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Cheb Hasni

Lover's Rai

(Rounder)

Fadela & Sahrawi

Walli

(Rounder)

Khaled

Sahra

(Island)

By Peter Margasak

Among the liberal reforms recently proposed by Iran's president-elect Mohammed Khatami are limits on the power of the police and the nation's religious militia, who have routinely patrolled the streets in search of, among other things, citizens listening to "forbidden," or nonreligious, music. As small as this gesture may seem to Westerners, to Algerians it must seem positively incredible. Rai, their leading native pop style, isn't officially forbidden, but it's become such a dangerous pursuit that its leading practitioners have fled to France.

In 1992, the country's secular, military-backed ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had controlled the government since Algeria was liberated from France in 1962, was less popular than ever, and it was all but certain that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would coast to victory in the general elections. It was a familiar story: the secular government was so ineffective and corrupt that the country's impoverished masses entrusted their fate to religion. But the FLN forced the resignation of president Chadli Benjedid, stopped the electoral process, and outlawed the FIS, which in turn launched a brutal terrorist campaign. Since then some 50,000 people--many of them journalists, artists, teachers, and foreigners, viewed by Islamic fundamentalists as proponents of Western values--have been killed in both terrorist and antiterrorist actions in Algeria.

In 1994 Berber singer Mattoub Lounes was kidnapped; fortunately he was returned unharmed. Rai singer Cheb Hasni wasn't so lucky--that same year he was murdered in front of his family by fundamentalists. Khaled, the greatest and most popular of all Algerian rai singers, left the country before the violence started, and the husband-and-wife duo of Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahrawi left after Hasni was killed. Recent releases from these artists illustrate the effects of rai's current dislocation.

By the early 90s, with Khaled long gone, Hasni had become Algeria's number one male singer, but the unsophisticated production and predictable stylistic flourishes on Lover's Rai, culled from his vast catalog of cassette-only releases, represent the stunted state of Algerian-produced rai. In the early 80s Khaled had revolutionized the music by introducing contemporary Western elements, namely synthesizers and drum machines, but after he moved on, stylistically and geographically, Hasni continued to rehash the same cliches. Obviously Algeria's political turmoil and poverty limited the influx of new sounds which could potentially influence the music, but rai production had also become an assembly line--low costs meant greater profits. Hasni's pinched tone and swooping range are not without appeal, but he was little more than a singer of silly love songs.

In the liner notes to Walli, Hasni's good friends Fadela & Sahrawi say the future of rai is in the West--and ironically, nowhere is this more evident than on their tribute to Hasni. Lyrically, "Hasni" poignantly expresses the helpless rage that pervades the country (in translation, "Everyone heard it all from A to Z / My brother Hasni died / And hope died with him"), but as heard on the new Bill Laswell-produced album, the duo are more forward-looking than Hasni was. Their passionate vocals are backed by a crack live band, an improvement over Hasni's tinny synths, and songs like "Dance the Rai" and "Dellali (My Lover)" convey a strong Western pop sensibility. It wouldn't be surprising to hear Madonna singing the fluffy melodies, but the hard Arabic inflection nicely offsets the slick production. "Wayala" borrows the hypnotic percussion of Morocco's Gnawa musicians, beautifully anchoring the fleeting contemporary sound with an ancient tradition. The most daring production, however, is on "Hasni." Spare hip-hop breakbeats, discombobulating backward tape smears, ominous French rapping, distant-sounding muezzin chants, incongruous sweeps of strings, distended organ swells, and Sahrawi's pained, sorrowful voice mix to express the same sense of uneasiness imparted by the lyrics.

No doubt Fadela & Sahrawi were inspired in part by Khaled, who was dubbed "the king of rai" at a major rai festival in his native Oran back in 1985; he's done more than anyone to open up rai to international influences. Sahra, which was recorded in Paris, Los Angeles, and Jamaica, is his third spectacular major label effort, and he continues to aim for an expanded audience--he's a major star in France, India, and throughout the Arab world already. He's a marvelously expressive, soulful singer possessed of an ability to communicate that transcends language barriers. Even on the rather banal pop tune "Aicha," his voice transforms a shopworn Marvin Gaye melody into a thing of sublime beauty. Songs like "Lillah" and "Ouelli El Darek," which features backing vocals by Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffith, effectively bridge the modest gap between rai and reggae, although these and other reggaefied tunes on the album are the weakest and most predictable.

The title track, however, masterfully pairs shuffling hip-hop beats and soaring Arabic strings with Khaled's clipped, consonant phrasing, and "Oran Marseille," produced by Marseilles-based hip-hoppers IAM, layers haunting oud (Middle Eastern lute) samples, fragmented string melodies, French rap, and a fat bass line over a tough, commanding breakbeat. "Ki Kounti" casts a glance at Latin America, incorporating a breezy groove and featuring the romantic Spanish vocal stylings of Saul Hernandez. Khaled has been heavily influenced by French pop singers like Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, and Jacques Brel, and the somber accordion and piano on "Detni Essekra" testifies to their enduring impact on him. And the gorgeous "Wahrane Wahrane" is modeled after the sort of stylized, string-heavy classic Egyptian song sung by Umm Kalthoum, with a beautifully atmospheric solo by Algerian violinist Djamel Ben Yelles. Khaled's genius is that he makes all these influences seem part and parcel of rai.

Last week Algeria held its first multiparty parliamentary elections since the violence started, and not surprisingly the government-backed party, reconfigured as the National Democratic Rally, dominated the elections, which were denounced as fraudulent by most observers. If rai is to survive the troubles of its homeland, it's certain to do so in exile, becoming an even more international style. Sadly, as with much of the world's best music, the artist's ill fortune is the listener's good luck.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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