I'm working pretty hard and fairly steadily on the rai chapter of the book I've been trying to finish for ages, Radio Interzone.
Part of what I'm doing in the book is dealing with many of the myths about rai that have been spread, for about 25 years, about the music and the artists. A little over a year ago, I responded to a piece by Banning Eyre on NPR, which asserted that rai music was "banned" from Algerian state radio. I explained that it wasn't so much a ban as the encouragement of more "refined" and classicist culture, which the very idiomatic rai was not. I also wrote:
"The standard story told about rai is that the music didn't make it onto state radio until 1985, but it appears that the restrictions against rai were not iron-clad. For instance, Cheb Mami became known nationally in 1982 due to the fact that he performed on a very popular television show, Alhan wa chabab ("Melodies and youth"), a program devoted to discovering new talent. He also performed in a national song competition, singing "El Marsam." When it was announced that Cheb Mami had come in second, the crowd booed, believing that he should have come in first (Daoudi and Miliani 1996: 102)."
I've been working up this argument for the chapter. I had learned that "El Marsam" or "Yad El Marsam" as it is more commonly known, was originally written and performed by Cheikh Muhammad, a well-known artist from Oran working in the bedoui genre. Since there is a lot of material being posted all the time on youtube, from the rai tradition, I thought I'd see if there was a youtube of this song, by Cheikh Muhammad. I didn't find one, but I did find this very interesting vid. It shows Cheb Mami, wearing a t-shirt, sitting next to Natacha Atlas, with whom he is conversing in French, and a roomful of people, including Aki Nawaz (sitting on a couch, wearing a red kufiya, of course), watching a television screen that shows a very young Cheb Mami performing "Yad El Marsam."
The TV footage is probably from 1982. According to Daouidi (2000: 20), it was when Mami performed this song on television that he became well-known in Algeria. Note that Cheb Mami is backed by an "Oriental" orchestra, whose members are all wearing suits. (And isn't his vocal just gorgeous?) No electric guitar or electronic keyboards, no trappings of the "pop-rai" that was becoming so popular in Algeria at the time. (Here is Cheb Mami in a more characteristic mode.) Mami manages to get onto television because he is performing rai music from one of its respectable branches, the bedoui genre. Although bedoui was rural in origin and was not as prestigious as urban, Andalusian music, it could be made to fit within the national patrimony as "folklore." It did not have the risqué reputation of another of rai music's important roots, the music performed by the cheikhat, whose subject matter was more bawdy and whose image was tainted because the cheikhat frequently performed for mixed-gender audiences. It's the fact that Cheb Mami performs a song from the bedoui tradition that permits him, prior to the shift in state policy in 1985, when the regime (or at least its liberal elements) decide to take rai under its wing, to make it onto state media. The song he performed on the radio show Alhan wa chabab (referred to above), was "Wahran, Wahran," a much-beloved number written and originally recorded in 1950 by Ahmed Wahby, celebrated practitioner of ouahrani music, an urban genre of music developed in the '30 and '40s in Oran, and much influenced by the neo-classical music of Egypt, as performed by the likes of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, Umm Kalthoum, and Farid al-Atrash. Here is Ahmed Wahby's version (I can't find a version by Cheb Mami):
Again, this entry of Cheb Mami onto the national media was via a performance of a song from one of the "respectable" roots of rai, the ouahrani genre. Wahby moreover, joined the Algerian National Liberation Front, going into exile in Tunisia in 1957, and was a highly respected national figure.
I posted this video on youtube a few days ago, and "tagged" Aki Nawaz (of Nation Records and Fun'Da'Mental fame), who is a "FB friend." He wrote that he didn't remember the occasion, but that back in the day (I assume the early to mid '90s) he and Fun'Da'Mental used to share the stage on occasion with the "chebs" of rai.
The very sad thing about this video, of course, is what has happened to Cheb Mami. Or rather, what he has done, and the inevitable consequences.
Cheb Khaled has also recorded his own versions of "Yad El Marsem" and "Wahran Wahran." And the ouahrani artist Blaoui Houari has also done a well-known version of "Yad El Marsam."