the English-speaking West, as many of the greatest ones have yet to be adequately translated. Only part of Abu Nuwas’ work has only been translated in two books, with a third containing seventeen selections of his poems, and these books are hard to find and prohibitively expensive.

    Because of that, I decided to buy a secondhand Arabic-language edition of his poetry (Diwan Abi Nuwas) from a Lebanese bookseller for vastly less than what I’d have to pay for an English edition of only his wine songs. But unfortunately, I had failed to count on U.S. government ignorance and paranoia. My book was stopped at Customs and two Customs agents were sent to my home to demand an explanation of the book! I replied that, all things considered, Bin Laden was unlikely to be sending out secret messages in the guise of poetry written by a man who celebrated wine, ribald humor, and homosexual sex. I also noted that this would have been apparent if they had anyone in Customs with even a passing familiarity with Arabic, and said I’d consider working for them if they’d make me an offer in the mid-six figures with full medical and dental coverage.

    I got my book the next week and never heard from them again.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      The level of their paranoia is even higher than imagined, and what balls they have to question a citizen about what he is reading — but no, the state’s war is not an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab one, no crusade here in the land of the free.

      Aside from their stupidity, let’s turn to mine for a second: is it not the case that Sufi Islamic poetry about God can also be very passionate, in ways that some of the more hardline Wahhabi types find scandalous? Is any of it in English? I had a friend in the PhD program in anthropology at the University of Adelaide in Australia who did his research among Sufis in northwestern Pakistan. I think he became one. If I am not mistaken, Sufis were also persecuted by the Taliban — yet here in North American, the popular discourse is that they are all “Muslim” and “Muslim” is usually a euphemism for some form of barbarism.

      In the meantime, thanks for sharing your notes on Omar Khayyám and Abu Nuwas — I have read neither, and now I want to.

      1. Nullifidian

        Yes, many Sufi poets write with an ecstatic passion (and incidentally, some of Khayyám’s poetry celebrating alcohol has been reinterpreted as an allegory of the soul intoxicated and in thrall to Allah) that puts them far outside the pale of stricter Islamic traditions. Many Sufis have been imprisoned and murdered, like the most famous Sufi martyr Al-Hallaj. He was imprisoned for nine years then had his hands and feet cut off and was executed. He was a poet too, and his Kitab al-Tawasin has been translated in verse into English.

        Another famous Sufi poet was Farid ud-Din Attar whose The Conference of the Birds was an allegorical treatise on Sufi theology with the hoopoe standing in for the Sufi sheikh leading his students to enlightenment. This too has been widely translated into English.

        Sufis have been persecuted under the Taliban both personally and symbolically when the Taliban blew up the Sufi shrine in Peshawar. Everyone knows the Buddhas of Bamyan but Westerners seem genuinely unaware of Taliban attacks on more liberal Islamic sects. They were also persecuted under the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

        I’m aware of three books that feature Abu Nuwas in English translation. The one you’re most likely to be able to find through your university is Poems of Wine and Revelry: The Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas, trans. by Jim Colville. There’s also O Tribe That Loves Boys, trans. by Hakim Bey (a pseudonym of Peter Wilson, anarchist and poet), and Carousing with Gazelles: Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad, which contains seventeen of Abu Nuwas’ mudhakkarat (homoerotic poetry) translated by Jaafar Abu Tarab.

        Omar Khayyám is much more famous, and you should be able to pick up a copy of his Rubaiyat anywhere. I do have to caution you against Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation, which is remarkably unfaithful to the source text, occasionally so much so that his English translation cannot be linked to the original text at all.

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  3. Musaab Hashim

    Hi , nice article , I’m an old rai fan from Sudan , and for your information , in Sudan it is not a common thing to listen to rai music , anyways the website mentioned above is an English-based fans forum , and this is an invitation for you to join us if you like.

    Musaab Hashim

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks for your visit and your message, much appreciated. You are the first person in Sudan to leave a comment here, and I was very interested to hear what you said about rai.

  4. Musaab Hashim

    Mr. Maximilian Forte !! , WOW , I wrote that message about a year ago and I just read your reply , anyways I’m still Raii/Khaled fan and my passion just keeps growing day after day , if you are still interrested; why not contacting me , I will be more than happy.

    Best Wishes

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks Musaab, great to hear from you again. I will be writing to you. By the way, did you see Cheb Khaled performing at the opening ceremony of the World Cup in South Africa? Good to see that he is not showing any signs of aging!

      1. Musaab Hashim

        I will be waiting your message Maximilian , and yeah sure I saw him in the opening ceremony of the World Cup , well I have to agree with you only on his shape and general look , but however his voice is not like in the past , it is still good or even very good but not legendary like it was in the 90S.

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