1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground: Review

1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground
Sublime Frequencies LP

Rai is familiar to most of us in its post-1980s incarnation as Algerian singers from the city of Oran such as Cheb Khaled who sang impassioned songs over drum machines, synths and Nile Rogers or, more recently, Dr. Dre style production. The roots of the music can be traced back to Bedouin music performed at weddings and other celebrations, transformed in the early twentieth century by stars such as the fierce Sheikha Remitti who introduced street slang, blunt sexual talk and the like to the traditional music, with its flutes and hand-drums. In between these moments lies what Sublime Frequencies calls “proto-Rai” – music made in Oran in the 1970s, after a period of assimilation of various foreign musical styles, after Algerian independence, and subsequent censorship by the Marxist government which sent the scene underground to seaside cabarets around Oran.
The disk is a revelation from start to finish – even for people already familiar with figures such as Bellemou, known as the “godfather of Rai”. The sound is driven by a solid bed of percussion, saxophones and trumpet that wouldn’t be out of place on an Afro-Cuban dance track. Accordions provide an organ-like warmth. The recordings come from 45s released by local Oran record labels which proliferated in the 1970s (tho Rai’s broader fame coincided with the ascendancy of the cassette, beloved of cab drivers around the world), and they sound lo-fi and funky, like a rare 1970s garage or funk side. Song titles like “He, Who Doesn’t Own a Car”, “I’m Still Getting Drunk … Still” and “The Nurse” strike a strange North African gangsta defiance. Stand out track is Cheb Zergui’s Ana Dellali (“I Cuddle Myself”). Zergui introduced the electric guitar into Rai and his sound is rhythmic and tough, as rock ‘n’roll as the Ethiopian Mahmoud Ahmed or Morocco’s Nass el Ghiwane, both from around the same period, and looking forward to Sublime Frequencies recent Tuareg rock discoveries such as Group Doueh and Inerane.

Marcus Boon

(Originally published in The Wire, 2008)

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