This paper was delivered before the Australasian Middle East Studies Association conference at Macquarie University, Sydney on September 22, 1995.

The Role of Raï in Algerian Political Discourse

by Rod Skilbeck

Raï began in 1900 in western Algeria but came into its own in the harbour city Oran during the 1920s. Its basis was in Arabic love poetry and Bedouin folk music. Traditional rai had two styles; female meddahas who sang for other women at private gatherings, and the more ribald lyrics of the cheikhas (including Rimitti, Ouda and Djerba) who added more Bedouin rhythms[1] and performed in cafes, bars, bordellos, accompanied by percussion and wailing gaspal (rosewood flute). Oran's French colonial population in conjunction with its proximity to Morocco and Spain, added further to the cultural cocktail.

Cheikha Rimitti, "Ha Raï Ha Raï" - 203k (au file)
from the album 'Sidi Mansour' CTX018CD ©SILENCES / TALBI 1994

Modern raï began in the 1950s and 60s. Male singers - cheikhs (lit. old, or, master) introduced violin and accordion. Most well-known was the heavily Western influenced Bellemou Messaoud who incorporated the trumpet, violin, lute from the other modernists, adding an 'call and response' echo effect infused with jazz, cha cha, and, mambo flavours[2].

Bellemou Messaoud, "Andi Probleme" - 347k (au file)
from the album 'La Pere du Raï' ©WORLD CIRCUIT 1989

This rhythm and melody gave way in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the pop style of raï pioneered by Ahmad Baba Rachid in Tlemcen. The pop-singers called themselves "Cheb" (young) to underline the break they were making from the self-contained, rich poetry of the cheikhs. Instrumentation consisted of; bass guitars, drum machines and the synthesiser, though the Western technology did not sacrifice the traditional sound at the altar of western rock. Traditional melodic structures were now "sandwiched between double percussion of Western drums and darbuka " in a quarter-tone scale - with denser, faster and more streamlined rhythms[3]: accented rhythms may be "played at the speed of a camel loping somewhere in Jamaica with eastern tunes over a funk or dub backing" but inspiration comes from songs of the 1930s and 40's, bettah (criers) from Oran's J'dida medina, and, suburban chants are mixed with bidhaoui (Casablancan electronic music)[4].

Cheb Khaled, "La Camel" - 249k (au file)
from the album 'Raï Raï' D26083 ©COOKING VINYL 1993

The provocative nature of raï lyrics is nothing new; and is to be expected. The literal translation of raï is "opinion" (along with "my way", "tell it like it is!" and many other possible translations) and connects with a strong libertine tradition amongst the Berbers of North Africa. Raï is the symbol of a lifestyle of cynicism and anti-authoritarianism. Even the lyrics of 70+ year old Rimitti show this tendency:

"Oh my love, to gaze upon you is sin

It's you who makes me break my fast...

It's you who makes me 'eat' during Ramadan.", and,

"People adore God, I adore beer"[5]

Lyrically raï became akin to the blues[6], singing of alienation, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and, forbidden sexual desires. Hedonism, existentialism, suffering and total inaction became major structural elements. Criticism held that pop-rai artists had no understanding of folk poetry and sang only of flesh and alcohol[7].

Tributes to excess, love and fate, in musical form, may not have sat well with the rising fundamentalist Islamic cheikhs who saw in it a reflection of previous Sufi sema (ceremonies) where almost exactly the same instruments as raï - kudums (small kettledrums) cymbals, ney (reed flute), and string instruments were used - along with the voice. Islamist antagonism to Sufism is particularly extreme in Algeria.

Though not the lifestyle Islamists or FLN government wished their massive youth population to associate with, rai connected with those who hold up the walls (the hittiste) because rai spoke of the achieved identity of the hittiste rather than an ascribed identity. Challenging accepted identities is an element common to all subcultures - Dick Hebdige describes it as questioning societal semantics, or creating 'noise'.

"[I]nterference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media. We should therefore not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy 'out there' but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation"[8]
Raï emphasis on forbidden desires, relations and addictions "is a rejection of taboos in a society of traditions"[9].

The hittiste are generally defined as urban poor, with no chance of employment, dependent on their families for shelter and food into their mid-20s. This is koukra (the curse) of extended childhood[10]. As Pierre Bourdieu has proposed, "youth and age are not self-evident data"[11]: the closer to social authority and influence a member of the public becomes, the fewer signs of youth are evident, or vice versa, as is the hittiste's case.

They waste their days walking with friends from cafe to cafe: vandalism, alcoholism and cannabis smoking are endemic amongst them. Having fun has become serious - the hedonism of the hittiste, "is an act of desperation... immediate gratification is grasped in default of some more distant collective solution"[12].

At the crisis point of October 1988, when dissent violently emerged in bloody rioting, it was a raï song - Khaled's "El Harba Wayn?" (To Flee, But Where?) which became the anthem of protesters;

"Where has youth gone?

Where are the brave ones?

The rich gorge themselves,

The poor work themselves to death,

The Islamic charlatans show their true face...

You can always cry or complain

Or escape...but where?"[13]

To raï's disempowered audience, condemnation by Islamist and government bodies "shapes and gives meaning to the very subject matter of" the music: powerlessness[14] and the inability to engender positive change. Accounts of powerlessness articulate what the FLN and FIS fail to "and in doing so provides a non-discursive explanation for the state of powerlessness" a theodicy a la Max Weber: the reason why things are not the way they should"[15].

Raï quickly attracted attention from those in power and those wishing to be. Rai was thrust into the political sphere, despite (and partially) because of its contempt for authority.

Music and politics most obviously interact is when governments directly interfere with bands, their work and materials. This occurred with raï from the late 1970s to mid 1980s. Governmental opposition involved the introduction of levies on blank tape, and the banning or jailing of artists. Indirect methods include: radio stations (all government controlled in Algeria) refusing to play raï music. Tapes were listened to secretively and pirated between friends. As with many other youth subcultures, government radios refused to play the music, religious officials decried it as Satanic - yet this rebellious facet in fact drove the energy of the pop-raï subculture. The tape cassette, became so popular from its introduction in Algeria that it supplanted the national radio networks of the government in popularity, according to Hocine Benkheira[16]. Once Algero-French community radio shows in the south of France started playing raï in the mid-80s the government's anti-rai programme was rendered pointless in all facets as Algerians tuned into the French broadcasts.

Government opposition ended with Cheb Khaled's meteoric rise to fame. With commercial success in the West, came cultural legitimacy in the eyes of Chadli Benjedid's regime. Faced with rising Islamist sentiment and growing popularity for western music acts the government's "social-cultural organisation Riad Elfet'h...decided to choose the lesser of two evils by encouraging this typically Algerian way of singing"[17]. The libertine attitude of the lyrics provided a powerful social weapon against Islamism. Parallels exist here with the encouragement of western rock in Central Asia by the Soviet Union to undermine Islam[18].

The government of Chadli Benjedid set about creating an 'official culture' to which all Algerians were informed they belonged - in order to both shore up support and to marginalise contending representations by "[p]rotecting 'the Algerian personality' against the Other"[19] Music's role in this Algerian personality was overlooked at first, but infiltrated into the official culture by necessity.

Now under government protection many rai producers toned down excessive lewdness in songs and placed a greater emphasis upon freedom and liberty. In this way rai was converted from a subcultural sign into a mass-produced object, and hence neutralised to a degree. The best artists remained critical of the regime and left for France, to seek fame and the freedom to freely comment on FLN repression. Performers, such as Khaled, Cheb Mami, Cheba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui moved to France to avoid variously, military service, Islamist campaigns and to launch international careers. In addition several raï singers have resided in France since childhood.

Rai in the mid-80s became a very strong source of identity for the Algero-French community in a similar way to which the hittiste related to it. Rai's main political effect was felt in personal politics reflecting and affecting "the politics of the everyday": the relationships and the intuition that steers behaviour[20]. Conversion to mass-production is one of the two methods identified by Dick Hebdige[21] to diffuse the threat of a subculture. The other is the re-definition of cultural deviancy as trivial or animalist, hence Chirac (whilst Paris mayor) expressing "his sympathy for the decent French working people being driven 'understandably crazy' by the 'noise and smell' of foreigners"[22].

President Chadli's open support for rai brought further fuel to to already simmering antagonisms in Algeria, religious puritanism and Berber ethnicity. The Berbers had launched a major protest against the exclusion of their culture and language from Algerian society in 1980 - the Tizi-Ouzou Spring, born of a banned poetry conference and including overt use of folk songs closely linked to rai. Chadli repressed the uprising harshly and in 1985 jailed two of the best known Berber singers for three years.

The move to fund and distribute openly non-religious music angered fundamentalist Muslims. For music falls between that which is expressly forbidden and that which is encouraged by reference to the Quran and the practices of the Medina under Mohammed. Its anti-music stances "appear to have excluded... [the] wedding music, work songs"[23] from which raï sprouted as unimportant culturally. "[P]ublished inventories of the components of culture in the 1960s by Middle Easterners would rarely include music along with religion, literature, social and political values"[24]. The inclusion of music as an aspect of culture worth defending from Westernisation was not considered necessary and as a result Islam has little influence in the shape and direction of Middle Eastern, and more specifically, Algerian music.

On a more obvious level, Islamist puritans are antagonised by official recognition of music containing "illicit" material. The old masters (cheikhs) of radical Islam versus the young (cheb) singers. In this manner popular music is a site "of negotiation, mediation, and 'rearticulation' of ...dialectics, such as, traditional/modern, young/old, male/female, city/countryside,... regional/pan-regional"[25], excess/denial, liberty/social order, and, opinion/obedience. Raï is a reminder that another tradition exists in addition to that preached by the Islamists: that Algerians have historically enjoyed strict religion and liberal politics, and that despite the revolution of urbanisation both still have a role to play. It is in this sense unsurprising that many of the hittiste attend mosques fervently for lengthy periods only to return to a life of raï listening and cannabis smoking with friends later on.


By the mid-80s the position of Algerian Islamists had become more extreme, rejecting the notion that Muslim civilisation, "had room for music, philosophy [or] poetry"[26]. The Islamist party formed in 1988, the FIS, considered "raï not merely 'noise', but 'illicit' and 'immoral'. Oliver Roy has noted that paradoxically Islamist movements, "waged war [against]...the music of their own culture...such as the Algerian raï", but when Islamists such as Radio Teheran produce music, "it is composed according to the rules of Western music"[27].

Following the introduction of multi-party politics in 1988 and the controversial allowance of the FIS's formation, Islamism had remarkable success. Municipal elections in June 1990 gave the FIS most of the large majorities. The FIS "immediately banned raï... had nightclubs closed, forbade the serving of alcohol"[28]. On March 21, 1991, young Islamists attempted to burn down a concert hall, during a performance. A few days later stones were thrown at another concert injuring several fans[29]. These actions have moved many observers to describe Islamism's attitude toward raï as that of 'war'.

The 'war' against raï reached its peak in late September 1994, as Cheb Hasni, the Prince of Raï, the most prominent raï singer residing in Algeria was gunned down at a cafe in Oran. Islamists were immediately blamed, an assertion strengthened by the kidnapping of the Berber singer Maatoub by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group, the more violent guerilla offshoot of the outlawed FIS). Maatoub was reportedly tried for apostasy and released later that month. Some feel it more likely that the government, losing youth support by detaining and torturing anyone who 'looks' like an Islamist (ie. jean clad, leather jacket wearing, and, bearded) had Hasni murdered to draw a line betwixt Islamist and hittiste camps over which the in-betweeners would no longer traverse.

Francois Burgat sees a strong element of exaggeration in reports of a war on raï, saying the decisions of elected FIS officials "were often distorted by the government, or simply fabricated by the government press"[30]. This he contends is part of the government response to Islamism. "Frictions that were dormant or non-existent have been exploited, others reinforced when they were not credible enough (football, raï) even invented from scratch".[31]

Yet the absence of music from Islamist programmes for an Islamic Algeria is evident. An Islamic state without music would surely be untenable. There would be no practical method of stopping home pirated copies of music be passed hand to hand, or of blocking transmissions of raï or rap beamed into the nation from France, the same goes for the viewing of pornography or soap operas. A schizophrenic society would ensue, with the "inevitable transgressions (drugs, alcohol, sex) tak[ing] place in hiding and thanks to money". With the temptations of a Western life, once experienced as part of the hittiste lifestyle and broadcast on Algerian state radio, still being received from TF1 across the Mediterranean, how long could the young of Algeria stay puritan?

The decision by Islamists in Algeria to react against raï rather than create some sort of amalgam of tribal music and a populist religious movement is a terminal flaw in its programme for a Muslim society and government in Algeria. The morals and lifestyles raï promotes are obviously incompatible with Islamic radicalism, and so the question may validly be raised as to whether popular music and Islamism can co-exist. For an answer, we must observe a recent phenomenon in Palestine which may point the way for future Islamist movements hoping to capture a youth audience.

The Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) of Gaza[32] has combined traditionally Arab rhythms with a loose Western rap structure to create HAMAS rock. The music involves no instrumentation save the electronic synthesiser. HAMAS rock overlays lyrics of holy war and suicide attacks on Israelis on the top of well-known Arabic melodies or popular Palestinian ballads. The group Shehadin (The Martyrs), have lyrics such as: "I am coming back with suitcases filled with bombs". Other songs praise Yahya Ayyash - Œthe Engineer¹ - HAMAS¹s bomb-maker. An engineer interviewed by David Hudson describes the songs as containing "the soul of Islam" and as "an alternative to modern music, which is prohibited by our prophet"[33]. It is obvious that the imagery and meaning of these songs overcome the evident paradox of not considering synthesiser accompanied raps on jihad to be Œmodern¹.

Algerian Islamism's refusal or inability to embrace the tradition's of village, philosophy and folk culture condemns its vision of Algerian identity to be incomplete. The hittiste subculture is not so much creating from scratch a new identity as a rejection of those currently ascribed, but a continuation of elements present in oral, folk cultures. Their reaction highlights much in the way the counter-culture of the 1960s in the West did, the flaws of the ruling culture. Thus exposing "some of the insecurities and prejudices of those in positions of power"[34].

Of course their rejection of power destines them to remain disempowered themselves. In addition it creates a further level of aliention within the subculture. Commercial success of top performers and the associated media attention undermines the alienation that unites the hittiste subculture: their role models become rich and famous. A static, listless and impotent class become enamoured with the perceived precedent of their heroes¹ "energy, expansion and limitless upward mobility"[35]. Titles bestowed upon the best raï singers¹: King (Khaled), Prince (Mami and Hasni), Queen and Princess - as has been noted in the milieux of Turkish arabesk popular music also - serve to, "obfuscate the processes of class stratification which are continuing to emerge"[36].


1. Nick Gold & David Flower, "Bellemou Messaoud: The Originator of Pop-Rai", from Le Pere du Rai, World Circuit, WCB011, 1989

2. Gold, op cit.

3. Miriam Rosen "On Rai", Artforum, Sept 1990, p. 22

4. 'Planete Raï: The Essential Series', Various Artists, Cooking Vinyl, D 26083, 1993

5. Gross, et al, op cit, p. 13

6. Hachlef, "Algerie: Danser avec le rai", from Le Rai en Algerie, various, Artistes Arabes Associes, AAA002, 1988

7. Hachlef, op cit.

8. Hebdige, op cit, p. 90

9. Rosen, op cit, p. 22

10. Meriem Verges, "'I Am Living In A Foreign Country Here': A Conversation With An Algerian 'Hittiste'", Middle East Report, Jan-Feb 1995, pp. 14-17

11. Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question, Sage Publishing: London, 1993, p. 95

12. Street, op cit, p. 184

13. Gross et al, op cit, p. 16

14. Stokes, op cit, p. 224

15. ibid, p. 225

16. Benkheira, op cit, p. 173

17. Hachlef, op cit.

18. Street, op cit, p. 14

19. Benkheira, op cit, p. 174

20. Street, op cit, p. pp. 3 and 184

21. Hebdige, op cit, p. 94

22. Gross, et al, op cit, p. 12

23. Racy, op cit, p. 246

24. Nettl, op cit, p. 20

25. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India, University o Chicago Press: Chicago, 1993, p. 10

26. Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1994, p. 196 27. Roy, op cit, p. 198

28. Roy, op cit, p. 81

29. Gross, et al, op cit, p. 15

30. Francois Burgat, The Islamic Movement in North Africa, Center for Middle Eastern Studies: Austin, 1993, p. 284

31. Francois Burgat, L'Islamise en Face, Decouvert Press: Paris, 1995 (excerpt)

32. To differentiate from the HAMAS of Algeria, a more moderate Islamist group.

33. David Hudson, Israel: Hamas Rock's Songs Of Glorious Death Top The Palestinian Charts. 15:08:95, Middle East News, 17Aug, Vol.3, Article Ref: 000693670215

34. Street, op cit, p. 16

35. Hebdige, op cit, p. 99

36. Stokes, op cit, p. 221

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