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Raï 101: A Guide to Algerian Pop

by Jason Gubbels

Raï 101: A Guide to Algerian Pop

About this playlist

"Folk music" seems too tame a descriptor for the insistent rhythms and haunting melodies of raï, Algeria's major contribution to global pop music, so perhaps it's easier to compare the form to Jamaican reggae -- an indigenous style of music equally beholden to folk traditions and Western influences. Raï originated in the port city of Oran as a rural/urban musical hybrid in the 1930s. By the 1970s, raï performers had begun explicitly nudging the form ever closer to Western pop, and soon synthesizers and drum machines could be heard alongside flutes and hand drums in major chart hits. Over the last 30 years, raï has continued to embrace an expanding array of influences, from electronica and punk to hip-hop, even while breaking into the coveted European pop marketplace.

Yet American audiences remain largely unfamiliar with the style, even after Sting's 1999 hit "Desert Rose" prominently featured raï singer Cheb Mami (the club mix version included here gives even greater space over to Mami). While distribution in the States remains spotty, raï artists like French-Algerian superstar Rachid Taha have crafted albums aimed as much at Western audiences as Algerian fans, such as Taha's 2004 "Rock el Casbah" cover of the Clash classic.

This playlist offers an overview of some of raï's biggest names from the 1980s through today, including cuts from such female pioneers as Cheikha Rimitti; massive Algerian hits from such duos as Cheb Khaled/Chaba Zahouania ("Ya Loualida Semhiliya") and Chaba Fadila/Cheb Sahraoui (["N'Sel Fik"]); hip-hop from collective 113; some Moroccan raï from Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects; and concluding track "Menfi" taken from a famed 1998 Paris concert showcasing Kahled, Taha and Fuadel all under one roof. And if you're wondering why so many raï performers claim the first name "Cheb," think of American rappers appending MC or DJ to their names: "Cheb" is merely an honorific meaning "young," used originally to help distinguish raï singers from "older" chaabi performers. But this infectious music loses nothing in translation.