November 19, 2008

Banned In Oran: 70's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground

Rai.jpgOur favourite alt-ethnography label, Sublime Frequencies, has a new record out and – surprise! surprise! - its another absolute corker. This time round, its an all-too-brief survey of the vibrant roots of contemporary Algerian rai called 1970's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground.

If you had even a vague interest in world music during the early 90's, then you probably would have heard of rai music, a style of North African pop that was notable for the rough but hypnotic wailing of male vocalists like Cheb Khaled. But even if you missed that, then you might have heard Desert Rose, an insufferably bland piece of car-commercial music by Sting that became an international hit in 2000 and featured golden-throated young rai star, Cheb Mami, whose contribution was sufficiently over-produced to render it innocuously exotic.

For much of the history of rai, though, "innocuously exotic" is probably the last thing you would have accused it of being... The genre began life in the 1920's when rural Bedouin peasants, who had been robbed of their land by French settlers, moved to the port city of Oran to work in the factories there. They naturally brought their traditional songs with them and fused them with those of the local cabarets to produce the musical bastard that became known as rai.

From the start, its lyrics focussed heavily on the lives of its urban poor audience, and often broached subversive or taboo subjects like drinking, police harassment and forbidden love. Such subject matter ensured that rai would remain officially banned until the 1980's.

Its birth in cross-pollination also meant that rai musicians were always amenable to absorbing influences and instruments from elsewhere. This started with borrowings from the music of the French colonisers and was followed, in the latter half of the century, with the incorporation of elements from Western rock and pop.

1970's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground focusses on this last stage of rai's development prior to it becoming acceptable and going mainstream. It showcases eight tracks from the “bad boys” of the time, who were injecting a raucous, rockin' sound into the genre and using Western instruments like trumpets and electric guitars with wah pedals. The following track, by one of the godfathers of modern rai, Messaoud Bellemou, is typical of the sound of the time – boisterous trumpet (courtesy of Bellemou), clattering rhythms, droning organ, and vocalist, Sheikh Benfissa, wailing over the top of it about... owning a car. No slick production values here, just wildly infectious frisson and fun.

Bellemou & Benfissa - Li Maandouche l'Auto

The album which is only available as an LP at the moment, can be purchased from Forced Exposure (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

Posted by Warren at November 19, 2008 09:56 PM | World