Thursday, December 31, 2009

More on the turban puzzle: Rudy Ray Moore (and even more)

Still trying to make sense of the circulation of the turban (and fez/tarbush) in African-American popular culture. I just ran across an article that Blake gave me years ago, and that I had never bothered, until today, to read: "'I Ain't Lyin'!: The Unexpurgated Truth about Rudy Ray Moore," by Jerry Zolten, from the May-June 2001 issue of Living Blues. It's a thorough and informed piece, and is especially good about explaining the late Rudy Ray Moore's notorious x-rated humor.

Here's the interesting bit, at least as far as the turbans go. Rudy Ray Moore was born and raised in Ft. Smith, Arkansas (with a bit of time in Paris, AR). Then he moved to Cleveland, in, as far as I can tell the mid-40s or so, where:

Rudy Ray Moore met Billy Nightengale, a dancer who taught him stage moves. Nightengale wore a turban and soon the two of them took to wearing turbans all over town. "We'd put on our turbans and people would follow us around like we were foreign dignitaries." A few years later, the turban became a trademark for Chuck Willis, a singer who built up his fame on a string of hits for Atlantic records, including "C.C. Rider," his R&B version of Ma Rainey's blues classic. Willis got the idea to wear a turban from Rudy Ray who wore his when he emceed R&B stage shows. "He wanted to know where I got it from," says Rudy Ray, "and I carried him by the lady's house that made the turban for me and she made Chuck one...He wore the turban until he died."

Chuck Willis is one of the most celebrated of the R&B turban wearers, and was known as the "Sheik of the Blues." I can't authenticate Moore's claim. Willis was from Atlanta, but perhaps he met up with Moore in Cleveland. Willis had his first hit in 1952; Moore was in the army from 1950-53. When did Willis start wearing the turban? Dunno.

What I do get from this account is that wearing the turban made Moore and his pal Nightengale look and feel like "foreign dignitaries." The effect then was not only that they looked "exotic," but that they also looked distinguished.

In Cleveland, Moore also, teamed up with a woman and the two of them dressed exotically and performed torrid dances to the beat of African drums. [Moore] started singing a little, billing himself as the Harlem Hillbilly...

In time Rudy Ray's first great stage persona would emerge. He became Prince DuMarr, the 'turbanated' dancer in Neil Stepp's traveling revue. He liked the ring to the name "Dumarr" and the association with the Hollywood glamour queen Hedy Lamarr."

Moore joined Stepps revue, he says, when he was 17, and this was 1946.
Here's a photo of Moore as Prince DuMarr, taken in the late '40s. It's the cover of his Norton Records release, Hully Gully Fever. The article includes a photo of Moore as DuMarr, with the revue, but I've found no copy on the web. I believe it is found in the jacket for the Hully Gully Fever CD. It shows Moore, bare chested and in turban, with female dancers.

Moore barnstormed as Prince DuMarr until 1950, when he was drafted. In the mid-1950s, Moore moved for a time to Seattle, and took up the "Prince DuMarr" role again in a review headlined by sax player Big Jay McNeely. Presumably, again in turban. Perhaps it was in the Seattle period that Chuck Willis saw him in turban. This photo too is of Moore as "Prince DuMarr"--a poor reproduction from the LP cover of Hully Gully Fever.

And here are a few more turban images. It appears that Norton Records is really into the turban aesthetic. Here's the cover of Turban Renewal, a tribute album to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs record. (Sam is another famous turban wearer.)

And the cover for another Norton release, Hannibalism!, from R&B singer The Mighty Hannibal.

This is the cover of Norton's 2009 catalog. Unfortunately I can't find a better reproduction. Note that it features turbaned artists like Rudy Moore, Sam the Sham, Hannibal, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and The Egyptians, and that it advertises "Turban Contemporary Music."

Still more. Two LP covers from be-turbaned Hammond B3 ace Lonnie Smith: Afrodesia (1975) and Funk Reaction (1977).

Finally, another from King Khan, who is truly keeping "turban contemporary" alive.

The new album of King Khan and the Shrines, Invisible Girl, is terrific. And turbanated.

Ok, one more. This is the last, and from a different turban context and aesthetic. Kate Moss, May 2009.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More attacks on hipster kufiyas

Maybe 'attacks' isn't the right word. Maybe 'snide satire.' However you want to characterize it, hipsters continue to be the object of ridicule and fun-poking. No one ever seems to get tired of it. I guess 'they' are an easy target, because, apparently, no one ever seems to want to claim to actually be a hipster. And the kufiya continues to be one of the stereotypical signs of the supposedly absurd, poseur hipster. A quintessential sign of "fakery," which for the critics, is what hipsterism is all about.

Here are a couple recent examples. Note--although the point is dead obvious--that the targets in both cases are women.

Thanks to Katie for this one. This is Ms. 2005, the fauxhemian, from Paste Magazine's feature on "The Evolution of the Hipster, 2000-09," in its November '09 issue. This is one of those "decade retrospectives" that we've seen and heard everywhere over the past few weeks. The caption reads:

2005: The Fauxhemian

She suffers for fashion, wearing a furry hat, boots and keffiyah even during the warmest months. Her new wrist tattoo is the Japanese symbol for beauty—or at least that’s what the guy at the tat shop told her.

Th next one, the "Apple Store Indie," is from, authored by Rob Dobi, and it is rather more finger-pointing and mean-spirited in its take on the "scenesters," i.e., hipsters. The "Apple Store Indie" is a recent addition to yourscenesucks' rogue gallery of "ridiculous" hipsters..

The description of this scenester is also rather more elaborate. Notice, once again, the use of the term, fauxhemian. All emphases are mine.

Looking something like a mix of Pocahontas and a tornado at a thrift store, the Apple Store Indie is your typical #fauxhemian. Masking her love for Steve Jobs products with whatever your blind grandma wore 40 years ago, she blends in seamlessly with the rest of her contemporaries at All Points West Festival.

Tweeting endlessly about nothing other than questions to a fake Ezra Koenig account, her main source of news is whatever happens to be a trending topic on twitter. Her iphone isn’t just a means to tell people what type of sandwich she is eating, she also uses it to cover Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead” using only app store instruments with her hipster friends.

Getting musical recommendations from or whatever Jenny Eliscu and Jake Fogelnest play on satellite radio, her entire “scene” seems to only exist in digital format. The only physical music she owns are vinyl hand me downs that serve as decorative filler for her Ikea Billy bookshelf. She rarely if ever supports her local indie music scene unless it is someone spinning records (see: itunes playlist) at a scenester bar.

Unable to make sales of her diy junk through her etsy store, she has set up shop at a number of craft fairs across the tri state area. Unfortunately everyone else was selling the same trite octopus necklaces, owl earrings and onesies she slapped together. Upset with the lack of enthusiasm towards her creations, she will later blog about it to an audience of spambots.

Wow, not really funny, eh? I learned about this in a recent issue of Spin. For the life of me I can't understand why Spin was promoting, but I'm glad they did, for the sake of my kufiyaspotting.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tarbushes and kufiyas (but no Arabs) in "Kazablan"

Someone who follows this blog wrote to me awhile back and said to look for kufiyas in the Israeli film Kazablan (sometimes spelled, Casablan). Thanks! (I can't find your no personalized message.) Kazablan (1974, dir. Menahem Golan) is an example of a "bourekas" film, a genre that was dominant in the Israeli film industry from 1967-1977. The bourekas feature Mizrahi Jews, Jews of "Eastern," primarily Arab background, who in an earlier era, were usually called Sephardim. Today "Mizrahim" is favored.
The classic study of bourekas is Chapter 3 of Ella Shohat's highly respected and invaluable Israeli Cinema: East West and the Politics of Representation (University of Texas, 1989). Shohat shows how these films, while they represented a massive new presence of Mizrahim on the screen, nonetheless continued a tradition of stereotyping "Eastern" Jews. Bourekas tend to present the Mizrahim in folkloric and colorful fashion, and hence, as ultimately different from and ultimately inferior to Ashkenazim, European Jews. Most bourekas are (like Kazablan) directed by Ashkenazi Jews, thereby continuing the long-standing practice in Israel whereby Mizrahim and Arabs are denied self-representation: they must be represented. The typical plot of the bourekas is one in which unity of the (Israeli) Jewish community is achieved, and affirmed, between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, usually by means of a "mixed" marriage. Some of the problems and grievances of the (mostly poor and working-class) Mizrahim are staged, usually in quite muted form, but these are always "overcome" by an ending that brings everyone together. It is significant that the era of the bourekas' popularity coincided with heightened Mizrahi political militancy, exemplified in particular by the emergence of the Israeli Black Panthers
Kazablan, then, is a typical bourekas product. What I want to focus on here is how, by paying attention to how of signs of "Arabness" surface in Kazablan, we can see how these are on the one hand, used to contribute to the "exotic" nature of the Mizrahim, and on the other, how their actual Arab character is systematically effaced.
Kazablan is the nickname of the protagonist of the film (played by Yehoram Gaon). The name, of course, comes from Casablanca, where the character was born. Kazablan, and his "gang," are clearly marked as Jews of Arab origin. This is accomplished several ways. Among these are the fact that some characters put on a tarbush (fez) to sell goods in the exotic market where they live, in a declining neighborhood of Tel Aviv (that happens to be formerly-Palestinian Arab Jaffa, most of whose population was expelled/fled in 1948). Due to its colorful nature, and its cheap prices, the open-air market is patronized by more well-to-do Ashkenazim from surrounding neighborhoods. Here a Mizrahi character tries to sell a very "ethnic" clay pot to an Ashkenazi shopper, who is clearly marked, and distinguished from the Mizrahi peddler, by his distinctive, kibbutnik, headgear. 
Here the Mizrahi characters are ethnically marked by the fact that they are smoking a nargila or sheesha ("hubbly-bubbly"), a traditional Middle Eastern smoking contraption. They are marked too by their stereotypical position of repose (signifying Oriental "laziness").


In this scene, the Mizrahi character, at left, smoking nargila, is exchanging insults with Yanush, the Ashkenazi character at right, the owner of a shoe store, who is presented in an entirely unsympathetic light. (The latter is Kazablan's rival in the quest for the hand of the Ashkenazi girl Rachel.)


The exoticness of the Mizrahim of Kazablan is also established by the neighborhood in which they live--one which is crumbling, and threatened with demolition by the municipality. It is in fact a "mixed" neighborhood of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim--not in fact very sociologically accurate--but it is the Mizrahim who seem to define its character, who seem to "belong" in a way that poorer Jews from Eastern Europe appear not to. Of course the neighborhood is old Jaffa, the historic Arab-Palestinian city just to the south of Tel Aviv, denuded of most (but not all) of its Arab inhabitants in 1948. Nowhere in the film, I'm pretty sure, is the name Jaffa (Yaffa, in Arabic), mentioned. Here's a shot of the open-air market, from above. Note the rubble (Mizrahim are of the slums), note the primitive atmosphere lent by the horse drawn carriages, near the beach, and at the bottom, at the left and the right. Note that the stone structures clearly signify "Eastern." They are typical of Arab structures throughout in cities throughout the Mediterranean from the first half of the twentieth century. As a resident of Beirut from 1964-1976, they are entirely familiar to me. 


Here's another view. The impressive structure on the right, with its red-tiled roof, is entirely typical of Arab cities like Jaffa, Haifa, Beirut... 

At the same time, while the architecture suggests Arabness, in the film, it is not allowed to say it. One of the most fascinating ways in which the Arabness of the Mizrahi characters is erased in the film is through the music. The film is a musical, full of staged scenes that appear (to me) rather silly and ridiculous. But what is particularly remarkable is the fact that the music is the typical popular Israeli music of the era, rooted in Eastern-European styles, with only a hint or two of Easternness. It reflects hegemonic ideas about the nature of national music, but it has almost nothing to do with the reality of what Mizrahim were into at the time. Their music was rooted in the East, in the Arab world, and the broader Mediterranean. This was a dynamic time for the development of what is variously known as Israeli Mediterranean Music or Mizrahi Music. In the film, however, the Arab musical traditions that were popular in real Mizrahi neighborhoods is nowhere present. The only time it is suggested is in the nightclub that Kazablan and his pals frequent, where Greek music (acceptable because it's "Eastern" and exotic without being Arab) is performed. I know virtually no Hebrew, but it also struck me that the Hebrew spoken by the Mizrahi characters was sprinkled with less Arabic than I would have expected. The Arabness of Jaffa, and of Israel more generally, nonetheless haunts the movie. For instance, this scene, where Kazablan and his pals are prancing around, singing a song. In the background is Jaffa, where a minaret and church steeple are visible, signs of a former presence of a now mostly vanished Arab community, that add to the picturesque atmosphere of the scene. (Kazablan is in the center, dressed in denim, with the fisherman's cap.) 


Now we come to the kufiya scenes. The first occurs in the course of one of Kazablan's most well-known songs, "Kulanu Yahudim" (We Are All Jews), which sums up the ideological point of this, and all other bourekas films: despite the differences between Jews of European and Eastern background, all are ultimately united as Jews, and as Israelis, in a common purpose, in the Jewish state. (You can watch the scene here. The quality is poor, but you will get the idea. And also a flavor of the music that characterizes the film.) What is amusing is that if you watch closely, a male figure in a kufiya (and 'iqal, the headband) appears at one point, dancing with a blonde, presumably Ashkenazi, Jewish woman. (Bottom right.) What are we to make of this? It would appear to signify that even Arabs in the Jewish state are "all Jews." Or is this some kind of joke on the part of the director. Whatever the case, the Palestinian Arab, citizen of Israel, certainly haunts the scene. 


A kufiya shows up at one other point. Rachel, the love interest of Kazablan and Yanush, is walking through the neighborhood market. If I'm not mistaken, pondering who to choose. For just a moment, just behind Rachel, we spot another person wearing a kufiya--this time, black-and-white. He is probably present so as to mark the neighborhood, once again, as exotic and colorful. But he is not offered any opportunity to assert his Arabness. Nonetheless, he, and his kufiya, is a mark of the specter that cannot, will not, be eliminated. 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Footnotes on Rihanna

Courtesy of what I've learned from friends, some more commentary on Rihanna and her notorious "Hard" video.

First, and I found this rather astounding, among Rihanna's 13 tattoos (I think that the count is correct) is one written in Arabic script! It reads, as far as I can tell, al-hurriya fî masîh (الحرية في مسيح) or maybe al-hurriya fî al-masîh (the latter would be more correct), that is, "freedom in Christ" or more literally, "freedom in the messiah." Christ/masîh appears right under her left breast, so it's not seen all that often. These are the two shots I could find.

This looks like it says al-hurriya fi masîh.

This one, curiously, makes it look as though the original had been altered slightly, so that the article al- had been added. It doesn't show masîh (Christ), just al-hurriya fi-al.... Those of you who know Arabic will note that there should be no link between the fi and the al. So it's corrected incorrectly.

The statement of course is not one that you would probably want display when prancing around in your porno-military outfits on your invasion of Iraq/Afghanistan. It would make you appear as if your campaign for freedom/democracy was in fact a Crusade. But in fact, my friend Robin said that she thought she spotted an Arabic tattoo, in the late sequence where Rihanna carries the banner. (Here's the shot from my original post.) Given, Robin says, that the banner is black, might it be Shi'ite/Abbasid?!!

Keen eyes, Robin! Here's another shot, with the banner.

The friend who brought Rihanna's Arabic tattoo to my attention said that he had thought it might mean that Rihanna was not imperialistic in her views, in contrast with the very patriotic, and Walmart-friendly, Beyoncé. Turns out not to be so.

(Did Rihanna get the idea of an Arabic tattoo from Angelina Jolie, whose right arm is adorned with a tattoo that reads العزيمة, "al-'azeema" or determination?)

Second, Robin comments on the Arabic that appears on the wall of the house. 'The arabic graffiti on the wall reads: "li-llah [can't see] ilayhi raji'un," which is for some reason broken out from the expression "*inna* li-llah wa-inna ilayhi raji'un," "we belong to god & to him we return," from Surat al-Baqarah, verse 156 [the Qur'an], what you say when you hear that somebody has died. it's interesting in the context of the song; hard to believe that anybody involved in the production had thought it through that much, though maybe somebody had.'

Thanks to Robin and her keen eyes and superior (to my own) Qur'anic knowledge.

ADDENDUM, Jan. 7, 2010. Iraqiguy put up this comment on the original Rihanna post:

...the expression "انا لله و اتا اليه راجعون" meaning "we all belong to Allah and verily to him we shall return"

It's usually written on the walls of houses where people would have just passed away. It's arabic and islamic etiquette for what to say when you hear about a death.

this expression is ofcourse very prevalent in Iraq and Palestine and every arabic country involved in war or civil unrest, where death is a common occurrence.

Thanks! I would only add that, in the context of the vid, it's interesting that the soldier walks by that written on the wall. When the perpetrator of the death being commemorated may, in all likelihood, have been the US military.

Third, Geoff says: "the hat in the card-playing still looks VERY much like a WW2-era German military cap; note the eagle ... maybe Afrika Korps? Disturbing."

I think he's right, especially about the eagle. See here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

BrAsian post-punk band Alien Culture

Thanks to Nabeel Zuberi, I was led to this post about the post-punk British Asian band Alien Culture. The post is informative, it's very important history, especially if you are interested in the emergence into visibility of BrAsians in Brit pop culture and anti-racist politics. You can also download the only two songs that the band ever recorded, "Asian Youth" and "Culture Crossover." John Peel played them on his show, but the band never "made" it.

I had thought the only visible Asian music in Britain at the time was Monsoon. I am now disabused.

People rather fear being swamped by an alien culture” – Margaret Thatcher 1979

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rihanna's "Hard" Video: Supporting the Afghan Surge

Over the past year, I've heard my MERIP comrade Moustafa Bayoumi give the same, great, paper twice, at last year's MESA (Middle East Studies Association) conference, and at this year's American Studies Association (ASA) conference. It's entitled, "The Race is On: Muslims and Arabs in the American Imagination," and I hope it's published soon. He argues that, since 9/11, the formerly mostly invisible Arabs and Muslims in the US have become massively visible, and increasingly, racialized. And racialized in a particular way: associated with blackness, and hence, turned into a social problem.

At the same time, Bayoumi argues, "African Americans have emerged in popular culture in recent years as the leaders of an American nation and an American empire." Moreover, he says, " this image often revolves fundamentally around the idea of black friendship with Muslims and Arabs, a friendship not among equals but of a modified projection of American power." To simplify, then, the long and venerable tradition of African-Americans opposing US imperialism is increasingly abandoned in favor of a civil rights position of actively participating in all aspects of US life, including US imperialism. Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama: all faces designed, or used, to make our empire acceptable, at home, and abroad. (Of course it's not just "faces." It's active involvement and even policy determination.)

And so we come to Rihanna, whose new "Hard" video I found shocking, even though I was very familiar with Bayoumi's argument. But no doubt it's my residual and very out-of-date expectations that African-American popular culture should somehow be oppositional that makes me outraged at how pro-imperialist Rihanna's vid is. And how it deploys so many signs of "coolness" to push the imperial agenda.

I would like the song a lot if I had not seen the vid. Now I cannot listen without seeing it. Militaristic and battlefield scenes (which are made to look like they are shot in Iraq) serve as a kind of runway for Rihanna, where she can display various outfits and demonstrate her "hard"-ness. "Yeah yeah yeah, I'm so hard," she sings over and over again in the chorus.

Rihanna appears in various outfits and scenarios.

In bright red lipstick, in GI fatigues, as if on the set of a GI-themed porn shoot. Her mouth ready to receive...what?

More is revealed, and we see black tape over her nipples. At least that's what it looks like at first glance, but then we notice it's actually over a low-cut, skin-colored tank top. The tape over nipples stunt was done recently by Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. But I think it was Wendy O of the Plasmatics who was most famous for this look.

Rihanna is also shown as if she were the commander, inspecting her unit of (all-male) troops who are in formation. Here she looks like classic Grace Jones.

Later we see Cmdr Rihanna before "her" troops, shouldering a heavy weapon. If you watch the vid (and you must) you'll notice that this outfit includes a bikini bottom showing off a very shapely booty.

Here, she looks something like Nona Hendryx in '83-'84, when she was all about that sci-funk look. I saw Nona in concert back then but can't find a good photo of what she looked like. The outfits looked aluminum. This is more or less it.

Garbed in her sci-fi gear, "hard" Rihanna strolls through the desert, unconcerned by the explosions going off around her.

We also see Rihanna with bandoliers over either shoulder. And without them, but in the same outfit, atop a pink tank. Between her legs. Really hard, a for-sure phallic female here. I guess the pink tank makes it feminine. And the Mickey Mouse ears on her helmet--is that supposed to be funny? If so, it's about the only element of humor in the vid.

And there is the Madonna-esque outfit--the bronze bikini top. In which Rihanna is variously displayed strutting atop a sandbagged position with some GIs.

Or lying supine.

There are other outfits whose referents are less clear to me. Rihanna plays poker with the guys in this one. And she wins. Because she's hard. "And my runway looks so clear," she sings. "But the hottest bitch in heels right here."

Here, she's wearing a camouflage/net thing. And her weapon.

This outfit, which appears towards the end of the vid, also escapes me. A leopard-skin Prussian looking helmet? And the black banner she is waving?

Young Jeezy appears in the video with a guest rap. He's in GI gear, smoking a cigar, but he is much more relaxed in his poses. He's already hard, just puffing on the blunt.

In case it wasn't clear, the video also clues you into the fact that this is the Middle East, and probably Iraq, that we're in. The Arabic script is sort of passable. This last word here reads raj'iun, or 'returning.' An important slogan for the Palestinians.

As I read this vid, it all adds up to an articulation of support for the upcoming Afghanistan surge. The militaristic poses make Rihanna look hard. Alternatively, they help make her look freaky and kinky. At the same time, she, by her very presence on the battlefield, makes the US military invasion of Iraq/Afghanistan look sexy. And bloodless. There are no 'bad guys.' There are no civilians in the desert. No one gets injured. It's all fabulous.

The US military and African-American r'n'b and fashion and sex are all in synchrony here.

I cannot imagine Grace Jones ever performing in such a blatant display of support for US imperial adventure. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, African-American musicians like Nas, Outkast, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, George Clinton, Raphael Saadiq, Missy Elliott and others came out to express their opposition, as part of Musicians United to Win Without War. (They signed an ad that appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 26, 2003, among other things.)

Where is the "cultural" opposition to the Afghan surge?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Some Myths and Misconceptions about Rai Music (Part One)

There have been few posts on this blog of late in part because I'm trying to focus on the manuscript for my book, Radio Interzone. Lately I've been working on the chapter on rai music, to be based in part on articles published previously, some with Joan Gross and David McMurray others on my own. (See the bibliography at the end.) Lately I've been reading or rereading a number of articles on rai, both journalistic and academic, gathered over the last three years or so. In the course of doing so I've noticed a number of myths and misconceptions, that keep being repeated, over and over, in the literature. I attempt to correct the record here, as best I can. Or maybe I should say, I attempt to problematize the truisms that circulate, endlessly, about rai. Some of what I write re-states what I/we have written before. (And I must admit, I/we are responsible for circulating some of the errors.)

1. Rai means “opinion” in Arabic. From this claim flows an understanding that the lyrics of rai convey the opinion of the singer, in a fairly straightforward and unmediated way. Such “opinion,” moreover, is for the most part, direct, and, by implication, oppositional.

Rai of course literally means “opinion” or point of view. But in this musical genre, the significance of the word is not so much its literal meaning but that it functions, in many songs, as a word or phrase like “oh yeah,” “yeah, yeah,” or “tell it like it is.” That is, it serves to emphasize whatever point is being made. (see Mazouzi, 269)

Siclier Sylvain, writing in Le Monde, makes the related claim that rai expresses singers' ideas directly, rather than metaphorically: “Issu des expressions musicales populaires, preferant les mots directs à la metaphore pour se libérer des tabous...”

Sylvain's assertion demonstrates that anyone picks up the pen to write about rai should first be required to read the Danish ethnographer Marc Schade-Poulsen's Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Raï, which is based on fieldwork he did in Oran, the city where rai originated, right before the outbreak of the Algerian civil war in 1992. In chapter five (“Listening to Rai”) Schade-Poulsen discusses his attempts to determine what sort of meanings his young informants made of a few important rai songs. It turns out that the songs in question (and they are pretty typical) are highly metaphorical and that his informants attribute a range of opinions as to what the lyrics “mean.” In some cases, the songs are based on traditional texts (the deep sources of rai songs are rural, and especially Bedouin), and so his informants could only guess what the songs were about, and did not understand some of the words. Interpretations, due to the metaphorical nature of the lyrics, varied widely.

So much for rai as “mots directs.”

Furthermore, Schade-Poulsen explains that unlike rock'n'roll as it developed in the West in the sixties, and to which rai is typically compared, rai music lyrics are not “authored” by the singer. Producers, who own studios, hire musicians and songwriters, who make up a song title that is usually based on a catchy phrase. The lyrics themselves are most frequently a kind of mixing up and reassembling of lyrics from a stock of phrases and lines, rooted in traditional songs whose “composer” was the rural community from which they emerged. Having chosen the songs and the arrangements, the producers then hired a singer, handed him or her the lyrics, and quickly made a recording of the voice. The bulk of the work producing the sound of the song was done by the musicians and particularly the arranger. The singer was a hired hand, who had no input into the overall sound or lyrics of the song. Once that work was done, the song was released on cassette. Production was quick, and there was a great deal of repetition. If one song or phrase caught on, it was quickly imitated by rival producers. If the songs “expressed” anything, it was the work of the producer and perhaps a skilled studio musician who did the arranging. The singer was much less important as the “author” of a song than the producers and the studio musicians, although the recording was released under his or her name and (usually) with his/her photo on the cassette.

2. Rai is “rebel music.” Its political and social significance is analagous to that of Elvis or Johnny Rotten or Bob Marley.

An exemplary quote: “At its heart, [rai is] music of the oppressed and impoverished...” (Tsioulcas, 2001)

This notion has been central to the marketing of rai in the West. The first two influential rai collections released in the US (and they are great) were called Rai Rebels (1992) and Rai Rebels, Volume 2 (1992). The most recent compilation from (Cheb) Khaled is: Rebel of Rai: Early Years (see cover above).

The notion that rai is about resistance is the result of the imposition of a certain Western model. Rai in this frame is seen as a form of music that struggled against puritanical taboos rooted either in Islam or in post-revolutionary Algerian statist socialism. Rai's effect, in this interpretation, is something like Elvis shaking his hips and toppling Victorian sexual mores, or the assault on convention by the Rolling Stones or punk rockers.

Things are rather more complicated. Here are a few examples.

Rai musicians from the early period of the genre's development in Oran were typically referred to by the designation of cheikh or cheikha. (The sort of music they performed is usually called melhoun.) In the case of the male cheikhs, there was nothing particularly “subversive” about them or their music. As performers of music of rural (and particularly Bedouin) origin, they were lower on the cultural hierarchy than performers of more prestigious genres of music of urban origin, particularly Andalusian. Within their milieu, however, they were respected masters of the craft (and hence the title cheikh, which implies age and experience.) The female cheikhas were not precisely the analogues of the cheikhs, however. While a “cheikh” in the rai field was a respected master, a “cheikha” was more or less synonymous with a prostitute. Cheikhas were distinguished by the fact that they performed their music before male audiences—in cafés where alcohol was served, in brothels, etc. The notion that a woman who performed music in front of males as licentious has a long history in the Middle East and North Africa, and it only began to change during the twentieth century. The issue of whether it is respectable for a woman to perform music in mixed company remains a point of tension and struggle throughout much of the region. So a rai cheikha was not so much a “rebel” as a disreputable character. It was not the lyrics she sang that made her unrespectable. The lyrics she sang may (or may not) have dealt with risqué topics like romance or alcohol, but these were not the source of her lack of respectability. Rather it was her structural position that rubbed against convention.

Were rai singers “rebels” during the Algerian war of independence? The evidence is mixed. According to Morgan, the cheikhs who sang traditional, “Bedouin” rai (or melhoun) tended to be regarded as collaborators. Cheikh Hamada (photo above), however, was an exception, a critic of the colonial administration whose son was executed by the French (Morgan 414). (Here's a short clip of Cheikh Hamada live. You can download an exceptional example of melhoun, from Cheikh Mohamed Reliziani, here.)

It is sometimes claimed that Cheikha Rimitti had some connection to the national liberation struggle, but I'm not sure there is any evidence of this. Check out Banning Eyre's interview with Cheikha Rimitti in 2000.

Banning: Rai music has a reputation as a music of social rebellion. Did you think of it that way back in the beginning? Rimitti: I divide my career into three periods: the period of 78 records, the period of 45s, and the period of cassettes. Throughout all these periods, I have always sung the ordinary problems of life, social problems, yes, rebellion... Rai music has always been a music of rebellion, a music that looks ahead.

Eyre's prompting elicits the desired response, that, of course, rai was about rebellion. Note that Rimitti's answer is very general—rai is rebellious because its lyrics refer to ordinary and social problems. She says nothing about what she did during the period of the national liberation struggle, for instance. Then Rimitti goes on to the subject that she is really interested in—to complain about how rai's big stars, Khaled, Chaba Fadela, and Chaba Zahouania, have ripped off her songs without giving her any credit!On the other hand, celebrated singers of ouahrani music were connected to the Algerian revolution. Ouahrani (or wahrani) developed in Oran in the 30s and 40s out of hadhari music, a genre closely related to rai, which modernized under the influence of the Egyptian popular music of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, Umm Kalthoum, and Farid al-Atrash. (Instruments changed, as did musical styles.) Ouahrani is acknowledged today as one of the sources of the pop rai that emerged in the seventies. Most notably, ouahrani star Ahmed Wahby left Algeria to join the FLN in Tunisia in 1957. After independence, he eventually became secretary general of Algeria's National Union of Cultural Arts (Tenaille 38). According to Morgan (417), the other two main ouahrani stars, Ahmed Saber and Blaoui Houari, were also arrested by the French during the War of Independence.

I also believe too much has been made of the “resistant” nature of the modern “pop” rai that developed beginning in the late '70s. The world music around rai is full of such claims. The fact is that rai producers in the first half of the 80s, before rai really went mainstream in Algeria, played up the more licentious and bawdy lyrics, which they handed to their singers when they entered the studio to record a number. Once rai became mainstream, the same producers actively discouraged raunchy lyrics, and instead cleaned them up in order to gain wide popular acceptance. Risqué rai sold in the first half of the decade, modest rai sold in the second half. The point was to make money, not to “resist.” Check out, for instance, Djamel Kelfaoui's highly recommended documentary, Algérie, Memoire du Raï, which shows Khaled in concert in Oran in 1985, at the first, officially sponsored rai concert. He's wearing a tuxedo. (See Kelfaoui's doc here--well worth watching even if your French is weak. The photo at left is "ripped" from the film.) Such an image had to be erased from the account of rai that emerged in the late eighties and early nineties in order to “sell” the music to Westerners. (Even though on that first Rai Rebels album--see above--Khaled is also in a tux.)

Rai music did become a target of the radical Islamists of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and especially the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) during the Algerian civil war. This did not make rai especially “resistant,” either—except in the eyes of its romantic Western followers—since the genre was strongly embraced by the Algerian military government, in response to Islamist opposition. In order to articulate an image of cultural “moderation” and to appeal to youth, the repressive “pouvoir” embraced rai music.

Rai is probably the most “resistant” in the context of France, simply by virtue of the fact that it is an important expression of Arab culture, and therefore, represents a kind of threat to the extreme right and racists. On the other hand, rai is often deployed as the representative of “acceptable” Arab culture in France, as opposed to unacceptable, non-assimilating Arab culture, particularly of the orthodox Islamic variety. Arabic music, especially of the “hybrid” variety, like couscous, can often be more easily assimilated and embraced by liberal-minded “native” French people than real, living and breathing, working class Arabs demanding civil rights. The film 100% Arabica is a particularly good example of this kind of discourse. The plot revolves essentially around the struggle for power in a mostly Arab neighborhood in Paris, between Islamists (intolerant, corrupt) and rai artists (played by stars Cheb Mami and Khaled), who are fun, tolerant, and lovable, and who appeal not just to Arabs but to “native” French as well. The old good Arab/bad Arab schtick.

When the “rebellious” aspect of rai is presented, however, it's almost always rai as resistant to conservative values or Islamist extremism in Algeria. Rai is almost never presented as resistant to French values of assimilationism, intolerant secularism, and monoculturalism.

3. East meets West.

What is frequently hailed about rai is that it represents—in its contemporary, “pop” version—an encounter between “Eastern” and “Western” culture. There are a whole variety of terms that are typically used to describe this sort of encounter, used in both journalistic and academic literature. Hybrid, fusion, Moroccanroll, and so on.

What I want to contest is the purported novelty of the so-called “fusion” that rai is meant to represent. It is typically presented as if the emergence of pop rai represented a kind of first-time encounter, remarkable because—at last—Middle Eastern musicians had finally decided to embrace “Western” instruments. Of course, for contemporary audiences (since the development of the world music genre) it's the fact that rai artists have variously incorporated rock, funk, reggae and hip-hop that makes the music remarkable—different, yet also familiar.

It's difficult to know where to begin a response. My response can only be partial. Of course the entire discourse depends upon the deeply rooted cultural truism, that the West and the East, Europe and the Arab World, are radically, ontologically, different and opposite. This is why East-West fusions continue to be exotic and exciting for world music fans, because the frisson generated by such “discoveries” is grounded in the notion that Euro-American and Arab cultures are inherently distinct. Rap music in the Arab world, and especially Palestine, is a new kind of novelty. (It's almost unnecessary to cite Said's Orientalism as a source here, right?)

This discourse of course forgets the deep connections between European and Arabic music—the evolution of the guitar from the lute, which is essentially the Arab 'ud (the name lute comes from the Arabic al-'ud) or the connections between Spanish flamenco and Arabic music, dating from the Andalusian period (olé in Spanish comes from the Arabic word allah or God, which is sometimes used in Arabic in much the same way as olé).

But let's jump to the modern era. The apprehension of rai's “fusion” as novel also depends on a forgetting of the entire history of French colonialism in Algeria. I only know bits of the history of Algerian borrowings from French culture, but here are a few examples. One of my favorite, about which I know almost nothing, is this album from Buda Musique, Algeria: Humorous Songwriters Of The 30's. It's variously American swing, French dancehall, rumba, and so on, with Arabic lyrics, and often, as Richard Gehr notes, sounding like Jimmy Durante. You can listen to samples here.

And then there is ouahrani, one of the predecessors of modern rai. You can get a sense of how great the ouahrani artist Blaoui Houari (pictured at left) was by a look at Djamel Kelfaoui's documentary, Algérie, Memoire du Raï, here, at about 16 mins. As mentioned above, one of the main influences on ouahrani was Egyptian popular music which, of course, borrowed heavily from Western musical sources. Muhammad Abdel Wahab of course was more inclined to sample from Western music than the more conservative Umm Kalthoum, but all the stars of Egyptian popular music did it, and they were quite eclectic in their borrowings. One of my favorite examples is the scene from the film Ghazal al-Banat [1949], where Abdel Wahab leads an orchestra that is playing a hoe-down, composed by him. The “Western” sources included a lot of Latin American genres, such as the tango, the rumba and (by the fifties) mambo. Check out, for instance, tangos sung by Egyptian artists like Layla Mourad or Abdel Wahab on the album, Tango Oriental: Arabic, Turkish, Greek & Israelian Tangos from 78 rpm Recordings. (Listen to samples here.)

One of the musicians who sometimes played on the ouahrani artists on their recordings was Maurice El Medioni, an Algerian Jew from Oran. Medioni developed his distinctive style of “pianoriental” in part under the influence of American soldiers he met during the Second World War. They brought records along with them, and the boogie-woogie piano styles and the beats of rumba were particularly important for Medioni's development. In this regard, he particularly cites the importance of Puerto Rican soldiers he met. (Medioni is still alive and active. He was “rediscovered” in the mid-nineties, and his four albums are easy to put your hands on. Medioni appears on Khaled's 2004 release Ya-Rayi, along with Blaoui Houari). Medioni also recorded with a number of the remarkable Algerian Jewish musicians who performed in a musical genre known as “francarabe,” mixing Arabic and French lyrics and Eastern and Western musical styles. Among the best known were Lili Boniche, Blonde-Blonde , Luc Cherki, Rene Perez, Lili Labassi, Raoul Journo, and Line Monty. Check out this song of Line Monty on youtube (and note that the photo was taken by me!) Or “Alger Alger” (a waltz) from Lili Boniche, with piano by Medioni.

Rai artists, therefore, followed in the wake of decades of borrowing by Arab musicians of various musical forms and instruments from the West. And rai artists weren't even the first in Algeria to borrow rock styles. Among the Algerian bands playing rock, singing in Arabic and thereby giving the music an “Eastern” inflection, were El-Abranis, two of whose songs appear on a revelatory collection of Middle Eastern rock music from the sixties and early seventies, entitled Waking Up Scheherezade. And you can download one El-Abranis' songs here, from the invaluable blog Radiodiffusion Internasionaal Annexe.

There you will also find a rock recording by Rachid and Fathi (Baba Ahmed), the very psychedelia-inflected and Turkish-rock sounding “Habit En Ich.” The brothers were in a rock band called The Vultures in the 60s, then recorded as a duo, and subsequently went on to become the most important producers of rai music. They revolutionized the business in fact because they introduced a multi-track recorder. (Rachid Baba Ahmed was assassinated by Islamists in 1995.)

What is somewhat novel about rai is not the influence of Western music, but that rai artists, starting with Khaled, began to make recordings with the explicit aim of attracting audiences in the West. Before this, musicians borrowed from Western music with the idea of appealing to local audiences. By that time, Khaled was in the West, in France. Khaled's first effort in this regard was Kutché (1989), his first album recorded in France—when he still went by Cheb Khaled. The real breakout, however, was the next one, Khaled (1992) which, with production help from Don Was, and the hit single “Didi”, made him an international star. You can see, and hear, why "Didi" was such a hit, here. Of course, an important part of his “Western” audience, in Europe at least, was made up of Arabs. And “Didi” was a global hit—throughout the Middle East, including Israel, in India, and East Asia. (Only the US, in fact, didn't embrace it—except in world music circles.)

More on rai misconceptions coming soon!


Eyre, Banning. 2000. Interview with Cheikha Rimitti. Afropop Worldwide.

Mazouzi, Bezza. “Rai,” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East, ed. Virginia Daniels et al, pp. 269-72. Garland.

Morgan, Andy. 2000. “Rai.” Rough Guide to World Music, vol. 1, 413-422. Rough Guides.

Schade-Poulsen, Marc. 1999. Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Raï. University of Texas Press.

Sylvain, Siclier. 2002. “Khaled celebre le passé et le futur du rai,” Le Monde, June 6.

Tenaille, Frank. 2002. Le Raï: De la bâtardise a la reconnaissance internationale. Actes Sud.

Tsioulcas, Anastasia. 2001. “African waves: A sonic sampling from the continent: Cheb Mami.” Down Beat 68(4):42.

Articles by me (single or jointly) (note there's a lot of repetition).

2004. “The ‘Arab Wave’ in World Music after 9/11.” Anthropologica 46(2)

2003. “Rai's Travels.” MESA Bulletin 36(2):190-193.

2002. “The Post-September 11 Arab Wave in World Music.” Middle East Report 224:44-48.

2001. “Arab ‘World Music’ in the US.” Middle East Report 219:34-41. (Reprinted on the National Instititute for Technology and Liberal Education Arab World project website, here)

1996. “Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap and Franco-Maghrebi Identity” (with Joan Gross and David McMurray). In S. Lavie and T. Swedenburg, eds., Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity, pp. 119-155. Durham: Duke University Press. Reprinted in Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo, eds., Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, pp. 198-230. London: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

1994. “Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap and Franco-Maghrebi Identity” (with Joan Gross and David McMurray). Diaspora 3(1): 3-39. Reprinted in Inderpal Grewal and Caren Caplan, eds., An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, pp. 471-475. New York: McGraw Hill, 2001. (first edition)

1992. “Rai, Rap and Ramadan Nights: Franco-Maghrebi Cultural Identities” (with Joan Gross and David McMurray). Middle East Report 22(5) 11-16. Revised version in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, eds., Political Islams. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.

1991. “Rai Tide Rising” (with David McMurray). Middle East Report 21(2): 39-42