On this night in November 2009, Zamalek, a peaceful district in Cairo rustled an unusual racket. Right next to the Embassy of Algeria, violent demonstrations were taking place in the context of a “battle” between the media of the two countries triggered by the acts of vandalism (1) that marked the qualifying football match of the World Cup between their national teams. On the same day the “Al Jazira Youth Centre” was vibrating to the sound of the concert of Sahra, a “raï” group organised by SOS (that presents young independent groups). Raï is an Algerian musical genre.
Neither the audience nor Sahra were totally indifferent to the orderly “battle” opposing Algerian and Egyptian media. Before the concert, hostile comments on the Internet rejected the simple idea of singing raï “under such circumstances”; they were accompanied by attacks against the group singer, Ahmed Ezz who is of Moroccan descent, thought to be Algerian by a few. Before the beginning of the concert, in a mixture of humour and solemnity, the members of Sahra reassured everyone by confirming that they were all Egyptian and that after “what happened” they will reflect on whether to continue to play this type of music!
And yet, even today, the troupe alternates its own songs with the most famous songs of the raï repertoire; the group performs in two of the most popular night clubs of Cairo’s city centre – one of them has even reserved a fixed schedule every Thursday from midnight onwards i.e. when the crowd is at its best. The souvenir of the “football battle” has nearly faded away and Sahra continues to make raï known in cultural centres and in a few nightclubs. Their first album entitled “Sahra”, launched in April 2009 was also well received.
More than nine years have passed since the beginning of the “Sahra” adventure and this means that it has been very successful. Unlike many other young independent troupes who draw their inspirations from the big musical genres, especially Western ones like jazz, rock and rap, the founders of the Egyptian troupe Sahra have chosen a very particular genre that developed in a neighbouring Arabic country before conquering new audience in the whole world.
According to the present singer, Ahmed Ezz, the foundation of “Sahra” was an idea of Saïd Abderrahmane, the previous singer and of Ahmed Al Wahch, the keyboard player who chose to name the group after the title of Cheb Khaled’s song. Saïd Abderrahman made himself known with his nickname “Saïd Raï" so much he loved this musical genre that he discovered while travelling in Libya and hanging around with Algerians living in this country.
The origins of
date to the 1930’s in Western Algeria, precisely in the port city of Oran, subject to Spanish, French and African cultural influences.
“Raï” originally describes a Bedouin way of chanting the
, Algerian poetry in dialectical Arabic. In the beginning, it was popularized by the female singers that we used to call “cheikhate” (feminine for
). The words were essentially “madihs” (songs devoted to praising the Prophet) or invocations of social problems and difficulties of life. Later, in the cities of Sidi Belabbès and Oran, it strays from
integrating different European and African influences thanks to modern instruments. Expressing their worries but also their revolt and indocility, it soon became the favourite music of young people. This explains why the words “cheb” (youngster) and “chebba” (feminine version) became the titles used by raï singers.
From Oran to Paris
Nonetheless, the real birth of contemporary raï that is admired worldwide, took place in France thanks to the contribution of French musicians. According to Ezz, in its beginnings, raï was maybe an appreciated traditional genre but the singing style remained the same of the Bedouin chants and its music was poor: “They mainly used the sounds and the rhythms of the synthesiser. Therefore, the music was rudimentary and not very attractive. There are beautiful songs that date to this period but the real change took place thanks to Cheb Khaled in France when his unique voice and modern instruments started to enrich the raï repertoire and its old melodies. French production succeeded in presenting this alloy in such an attractive way that dazzled the whole world”.
In 1986, Cheb Khaled left Algeria and moved to France. His career in this country is a major turning point in the history of raï. In 1992, the release of his album “Khaled” was the event that attracted attention to this music. His success opened the way to other raïmen like Cheb Faudel, Cheb Mami ans Rachid Taha who became stars worldwide.
Ezz is a student at the Faculty of music education, the opera singing section. He discovered raï thanks to Cheb Khaled’s songs who he considers as the “king” of this musical genre. He already appreciated similar styles of music: “I was attracted by the traditional ornamented styles of Sabah Fakhri, of Nazem El Ghazali and of Nour Mehanna. Likewise, raï is characterized by a rich palette of vocal colours. I also liked the Tunisian styles like the one of Lotfi Bouchenak marked by melodic successions that are faster than in the styles of the Mashrek and Turkish music that mixes the oriental style with Western influences”.
In modern raï that integrates the beautiful influences of jazz, blues and rock, Ezz found all these traits that attracted him in these traditional styles. He even found a way of using the throat and the nose in his singing, something that he admired in the masters of classic Arabic chant. “Unless it’s genetic inheritance!”, he does not believe that his interest in this genre can be explained by his Moroccan descent: his father and his mother have always lived in Egypt, like him.
Between 1997 and 2005, Ezz sang with Charquiat, directed by the composer Fethi Salama. Charquiat is among the oldest and the most famous Egyptian jazz groups that mix music themes coming from very different countries to this genre. Besides raï, he sang mouachahat (plural of “mouachah”, poems sang to Arab-Andalucian music) and the mawawil (plural of “mawwal”, vocal improvisation). He was also part of other independent groups like Flamenca. When Saïd Abderrahman alias Saïd Raï, singer of Sahra left Egypt, Ezz became the first singer and participated to the recording of their first album.
“Our audience is still made up of youngsters who like independent groups; it is not the general audience of commercial music”, states Ezz. He doesn’t deny that in the 1990’s, raï was very popular among youth but according to him, this was a particular moment as a couple of objective reasons prevent its commercial development.
“In spite of its richness, in spite of its resemblance to the musical heritage of the Machrek, raï does not evolve in the same direction as commercial pop with its very simple singing style and the priority given to words to the detriment of music. Some people have considered raï as a new unusual fashion: in the “Hindi film” of Ahmed Adam, the hero is a hairdresser who loves to sing in wedding parties and who sometimes has to face the audience’s scepticism and irony.” As for the singing stars, adds Ezz, they have exploited the moments of this music’s popularity to appear in duo with well known raïmen. This was the case of Amr Diab with Khaled in “Qalbi”, released in the album entitled “Qamarin” and also of Samira Saïd with Mami in “Youm wara youm”.
Ezz believes that raï has influenced Egyptian singing well before becoming a fashion.
Thus, in the 1980’s, the melody of “Rohi trouh” of Ali Al Hadjar recalls the one of “Zwit Rwit”, an Algerian folkloric song which has a slower tempo, he states. Amr Diab has also been inspired by raï in “Hannit” and “Law Achqani”, among other songs.
What raï “says”
Ezz believes that the familiar character of raï’s lyrics played an important role in its wide diffusion: the songs that have become popular have either a lively rhythm like Khaled’s “Didi” or easy lyrics like “Aïcha”, “Abdelkader” or “Ensi Ensi” of the same singer. However, he admits that the Algerian dialect can be an obstacle to capturing the soul of this music.
Ezz states that before he started singing it, his interest in raï doubled when he could understand the texts.
He haphazardly met a friend who had studied in French schools with Algerians who noticed his love for this type of music and explained a few songs to him and taught him how to pronounce their words. This has enabled him to measure their boldness, he says.
In the 1970’s, the lyrics of raï went through an important change. This change has triggered a social and political struggle that continued till the 1990’s.
The Oranese coastal road and it’s cabarets as well as weddings parties in Western Algeria have witnessed the evolution of lyrics into outspoken texts referring both to sexual experiences and drugs and alcohol placing them at the centre of raging controversy of conservative families against raimen. With the development of Islamist movements, certain singers have been threatened with death; many of them took refuge in France. Those who remained in Algeria lived under the threat of suffering the fate of Cheb Hasni, killed in 1994 when he was at the height of his glory.
The word “raï” probably derived from the exclamation “ya ra’yi” (“Oh what a – regrettable – decision I have taken!”), that we frequently find in the old repertoire. Ezz states that it derives from “ra’y” (opinion, view) in Classical Arabic and explains this etymology by the fact that this genre was associated to a free and audacious expression of life experiences: “In raï, we find a sensual expression of love; for example this is the case in the refrain of “wala lila twalfi” (Khaled) that refers explicitly to nights of love. They also tell the life of young people full of sensual pleasure and carnal experiences. Certain songs recount prisons and criminal detention. Others are quite violent like the one where the man threatens his wife who left him with death (“You deserve that I break your neck”).
With Sahra, Ezz sang five songs that belong to the troupe. A few of them have tried to conciliate raï music in its original form with more or less standard lyrics written in Egyptian dialect. This is the case of “Sahran w iyaki” (I stay awake with you); “Helli el bab” (Open the door) that mixes a fusion of raï-rock with Algerian lyrics that one can describe as “normalised”, referring to a lover who boots out his loved one telling her that unlike her, he did not forget anything.
Ezz is sure that the most important reason behind Sahra’s constant success for more than nine years is the fact that while it is inspired by the rich heritage of raï, it remains open to all other musical tendencies. This is how the group can freely move from one type of lyrics to the other, exactly like raï, this creative and stunning mixture of themes coming from different countries.
1)The bus carrying the Algerian football team was pelted with stones on the 14th November 2009 in Cairo. False rumours of the death of Algerian supporters in the Egyptian capital have triggered attacks against Egyptian interests in Algeria.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech