Saturday, January 05, 2013

In search of the origins of "pop-rai": Bellemou, Bouteldja, Boutaiba...and Cheb Khaled

I'm currently at work writing a chapter on rai for my book (provisional title: Radio Interzone; who knows when it'll be done). One of the questions I've been trying to work out is the history of “pop-rai.”

A number of accounts claim that it was the song by Oran artist Chaba Fadela, “Ana ma h'lali ennoum” (I don't enjoy sleep anymore), recorded in 1979, that launched the pop-rai era, with its chorus, “Beer is Arab, but whiskey is European.” Bouziane Daoudi and Nidam Abdi (“Records: Music from a melting pot - Rai, the sound of Algeria,” The Guardian, October 5, 1989) interpret the chorus thus: “I have no problem getting drunk on beer because whiskey is too expensive.” (Yes, beer is produced in Algeria, and in Oran, by the Brasserie Algerienne Oranaise.)

Others have suggested that the term pop-rai dates back to 1974 or 1975, and that it emerges with the release of recordings by Messaoud Bellemou and his various collaborators. I agree that in order to understand how modern rai developed after Algeria's independence, it makes sense to trace the developments further back than 1979. Unfortunately, this period (rai in the nineteen seventies) has not been well documented, neither in the literature nor in the musical archive. The Sublime Frequencies compilation of 1970s rai music, 1970's Algerian Proto-rai Underground, released in 2008, marked an important and very welcome attempt to document what liner-notes author Hicham Chadly regards as an unjustly ignored period in rai. But it's just one compilation.

Fortunately, and thanks in large part to the fact that so many Algerians are putting on the web previously very "rare" recordings, mostly on Youtube, there is enough material now to piece together  a somewhat more complete as well as much more complicated story than the one told previously.

Boys take over: Belkacem Bouteldja 

Let's start with what happened to the cheikhat (singular, cheikha) tradition, one of the key sources of contemporary rai, which emerged in Western Algeria. The cheikhat of the Oran region gained a national reputation during the 1950s (several of them were recorded by French labels during this period), and some of them, like Cheikha Rimitti participate in the short-lived cultural efflorescence that marked the first years of Algerian independence (won in 1962). But as the revolutionary regime consolidated itself, and particularly after President Houari Boumedienne came to power in 1965, women were banned from singing in Algeria's cabarets and restaurants. Meanwhile, the government made gambling and the sale of alcoholic beverages in Muslim public places illegal, regulations which were in conflict with the popular drinking culture surrounding rai and particularly the music of the cheikhat. The government also imposed curbs on popular religious practices, such as the wa‘dāt, the saints festivals that typically included song and dance, and where cheikhat typically performed. The wa‘da was an annual festival held at the end of the agricultural season, honoring the patron saint of the region. (It was at one of these festivals that Rimitti reportedly received her nickname, which is alcohol-associated.)      

In the wake of the marginalization of the cheikhat, it was young men from the greater Oran area who kept the musical tradition publicly visible and who took up the repertoire. They also performed the bedoui repertoire of the likes of Cheikh Hamada, Cheikh El-Madani and Cheikh El-Khaldi, another of the musical streams that formed the basis of what we now call "rai." It is perhaps the case that such younger artists began to displace the bedoui cheikhs from their position of popularity as well.

 Belkacem Bouteldja

One of the first to record and perform the cheikhat repertoire in the post-independence era was Belkacem Bouteldja, a young man from the El Hamri quarter of Oran. In December 1965, at age thirteen, Belkacem recorded his first 45" single, “Gatlek Zizia,” a song originally made famous by Cheikha El Ouachma (“the tattooed”) El Temouchentia (d. 2009), who recorded it for the French label Pathé in 1957.

Cheikha El Ouachma was from Aïn Témouchent, a town 72 kilometers southwest of Oran, and she recorded a number of tracks for various French labels in the fifties and sixties. As of 1965, she divided her time between Marseille and Aïn Témouchent. When rai gained national renown in Algeria in the 1980s and achieved international renown in subsequent decades, Cheikha El Ouachma never gained the sort of recognition won by other great cheikhas, like Cheikha Rimitti. Mohamed Kali for his part calls Cheikha El Ouachma the "mamie du rai," rai's grandmother. And Kali tells us that according to  Blaoui Houari, the great singer in the wahrani style (sometimes known more precisely as wahrani ‘asri, "contemporary" wahrani), it was El Ouachma who succeeded in making the transition from "baladi" or country style cheikha music to what eventually came to be known as rai. Or to use other terms, she was responsible for the movement from rai trab (rai of the land, another name for the music of the cheikhat) to rai moderne. (Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to hear, at least for me to hear, the musical evidence for Houari's claim.)

Bouziane Daoudi (Le rai [2000]) translates into French a line from her song "Gatlek Zizia"as follows: "Zizia te dit ce soir on couchera chez moi" (Zizia [diminutive for Zohra] tells you, tonight we'll sleep at my place). Daoudi also mentions two other songs by Cheikha El Ouachma, “Smahni ya el commandar” (Excuse me O commandant) and "Sid elhakem" (His honor the judge), both of which he says evoke the everyday experiences of ordinary people living under military repression during wartime. (If they are critical of the colonial regime, I wonder whether these songs might in fact have been recorded post-independence.)

Have a listen to Cheikha El Ouachma's 1957 version of “Gatlek Zizia” here, and then check out Bouteldja's 1965 recording, here. Bouteldja's version is very much in the same style as Cheikha Ouachma's, his vocals backed only by the gasba (reed flute) and guellal (hand-held frame drum). Such was the characteristic accompaniment of both the cheikha and bedoui musical genres. The chief difference between the two recordings that I can hear is that Bouteldja's voice sounds like that of an adolescent, and indeed, he was only thirteen when he made the recording. The song's release seems to have marked the taking over of the of musical tradition and repertoire of the now-marginalized cheikhat by an emerging generation of young male singers.

Bouteldja claimed, in an interview given in 2009, that the song in fact marked his supersession of both the cheikhat and the bedoui cheikhs. "Avec le titre Gatlek Zizia, j’avais mis fin au règne de Rimitti Allah yarhamha, cheikha Habiba, cheikha El Wachma, Hakoum, Kaifouh de Témouchent... J’avais déstabilisé le marché du disque de l’époque" (K. Smaïl, "Je vis dans la précarité sans retraite ni ressources", El Watan, January 6, 2009). (With "Gatlek Zizia" I put an end to the reign of Rimitti--God rest her soul-- Cheikha Habiba, Cheikha El Wachma [Ouachma], Hakoum, Kaifouh of Témouchent...I'd destabilized the music market of the time.) (Cheikha Habiba was from Sidi el-Abbès, and was popular in the Oran area during the sixties. Hakoum is presumably Cheikh Hakoum, who you can listen to here. Go here for a fragmentary bit of info on Cheikh Kaifouh.)

According to French scholar Marie Virolle (La chanson raï, 1995), Belkacem Bouteldja recorded under the name Kacimo, and he had a small "orchestre" called Étoile, formed in 1964, whose members included Missoum Bensmir and Belarbi, and in which he played the melodica. (Bouziane Daoudi (Le rai) says of Mohamed Belarbi: "de son côté, fait ses débuts en 1952 à Oran dans l’orchestre de Jacques Vidal. Il jouera de la batterie dans différents groupes à partir de 1956 tout en intégrant les rythmes afro-cubains dans ses compositions." Missoum Bensmir was the son of a celebrated bedoui poet, Cheikh Hashmi Bensmir. Here's a nice track from Bensmir, with lots of photos on the Youtube vid. I have no idea when it was recorded.)

Missoum Bensmir

Missoum Bensmir and unidentified musicians
source: here

Belkacem composed over 60 songs over the next ten years, and made records in Casablanca, Algiers, and Paris. Belkacem was also known by the nickname "El Joselito" or "Little Joe," because of his androgynous sounding voice. He shared the nickname with a Spanish adolescent singer and actor (born, José Jiménez Fernández) who was well known in Algeria at the time due to his film and television appearances. Despite the recent (1962) departure of Oran's very substantial Spanish colon population, Spanish culture remained important in the city remained, and Oran continued to host foreign variety shows, especially from Spain, until the beginning of the 1970s (Daoudi and Miliani 1996). (One also wonders whether the "Little Joe" moniker might have had something to do with Little Joe Cartwright, played by Michael Landon, a character on the US t.v. show "Bonanza," which broadcast from 1959-1973 and was very popular abroad. I saw it when I lived in Lebanon, but I have no idea whether it was broadcast in Algeria.)

I've been unable to locate any recordings of Kacimo with his orchestre. But here's another interesting recording by Belkacem Bouteldja from 1967 or 1968, which deals with issues of migration to France, called "Hedi Fransa" (This is France). One of Belkacem's best-known as well as most infamous songs from this period is the 1965 recording "Serbili Baoui" ("Serve me my BAO" -- the Orani-made beer produced by the Brasserie Algerienne d'Oran.) The picture below, from a recording of the song, shows Bouteldja pouring a fruit drink, not a beer. Belkacem recorded "Hedi Fransa" in the rural, cheikha style. "Serbili Baoui" is more or less cheikha style, but I believe that violins are also playing along with the gasba(s).

All the recorded material of Bouteldja's from this period that I am able to locate on youtube is done in "traditional" style. "Milouda fine kounti" is a song originally done by Cheikh El-Younsi Berkani. There is also "Ya Binti." Sometimes violins added, as on "Serbili baoui" and "Ya Rayi," a cheikha song. Unfortunately, I cannot locate any of Bouteldja's work with Etoile, which must have had a quite different and more modern sound. It seems that his recorded "hits" were all done in the "traditional" vein.

It appears that Bouteldja's career had fallen off somewhat by the early seventies, but was then revived when he began collaborating with Messaoud Bellemou.

Messaoud Bellemou and "pop-rai"

Messaoud Bellemou
Pop-rai emerged, some claim, when Bouteldja and other young vocalists and musicians devoted to "Orani folklore" began to work with the legendary figure Messaoud Bellemou during the 1970s. Messaoud Bellemou (b. 1947), like Cheikha El Ouachma, was from the town of Aïn Témouchent, 72 kilometers southwest of Oran. While a student at the municipal school, Bellemou was encouraged, according to an article found on wikipedia, to learn the trumpet from a teacher named Henri Coutan, a French colon. Frank Tenaille, in his book Le Raï: De la bâtardise a la reconnaissance internationale (2002), claims that Bellemou's trumpet teacher was a Spanish colon from Oran. Given that Bellemou was from Aïn Témouchent and not Oran, and that the wikipedia article names the teacher, Tenaille is almost certainly in error.

Kali tells us that when Bellemou started on trumpet, he played Western tunes, and in particular, the Spanish passacaglia. But he earned his living as a house painter. In the mid-sixities the Amar circus passed through Aïn Témouchent and recruited Bellemou to play trumpet in its orchestra. He toured with the circus for six months, working with seasoned musicians. After he returned home, Bellemou began to practice techniques for playing quarter tones on the trumpet -- necessary if one wanted to play Algerian music. It was also necessary if one wanted to perform the local, "folkloric" music of the cheikhat and the bedoui cheikhs, as the gasba, the reed flute, is central to the texture of both the bedoui and cheikha genres. So Bellemou attempted to recreate the sound of the gasba with his trumpet playing, but he also flavored his music with some Spanish paso doble and flamenco. (It's important to recall how strong the Spanish influence was in colonial Oran, and Oran province more generally. Orani residents of Spanish origin outnumbered those of French origin by two to one in 1886; by 1941, the ratio of Spaniards to French was three to one.) The ethnomusicologist Lechlech Boumediène, cited by Kali, states that Bellemou also seasoned his modernized rai with other traditional genres like gnawa and hawzi.

Kali claims that what Bellemou did was a revolutionary development, and that he managed to produce quater tones by using his breath to modulate notes as one would do when playing a bugle. (Kali also tells us that the Lebanese trumpet player Nassim Maalouf was instrumental in designing a trumpet that could play Arabic modes, with a fourth valve half the length of the second--but this occurred some years after Bellemou made his breakthrough.)

Bellemou's trumpet playing gave the local music what Kali calls a "jubilant charge." He began to play at wedding processions and was a big hit. (Playing at weddings was and is still an important source of income for musicians throughout the Arab world.) As a result of Bellemou's influence, the trumpet gradually began to replace the use of the double-reed ghaïta or mizmar which heretofore had typically been employed on such occasions, in Western Algeria. By 1968, at age 22, Bellemou started his own ensemble and was able to leave his painting job and to make his living from music.

Bellemou's music got no radio airplay, and cassette recording had not yet come into existence. So at first he chiefly made a name for himself by accompanying the local soccer team when it competed in other town. He used to play every sort of music, local, paso doble and film soundtracks. Bellemou's regional reputation grew more and more.

(According to wikipedia, Bellemou also used to accompany local singers (of both the cheikha and bedoui variety), including Cheikha Ouachma, Cheikha Bekhta and Cheikh Brahim, when they performed at weddings in the countryside around Aïn Témouchent. Unfortunately I've as yet found no recordings of Bellemou backing any cheikh or cheikha on trumpet, so I can't verify that this is in fact true.)

Bellemou recruited other young musicians from the area who were interested in the local "folkloric" traditions and, and reportedly started to make recordings (at first on vinyl) in this style in 1973 (source: wikipedia). The wikipedia piece says Bellemou's first recording was a track called "Sidi H'bibi," featuring (according to the bog Kaloulou) Hamani Hadjoum on vocals. For her part Marie Virolle (La chanson raï, 1995: 54) dates the emergence of the new, modern sounding "pop-rai" to Messaoud Bellemou's recordings with Belkacem Bouteldja, beginning in 1974. (Wikipedia says the two started working together in 1975.) Kouider Metaïr ("Oran, berceau du rai," in Kouider Metaïr, ed., Oran la mémoire, 2004) meanwhile dates the emergence of pop-rai to a specific recording by Bellemou and Bouteldja, “Zarga ou masrara” (Brown and radiant), released in 1975. K. Smaïl ("Les initiales: B. B. du raï," El Watan, December 15, 2009) also claims that Bouteldja sang on "Zerga ou mesrara.”

For his part, Kali states that Bellemou gained national recognition due to the release of two 1975 recording, one with Cheikh Hamani (i.e., Hamani Hadjoum Tmouchenti) on vocals, called "Ya hbabi ana bassit," and another track (unnamed) with Boutedlja.

Based on the successes Bellemou achieved due to one or all of these recordings, he went on national tour, a tour that was noteworthy for the fact that he charged admission (and people paid to see him), at a time when typically concerts were put on by local state authorities and entry was free.

Fortunately for the researcher interested in this history, it is now possible to locate, via Youtube, many of the recordings that are essential to it. (But not, alas, "Ya hbabi ana bassit" or "Sidi H'bibi"). It appears that the Bellemou recording called “Zarga ou Masrara” in fact features the Aïn Témouchent singer, Hamani Hadjoum Tmouchenti, rather than Bouteldja. Tmouchenti was one of those local musicians recruited by Bellemou as he developed a new sound for Orani "folkloric" music in the early seventies. (Update, June 15, 2013: here is a link to Bellemou's "Sidi H'bibi." The vocal is, mistakenly I believe, attributed to Boualem Bouchkara. I also don't think that the Bellemou version sounds much like the famous "Sidi H'bibi" of Salim Halali, nor does it resemble much the version by Mano Negra.)

Bellemou and Belkacem Bouteldja meanwhile recorded a song that sounds virtually the same as "Zarga ou Masrara," under a different title: “Andi Mesrara” (I have a radiant girl). (I eventually found this source, which correctly names the Belkacem hit though without attributing it to Bellemou as well.)

Please listen to both the Hamani Tmouchenti version ("Zarga ou Masrara"):

And now to the Bouteldja version, "Andi Mesrara" (note that the Bouteldja video below opens with a more contemporary concert clip, and the song in question doesn't start til 2:00).

What is remarkable about these recordings is how Bellemou and his ensemble have modernized the patented cheikhat (and bedoui) sounds, especially when you compare them to Belkacem Bouteldja's 1965 “Qatlek Zizia.”

Jacket of "Zarga ou Masrara" (45"); Bellemou in jacket and tie

The percussion on both resembles what one hears on the cheikha recordings, but it is also considerably punched up by the playing of a tbal, a drum that is much larger and louder than the guellal, played by pounding it with a curved stick. Here's a photo one from a collection of postcards from colonial Oran. It's played here by an Algerian Gnawa, but the instrument is widely used by various Sufi cults in Morocco and Algeria, such the Aissawa, as well as by the Gnawa in Morocco.

Now here is Cheikha Rimitti, playing a guellal, whose diameter is much smaller than that of a derbouka.

On these foundational pop-rai recordings you can also hear the sound of kerakeb (sing., karkaba), the distinctive metal castanets played by the Gnawa (or Bilali, as they're known in Algeria). 

A female chorus repeats the male vocals and also contributes ululation, adding to the fuller sound that characterizes the two "Mesrara" recordings, by comparison to typical recordings from the cheikhat and bedoui tradition. 

But what I find most remarkable is that on these two recordings, the essential place of the gasba is taken by both trumpet and saxophone. It's Messaoud Bellemou himself here on sax, and his brother Mouafaq (nicknamed Mimi) is on trumpet. Both the Hamani and Bouteldja versions maintain the feel of the cheikha roots, but overall it's a bigger sound, a deeper, groovier rhythm, and with a more "modern" touch provided by the sax and trumpet. 

Now check out another Bellemou and Bouteldja number, “Inta Âkli,” from 1976, which has roughly the same sound as “Andi Mesrara,” except that Messaoud plays trumpet instead of sax, and it also features an organist, whose playing is quite subdued. 

The person responsible for putting this video up on youtube, "maghrebreunion" (who as of this date has posted 352 videos--mostly rai--and to whom I am eternally grateful) also provides a photo of the members of Bellemou's troupe from the mid-seventies.

They are identified, from left to right, as Kerbiche on kerakeb, Messaoud Bellemou on trumpet, Mimi Mouafak Bellemou on trumpet (I don't know why he is identified here as "Boumediane"), Hocine (holding a soft drink), the group's accordion player and organist, and Hamdane on tbal.

Please also listen to Bellemou's “Mani M'heni,” featuring Hamani Tmouchenti on vocals.

The rhythms on this track are quite amazing, and somehow the percussionist(s) manage to produce what sound like drum rolls. 

  l to r: Mouafak Boumediane ("Mimi ") and Messaoud Bellemou, trumpets, Hamdan on tbal

And if you really liked the Bellemou and Hamani Tmouchenti recordings, here's another: "Ana bhar aliya."

Listen too to another of Cheikha El Ouachma's recordings, “Hak Kachak Hak” (I'm not sure when this 45" was released). You will notice that Cheikha El Ouachma uses the Gnawa rhythms of the kerakeb here. It would seem possible therefore that when Messaoud Bellemou used kerakeb on "Zarga ou Masrara" and "Andi Mesrara" he may not have been innovating but rather following in the cheikha tradition, at least as practiced in the Aïn Témouchent region. (Recall that it is reported that Bellemou used to accompany Cheikha El Ouachma).

The idea for incorporating the tbal and the kerakeb might also have been due to the influence of the Moroccan neo-folk ensemble Nass El Ghiwane (and other similar groups, such as Jil Jilala and Lem Chaheb).

Nass El Ghiwane, huge superstars in Morocco, were notable for incorporating various regional and local Moroccan traditional musics and putting them together to create a new synthesis; they used both the tbal and (on occasion) karakeb. The Ghiwanian influence was enormous in Algeria at this time, and according to Bouziane Daoudi and Hadj Milani (L'aventure du rai, 1996), there were over 3000 Ghiwanian groups in Algeria in the early seventies. The young Khaled Hadj Brahim, later known as Cheb Khaled, started a group in the style of Nass El Ghiwane at age 11, in 1971, called Les Cinqs Étoiles (who, it seems, left no recordings). (The sound of Khaled's group, however, must have been somewhat different than Nass El Ghiwane, as Kalakoulou notes, since its instruments were accordion, bongos and violin.) Moroccan neo-folk quickly went out of fashion, however, after Morocco's occupation of the Spanish Sahara and the ensuing hostilities with Algeria in 1975. The influence of Moroccan neo-folk on Bellemou and company may have been that it provided a warrant for using instruments linked to separate folk traditions and putting them together to produce something new. It may have influenced Bellemou and company to use the tbal and kerakeb specifically. Or it may have been a more general influence, one which encouraged young people to take their local "folkloric" traditions seriously. Recall that we are discussing musical activity in Western Algeria, quite close to the Moroccan border. (The operative word here is "may," because I really have no idea.)

But what about the incorporation of saxophone and the trumpet? (I am unaware of any other recordings, besides those Bellemou did with Hamani Tmouchenti as well as "Andi Mesrara" with Belkacem Bouteldja, on which he played the saxophone.) Young Algerians were, of course, listening to music by the likes of James Brown in Algeria in the 1970s. Bouteldja tells us, in a 2009 interview with K. Smaïl, that as a young man he was listening to James Brown and Otis Redding, in addition to various Algerian and French musicians. But could cassettes by Egyptian Nubian musicians like Ali Hassan Kuban, Bahr Abu Ghreisha, Hassan Jazouli, or Hussein Bashir also have been making their way to Algeria at the time? Egyptian Nubian music of this period was noted for its use of brass and saxophone, and sometimes when I listen to Bellemou recordings from the seventies, I think I hear similarities.

Frank Tenaille (2002) claims that Bouteldja played accordion on some recordings, and that he used it to replace the sound of the zamr, a kind of double-reed clarinet favored in the bedoui music of Western Algeria rather than the gasba. I think Tenaille may be wrong again, both about Bouteldja playing accordion, and about the zamr, i.e. the ghaïta or mizmar, which was employed in wedding processions (as noted above) and not in bedoui music per se. Bouteldja, however, says that he played derbouka in Bellemou's group. Here's a recording of the Bellemou ensemble with Bouteldja on vocals which features the accordion. Perhaps Bouteldja is playing it -- but I've seen no other claims other than Tenaille's that Bouteldja played one. More likely it's Hocine of Bellemou's group (see above). The song is "Bakhta," which was originally written and recorded by Cheikh Abdelkader El Khaldi, and it is an excerpt from a long poem that El Khaldi wrote about his lover. (Here's El Khaldi's "Goul L'Bakhat Goul," which I think is a song from a different segment of the poem.) "Bakhta" was also recorded, previous to the Bellemou/Bouteldja version, by wahrani singers Blaoui Houari, Ahmed Wahby and Ahmed Saber, and later by Khaled, on his N'ssi N'ssi album (1993). A wikipedia article summarizes a description Khaled gave of the song in an interview in 1997. (Wahrani is another of the sources feeding into the development of modern rai.)

Sometime in the mid-seventies, Bouteldja was arrested, according to the testimony of Boutaiba Sghir in the very interesting 2003 documentary, Mémoire du Raï -- you can watch the segment here. I've not been able to find details on the arrest, only some vague references to Belkacem Bouteldja as a kind of "enfant terrible." Here's what he looked like in that period (from the cover of the 45" for the songs "Ndag Ndag" and Ya Rayi," recorded with Bellemou: you can listen to the latter here.)

As far as I'm aware, Kacimo did not play guitar, but I suppose that a photo of him posing with one, along with his hairstyle and his pullover sweater, would have helped to create an impression of the music as "modern."

(To confuse things even further: here's a live recording of Bellemou and Bouteldja, from the first rai festival in Oran, in 1985. They play "Ha Raï, Ha Raï," "Zarga Ou Masrara" [originally recorded, as we've seen, with Hamani on vocals] and then Bellemou does an instrumental. It's from an album, Le rai dans tous ses états, released on the French label Maison des Cultures du Monde in 1986, which also features tracks from Cheikha Remitti, Raïna Raï, and "Chab" Khaled.)

Boutaiba Sghir

Another young singer who Messaoud Bellemou recruited to work with him was Boutaiba Sghir (born Hafif Mohammed), from Chabate, a village located 7 kilometers from Aïn Témouchent. Bellemou in fact started working with this local vocalist even before he began performing with the Oran singer Belkacem Boutaldja. And although it may have been the Bellemou/Bouteldja collaborations (and particularly "Andi Mesrara") that put pop-rai on the map (at least in the Oran region), Boutaiba Sghir was equally crucial to the development of that "new" sound, especially given that Bouteldja disappeared from the scene for a time due to his jailing. The Sublime Frequencies compilation of 1970s rai music, 1970's Algerian Proto-rai Underground (2008) features three very fine tracks from Bellemou and Boutaiba Sghir. (For some reason, Bouteldja is absent from the album.)

Let's examine now some of the sounds produced by the Bellemou-Boutaiba collaborations. This recording by Bellemou and Boutaiba, "Dayha Oulabes" (featured on 1970's Algerian Proto-rai Underground), has an instrumental opening, with two trumpets and accordion, that reminds me a lot of Egyptian Nubian music produced by the likes of Ali Hassan Kuban.

On the Bellemou-Boutaiba recording "Manemchiche," dating from 1977-78, you can hear further development of the Bellemou ensemble sound, and in particular, the presence of bongos (or maybe derbouka), which give the song a distinctive rhythmic feel.

Another great Bellemou-Boutaiba outing (also on 1970's Algerian Proto-rai Underground) is "Malgré Tout." (Note the French title; French is routinely incorporated into the local Oranais dialect). You can hear an electric guitar clearly on the song's opening, and the rhythm here is dominated by bongos. (The chorus goes, "malgré tout mazal n'brik," or, "despite everything, I still love you.") The drum rolls are similar to those on the Bellemou and Hamani Tmouchenti track “Mani M'heni,” discussed above. (I guess, but it's only a guess, that it's Hamam Ahmad Zergui on guitar -- see below.)

Here's another excellent track from Boutaiba, I assume with the backing of Bellemou's ensemble, "Ki Kounti." It's notable in particular, from my view, for the strong guitar instrumental opening, and it's a real scorcher, with the percussion, vocals, trumpet, accordion and organ playing together to create a musical tempest. The person who posted it, "maghrebunion," says that it dates from the seventies and that it is off the album Ouine n'guiyel ana oughzali. Sublime Frequencies, or some other company with an interest in such material, needs to issue another compilation of seventies rai. If anyone does so, this track definitely belongs on it.

Chaba Fadela, who as we noted above has been cited by many as the originator of "pop-rai," used to sing back-up on occasion for Boutaiba in the mid to late seventies, before she started recording under her own name. Here she accompanies Boutaiba on "Ya Khali", from 1978 or 1979. The notes to the video state that it is Gana El Maghnaoui on trumpet, who was another important figure in the development of rai in the 70s. (I have thus far been able to find little hard information about him, but you can find lots of his music on youtube.) It is worthwhile comparing "Ya Khali" to Fadela's famous "Ana ma h'lali ennoum" track of 1979. After listening to both, it seems clear to me that Fadela's song, said by some to mark the emergence of "pop-rai," is more of a piece with "Ya Khali," recorded with Boutaiba, than marking any kind of radical break with what came before it.

Please check out "Ana ma h'lali ennoum" by Fadela (via Youtube). Helpfully (and once again, I am deeply grateful to the Algerians who have posted all these vintage recordings), it also features the jacket of the cassette, which looks like this:

Note that the cassette jacket attributes the track is attributed to Fadela and Bellemou. In Arabic, meanwhile, it says Fadela al-Wahraniya, or "Fadela the Orani." The person who posted the track on Youtube writes in his/her notes that she was called Fadela al-Wahraniya at the time in order to distinguish her from the well-known Algerian singer of hawzi, Fadhéla Dziria (1917-1970). The spoken introduction to the song introduces her as "Chaba Fadela al-Wahraniya." The recording then also seems to be one of the earliest uses of the cheb or chaba as a name for rai stars. (Here is another version of the song, from 1985 or 1986.)

The quality of the recording as reproduced on the Youtube vid is not very high. But you can hear electric guitar and accordion playing on the song's introduction. Although the cassette is attributed to Bellemou and Fadela, there is no trumpet playing. Perhaps it's Bellemou's "ensemble" who accompanies her. The accordion here substitutes for the gasba. We also hear (although it is not very strong) the electric guitar playing rhythm throughout. The song is also remarkable in that male voices (I don't know whose) respond to Fadela on the chorus. Compared to Bellemou's other recordings from the mid-1970s (at least the ones that are available), the major innovation of "Ana ma h'lali ennoum" song is that it features a female rather than a male lead voice. In that sense, it represents a partial return to prominence of female vocalists, the cheikhat, within the rai tradition. This return of women as featured vocalist in the "rai" tradition also happens to coincide with the cultural liberalization that occurred in Algeria after President Boumedienne (d. 1978) was replaced by Chadhli Bendjedid, who served as Algeria's President from February 1979-January 1992. (Chaba Zahouania, the other big female star of early pop-rai, reportedly started recording in 1981. Here's "Hey Delali" from Zahouania, recorded in 1981 with Groupe El Azhar.)

Benfissa, Groupe El Azhar, Frères Zergui, and others

Younes Benfissa

Bellemou also recorded with another vocalist named Younes Benfissa during the seventies, and according to wikipedia, before he even began working with Bouteldja. The article suggests that Benfissa too, like Hamani Tmouchenti and Boutaiba Sghir, was from Aïn Témouchent or its environs. I have been unable to learn more about Benfissa, but he did make a number of excellent recordings with Bellemou during this period when "pop-rai" was developing. Here's one, entitled "Li Maandouche L'Auto" (He who doesn't own a car), which you can find on the album, 1970's Algerian Proto-rai Underground. And here's another wonderful track from Benfissa, "Derou shour," which features him on both vocals and 'ud.

The 1970's Algerian Proto-rai Underground also features tracks from Groupe El Azhar and Cheb Zergui (from Sidi Bel Abbès). I cannot find much information about these artists, but based on their available recordings, they certainly are worthy of more discussion and research. According to Hicham Chadly, on the album's liner notes, Groupe El Azhar used to accompany Cheb Mami in the 1980's, before Mami moved to France in 1985. But they also made a number of recordings in the seventies, and were very active on the scene.

If you hunt around on Youtube, you can find tracks that Boutaiba recorded with Groupe El Azhar. Here's one, from 1975-76, which I think (based on the fact that maghrebunion reproduced the cover for it -- above) is called "Nar Guedate." Magrebunion also offers up this photo (below) of Boutaiba with the Groupe El Azhar, and he identifies the group's members as: trumpet, Saïd Tmouchenti (not shown); accordion, Bellebna (known as Hammani, RIP); guitar, Kouider; derbouka, Houcine Nahal; tar, Bellahouel. The violin and 'ud players are not identified.

I've been unable to determine where Groupe El Azhar were from. But maybe if they had a trumpet player named Saïd Tmouchenti, they were also from Aïn Témouchent?

There is also this track, "Ha Galbi Allah I'Ouatik B'Sbor", featuring Boutaiba and Groupe El Azhar. The Youtube vid features another photo of the group, I guess, but perhaps with some different personnel? It's hard to tell. Note that below we see someone on banjo and two violinists. The photo is not clear enough for me to tell what the gentleman standing in back is playing; perhaps it's a trumpet. Note that in both these recordings the ensemble playing doesn't really match the ensembles that are depicted. In particular, the trumpet is a central feature of both outings but the trumpet player only shows up (perhaps) in the photo below. 

Groupe El Azhar deserve a much larger place in the history of the early development of "pop-rai," perhaps as much as Bellemou and his collaborators do. Their recordings with the Frères Zergui in particular are especially interesting, most notably the wah-wah guitar playing of Hamam Ahmad Zergui. Check out this truly amazing track (title unidentified), featuring "Cheb" Zergui on vocals and guitar.

Groupe El Azhar recorded with a number of other artist--besides the Frères Zergui and Boutaiba--who were involved in the development of the pop rai scene. Via youtube, one can now find recordings they did with: 

Gana El Maghnaoui (mentioned above, 1978)
Cheb Khaled (1978)
Hocine Chabatti (Cheb Hocine) (1977)
Chaba Zahouania, "Hey Dellali," 1981


Cheb Khaled

Based on all the research I've done, I was ready to proclaim Bellemou and his collaborators as the founders of modern pop-rai (possibly with the addition of Groupe El Azhar). And to give pride of place to the city of Aïn Témouchent over Oran, which has been conventionally cited as the originator of rai.

But then I heard this song, from Cheb Khaled.

The title is either "Mahna Sigliya" or possibly "Hala la (Mahna Sigliya Maamda Ala Zega .....)." Two sources claim that it is from Khaled's first album, an EP really, released in 1974, when he was only 14, and named after its title track, "Trig Lycée" (The way to the high school), which you can listen to here. (Sorry, this is the best photo I could find of the "Trig Lycée" EP.)

"Mahna Sigliya" is immediately remarkable for its guitar work, which kicks in strong right from the beginning, is shadowed by a sax (at much lower volume than the guitar) and then is joined by an accordeon (perhaps played by Khaled). It has a quick paced beat (bongos and tambourine?), quite a bit quicker than traditional bedoui or cheikha rai. The accordion, sax and guitar play basically variations on the same riff over and over in between Khaled's vocals, but the interplay between them is quite intriguing, as the volume varies and the guitar and sax really go at it. It's really a wonderful track, fully as unusual (compared to what came before) and as compelling as Bellemou's "Mesrara" cuts.

The much better known "Trig Lycée" is less wild, but it's the same ensemble (such recordings usually took place in one session), but without any guitar. (Khaled recorded a new version of "Trig Lycée," now called "Trigue Lycee," on his 1999 album Kenza.)

I've been unable to determine who played with Khaled on this recording, but it is possible that he played accordion himself. (Unlike in the case of Bouteldja, there is not a shadow of a doubt that Khaled played accordion.) It could be Bellemou and his group. It could be Groupe El Azhar. Or perhaps there were some other musicians active in Oran (where the "Trig Lycée" album was almost certainly recorded) who were working in the same vein as Bellemou. (The Audotopia music blog says it was the Le Cinq Étoiles, but they don't really sound here like a folk band in the Ghiwanian vein.)

Kalaloulou meanwhile says that "Sidi H'bibi," Bellemou's first recording, with Hamani on vocals, sounds remarkably like Khaled's "Trig Lycée": "La similitude est frappante: le phrasé, le rythme...seule la voix fait l'écart" (The similarity is striking: the phrasing, the rhythm...only the voice makes the difference). Given that "Sidi H'bibi" was recorded in 1973, the year before "Trig Lycée," Kalaloulou concludes that "Hamani Hadjoum passe pour être le premier chanteur de Raï moderne." That is, Hamani, not Khaled, not Kacimo, not Fadela, was the first "pop-rai" singer. What a pity that I can't find the "Sidi H'bibi" recording, or any photo of Hamani! (June 15, 2013: See above, I have now found a link to the Bellemou/Hamani version of "Sidi H'bibi.")

You can find a truly amazing and invaluable treasure trove of early Khaled recordings here, including Trig Lycée, courtesy ƮᏲҾ дևծιστøρία. 20 albums! And if you are interested in Khaled's earliest material, check out the compilation, Ala Rayi: The Early Years, for some more tracks that sound like they came out of the same milieu as "Trig Lycée" and the "Masrara" material. It's also found at the Audiotopia link noted above.

And a note on the term "rai"

Boutaiba Sghir, interviewed in the film, Mémoire du Raï, says that both he and Bouteldja combined what he calls "gasba music" (the film translates "gasba" in French as "ancien") and the "modern" in their work. His use of the term "gasba music" rather than "rai" is quite interesting; Boutaiba means here the music of the cheikhat and the bedoui music of the cheikhs, and his formulation underscores how important the gasba was to this music.

Some scholars call the music of the cheikhs bedoui citidanisée, or "citified bedoui," by which they mean bedoui (literally, "Bedouin") music done by urban cheikhs who sang and composed in a rural tradition.

A youtube video of the Bellemou-Bouteldja recording of Cheikh El Khaldi's "Bakhta" calls this genre, Orani "makhazni." Bouteldja uses the term wahrani-makhazni well, in an interview he gave in 2009. This article about Cheikh Abdelkader Bouras, who was associated with Cheikh El Khaldi, says that makhazni gave "new life" to the bedoui genre, and that it was based on a change of rhythm that permitted easy transition from one qasida, or poem, to another.

The ethnomusicologist Boumèdiene Lechlech, in a very detailed account of the bedoui genre, states that bédoui wahrani includes three main forms: guebli, performed without percussion, just the gasba, mekhzni, with guellal and gasba, and bsaïli, performed with only percussion, what he calls a kind of primitive rap. The term mekhzni, he writes, comes from the tribal cavalry, charged by the ruling elite (the makhzen) with collecting tribute and maintaining order. Its meaning then is upbeat music.

Bedoui ensemble (screen save from Mémoire du Raï)

According to Virolle (La chanson raï), it was not until the 1970s that a genre known as "rai" came into being. The music performed by the cheikhat, she states, was known prior to that time as "elklām elhezal" -- which she translates as "parole leger" in French, or "light, amusing speech." (This in contrast to elklām eljed, which apparently is more characteristic of the melhoun verse sung by bedoui artists.) The name rai trab, country rai, commonly given these days to the music sung by the cheikhat, as distinguished from rai moderne as well as from bedoui, is perhaps then a more modern invention.

A cheikha and her accompanists (screen save from Mémoire du Raï)

One imagines that recordings like Bouteldja's "Ya Ray," dating from the 1960's, played a role in giving rise to the name of the music, as it became known in the seventies. Note that this Bouteldja track features a violin in addition to the gasba and guellal; note too that the jacket of the recording advertises it as "Chante folklorique oranais" (Orani folkloric singing).

It seems that the term "rai" really came into existence with the rise of pop-rai in the seventies.

Mohamed Kali, writing in the Algerian daily El Watan ("Querelle des clochettes," July 9, 2011) also states that the term "rai" wasn't used to describe a musical genre until well after independence. (He gives no date for its first use.) It is used, he says, to designate a style of singing in which singer-songwriters refer constantly to their "reason-unreason" in their refrains, which is how he translates "rai." It is the "unreason" aspect of their songs, he claims, that made rai music subversive.

More on the place of origins: Oran, Sidi Bel Abbès, Aïn Témouchent

In the past few years controversy has arisen over the place of origin of rai, especially as rai has become a kind of national folkloric institution and the occasion for festivals and tourism (thus far, mostly local). The main rivalry is between Oran and the city located 70 kilometers to the south, Sidi Bel Abbès. Kali says that it is partly true that Sidi Bel-Abbès has a claim on rai, because the music's practitioners were able to find a kind of refuge there after independence, especially after the strictures placed on female performance by the Boumedienne regime. (It's not clear from his account, however, exactly why Sidi Bel-Abbès was so protective of rai.) Some claim that it's Raïna Raï, who were originally from Sidi Bel Abbès, that gave rise to pop-rai when they established their group in Paris in 1980.

Kali puts the origins of rai back much further, to the inter-war period. It was the Aïn Témouchent region, he claims, that was the true origin. The city sits at the center of the most intensely colonized and fertile region of colonial Algeria. During the summer harvest season, it attracted thousands of seasonal workers, known as "chouala," from all over Algeria, as well as from the Sahara and from Morocco. Women made up a large portion of the labor, as they were favored by the colons who considered them more easily controlled and manipulated than men. Rai, in its origins, was music sung by migrant female laborer, says Kali. (Recall that the wa‘dât, the saints' festivals held on the occasion of the end of the harvest season, were important performance venues for both the cheikhat and the bedoui cheikhs.)

I intend in future to look more deeply into the issue of migrant labor in the inter-war period, and specifically in the Aïn Témouchent region. At minimum, this account helps make sense of the importance of Témouchenti artists like Cheikha El Wachma, Messaoud Bellemou, Boutaiba Sghir and others in the development of modern rai. It's unfortunate that they have not received the recognition they so greatly deserve for their role in inventing this incredibly important genre of music.


/rupture said...

Ted -- thank you for this fantastic longform post! So great. May your book materialize sooner rather than later :)

Lactose Free Ninja said...

Thank you for this post! I enjoyed it as an anthro major and as a Rai music love. Cheb Khaled's Liberte album has a special place in my heart. said...

EXCELLENT post! I'm researching the cheikhate scene of the 50s/60s but having little luck finding biographical material or info on venues in Oran. any recommendations?

Ted Swedenburg said...

The best source on the cheikhat is the work of Marie Virolle, La chanson rai (1995), plus various articles. She doesn't have a lot about the 50s and 60s however. On venues in Oran, Bouziane Daoudi and Hadj Milani (L'aventure du rai, 1996) mention some in passing...