There are two posts today (one musical, one visual), this being Excavated Shellac’s one year anniversary, for what it’s worth. Many more people have stopped by over the past year than I would have expected, and I appreciate that.
This post features another favorite type of music of mine: early Algerian raï. Raï is a major force in North African music today (I just combed through 5-10 current raï compilations at Amoeba Records this weekend), although musically it’s a shadow of what it used to be, nearly unrecognizable in comparison. Take a listen to the track samples on the Rough Guide to Raï, for instance, and for the most part you’ll hear what may sound ostensibly to Western ears like current North African pop music. Lyrically current raï departs from standard pop, but musically it’s undergone a renaissance. With one notable exception on the CD by the great Cheikha Remitti (1923-2006) who up until her death still sang the original raï, you will barely hear a glimpse of the hypnotizing rosewood flutes and older, raw voices found in early raï – which, as you can probably surmise, is barely represented on CD.
Raï means “opinion” or “advice” in Arabic – although I’ve read that it can sort of mean “Right on!” when exclaimed. The origins of the music converge in the 1920s-1930s in the seaside port of Oran, where rural bedouins and migrants brought their music into the city. Generally a male or female singer sang accompanied by only one or two gasba, the aforementioned desert rosewood flute, and a guellal, the Algerian hand drum. And raï’s vocals are intense: a driving, repetative lyrical force that sometimes lingers around a very narrow range of notes, which gives it the effect of a chant. What gave raï its reputation however was the way in which women, the Cheikhas, eventually popularized the genre in the mid-20th century, and the controversial subjects that they sang about. In much the same way that Greek rebetika music is known as the music of the Greek underworld, early raï is referred to as the music of Orani brothels and taverns.
Which is probably a narrow view, unfortunately. Raï music was obviously a far cry from classical Arabic music, and many singers sang about social issues, poverty, and the police – but there are raï songs about love, too. This piece, by Cheikha Djerba, recorded in 1954, is one of them. The title, “Rah Alia Rah” translates to “He’s Gone.” I quickly played this for a friend who is a native colloquial Algerian Arabic speaker and he was able to discern that it was sung by a woman who yearns for her husband, who has traveled overseas to find work.
Here are both sides of this record. Pathé gave us this recording a bit muffled for some reason (it’s not digital distortion), but it hardly distracts.
For more early raï, there are wonderful pieces by Cheikha Relizania on both R. Crumb’s “Hot Women” CD, and the Secret Museum’s North Africa volume. There were also several volumes made in France of a series titled “Anthologie du Raï” in the 1990s which seem completely unavailable – if you have any of these, please get in touch!
Also a great surprise, this fellow on YouTube plays a batch of classic raï from 45s, right on his record player for your eyes and ears.
Thanks to Karim B. for the translation!
Issue Number: PV 477
Matrix Number: CPT 11644 (21) – M3-164009