various artists,
The Rough Guide to Rai
(World Music Network, 2002)

A lot of people in the West first heard rai by listening to the duet between Cheb Mami and Sting on the song "Desert Rose." If you are one of those people and would like to hear more of this musical style that originated in Algeria, the World Music Network CD The Rough Guide to Rai is a good place to start.

Port cities are often sources of musical talent. Just think of New Orleans' jazz, Havana's rumba or Kingston's reggae. Rai came to life in the Western Algerian port city of Oran -- a port that links the cultures of Northern Africa with the Mediterranean. The modern rai sound came together through disenchanted Algerians after the country gained independence from the French.

According to the liner notes, rai "was originally a rural folk music played on a desert rosewood flute called the gasba, and a small terse goblet drum called the guellal." It goes on to explain that "Rai is a little word with many meanings: 'outlook,' 'opinion,' 'viewpoint,' 'advice,' 'goal,' 'plan,' 'will,' 'judgement.'" In other words, "The singer would give his rai to his audience."

Most of the artists on The Rough Guide To Rai are male. This is not surprising considering the earliest rai singers were elder men who sang "epic stories of love, bravery and heartache, interwoven with homespun philosophy." However, the CD does have several female rai singers whose backgrounds originated from the Algerian society's underclass. One of the more interesting selections off the CD, in that it is closer to traditional rai, is "Guendouzi Mama" by Cheikha Remitti. She has been performing since before World War II and (no offense) sounds like an old man.

In stark contrast to the older style of Cheikha Remitti is Cheba Nouria. Her cover of the song "Consulat" has a strong reggae beat to it, mixed with a complex base and some fancy flute playing (or similar instrument) that rapidly transitions between more traditional Algerian melodies and a more free-style accompaniment. Both songs, while very different, are both good in their own right.

The only song I don't care for on the CD is "Shab El Baroud" by Cheba Zahouania (not to be confused with Cheb Zahouani, who performs "Moul El Bar"). "Shab El Baroud" has a strong tribal beat that almost overshadows the vocals. Unfortunately, those harsh vocals do break through and, compared to the other artists on this CD, simply don't sound as refined to my Western ears.

Other artists on The Rough Guide To Rai include Abdou, Cheb Mami, Malik, Cheb Anouar, Bellemou, Cheb Hasni, Cheb Khaled and Fadela & Sahraoui. If you are a serious world music fan or simply want to know more about rai, this is a good CD to pick up. It is one of the better compilations from the World Music Network that I've heard.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 8 February 2003

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