Two new rai compilations encompassing contemporary hits and scratchy classics showcase a genre grounded in tradition but alive to the present, Jace Clayton writes. Although rai music enjoys great popularity across the Middle East and North Africa, it all comes together in France. Paris's urban gravity exerts a special pressure, and good party music is infectious: rai kids rub shoulders with every other musical subculture the city has on offer. The genre gave France its first Arabic-language number one hit in 1996, and 12 years later it continues to move diaspora youth and non-Arab European fans alike. Paris's Beur FM broadcasts a nationwide radio signal, a satellite channel and an Internet stream so family in the bled back home - rai's birthplace, Algeria, and well beyond - can listen in. Centre and periphery are hot-wired in a contemporary tangle of online videos, MP3 downloads and, of course, CDs.
Rai albums have been common in Europe since the Eighties, but in the past half-dozen years a new strain of releases - compilations that take their cue from Summer Dance Hit! style mass-market albums - have appeared on mainstream French record labels. Of this year's crop, Beur FM's two-CD compilation, Urban Rai 2008, best captures the pulse of contemporary rai, with a few detours into hip-hop, "rai 'n b" and straight-up Middle Eastern pop.
A few songs tap into all of these genres simultaneously. Cheb Hassen's Gouli Hali Franchement pushes all the right buttons, all at once. It's abuzz with rai history. Cheesy trumpets? Yes. The time-tested combo of Bedouin bendir frame drum and gasbah flutes? Sure. Shiny R&B synthesizers playing Western scales? Of course. Title and lyrics slanging Arabic with French? Oui. Most importantly, Gouli Hali Franchement creates a space where all these elements come together with a logic aimed straight at the dance floor. The song opens with a fluttery keyboard riff, panned ethnic percussion and DJ scratching set low in the mix. It could be any contemporary R&B song. Then a darbouka sneaks in. A syrupy saxophone melody joins it. Suddenly the groove clicks into place: drum machines anchor a mid-tempo rhythm while ethnic percussion provides swing and fills, electric bass interacts with jazzy keyboard chords, and bursts of trumpet act as exclamation points to the vocal line. A collage aesthetic more common to sample-based music (or contemporary visual art) unites snatches of acoustic gasbah and violins with bright horns and synthesizer voices. Hassen's singing leaves the instrumentation plenty of space in the foreground, as if aware that such busyness deserves to shine on its own.
Another standout track is Dana Dana, an old Algerian tune covered by the Moroccan-Algerian duo of Cheb Rayan and Rima. A brisk darbouka loop interlocks with horn stabs, anthemic strings and a funky bass line. Rima's low voice comes from rai's tradition of gravel-voiced females such as Cheikhas Remitti and Djenia. She's smoother, though, than her spiritual mothers, with more impressive pitch control; her exhilerating melisma slide in the refrain pushes Dana Dana into greatness. The song's video is fascinating too. In it, a small acoustic ensemble plays besides teenagers breakdancing in a massive hangar. You can't hear hip-hop in the song itself, but Rayan and Rima have the kids popping and locking like they're in the Bronx.
Other songs on Urban Rai make the hip-hop connection audible. Toufla Boumba, by the leading Algerian MC, Lotfi Double Kanon, wouldn't sound out of place on a Kanye West album. Its distinctly hip-hop beat is built around a sped-up female vocal sample and staccato piano sounds. It's one of a handful of songs on the compilation with black and Arab MCs "spitting" over rap beats. Many have called rai the "rap of the Arab world", pointing to its street origins and bawdy, topical lyrics. But that formulation falls short because it downplays rai's rich musicality. Surprising key shifts, multi-instrument melodies, complex arrangements and demanding vocal performances are all common in contemporary rai. Quality production is critical, but songwriting craft takes precedent. A closer Western cousin nowadays is R&B. (That said, the least successful tracks here are by-the-numbers US R&B clones.)
Urban Rai also represents musicians from beyond the Maghreb-France axis. Nancy Ajram - the Lebanese pop star whose multiple plastic surgeries belie her young years - is on board. Her Ah W Noss, with its stiff Egyptian-style percussion and emphatic string flourishes, is ruthlessly effective Middle Eastern pop. The song is propulsive to a fault, bouncy despite strong-arm compression and an utter lack of swing. It's not rai, but as the Arab world's highest-paid female performer, Ajram can pretty much go where she pleases. The Emirati-Lebanese diva Diana Haddad is included as well. Listen for the flamenco handclaps and cries of "vale" that begin her duet with Khaled. These Andalusian elements demonstrate the lasting musical influence of Oran's Spanish expat community.
One of the collection's most popular tracks is an omni-genre stormer called Un Gaou a Oran (A Fool in Oran), a collaboration between the Parisian rap crew 113, the Ivory Coast supergroup Magic System and the Algerian crooner Mohammed Lamine. It's a fantastic, effortless collision of Euro-African styles. A West African guitar melody circles what sounds like a sped-up reggaeton beat, and the song ends up striking a perfect balance between coupé décalé (the popular Ivorian genre pioneered by African expats in Paris) and French club music. That's "French" as in couscous and post-riot Parisian suburbs - not Serge Gainsbourg or quiche.
Un Gaou a Oran's YouTube clip boasts over two million views. It's a joyful pastiche that nods to Mahmoud Zemmouri's French Muslim slapstick musical film 100% Arabica (whose leads, Cheb Mami and Khaled, each have a few tunes here) as well as the colour-saturated magical whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. Whereas the latter's version of Paris had no black people, the Un Gaou a Oran video is literally crowded with them - as is the song itself, which houses no fewer than four languages.
Listening to this song, a remix of a remix, provides the giddy experience of hearing discrete musical cultures accelerate together to a blur. The exuberant dance groove and torrent of styles are not about complete understanding (the quadrilingual music market ain't what it used to be). Instead, it's about creating a space of real, untranslatable difference - and finding shared comfort there. (Of course, it's also about silly lyrics and physical humour.)
This is the same sort of space referred to by the title's use of the word "urban": a cosmopolitan space where foregrounded otherness doesn't lead to exclusion. 113, Magic System, Lamine and their countless fans are moving beyond France's cherished fraternité into al-ikhaa' and badeya. True multiculturalism isn't about fusion ? that World Music buzzword of the Nineties. It's about transforming cultural and sonic friction into useful heat.
Another recent rai collection offers less polymorphous pleasures. 1970s Proto-rai Underground looks three decades back, to a time when rai was primarily an acoustic Algerian phenomenon. The compilation was put together by Sublime Frequencies, a Seattle-based label that made its name presenting unlicensed compilations of ethnic music to Western audiences. Proto-rai Underground gathers seven-inch recordings from the pre-modern rai heyday. A patina of nostalgia covers even the media itself: the music has been remastered from the original 45s ("some surface noise remains from original vinyl transfers") only to be repressed on vinyl. Nowadays, of course, the only people buying vinyl are collectors, old school DJs and audiophiles. But don't worry if you don't own a turntable: Sublime Frequencies' two previous "limited vinyl edition" releases were subsequently made available for purchase on CD and as MP3 downloads.
Despite its title, the music collected here is neither rai's nascent form nor particularly underground. Real "proto-rai" occurred in the 1900s, as Bedouin singers punctuated lyrical improvisation with cries of "rai!" As early as 1920, the style born from Oran's musical stew of Bedouin, Arab, Spanish and French influences had congealed into a genre with the name we recognise today. Thus the 1970s rai collected here was a significant aboveground phenomenon with 50 years of history behind it. By the late Eighties, major world music labels across Europe were releasing rai albums. The first artist on this compilation, Bellemou Messaoud, published a career retrospective album (Le Pere Du Rai) 20 years ago on London's premiere world music label, World Circuit - not much of an underground secret.
Messaoud won his spot in rai history through technical innovation. The young multi-instrumentalist loved the breathy flutes that defined the feminist golden-era rai of the 1950s. But he needed something new to update the sound for concert halls. Algeria had won its independence, vinyl pressing plants had opened and cafes from Algiers to Marseilles and beyond were stocking jukebox 45s. It was an optimistic time. Progress seemed not only necessary but inevitable. So Messaoud picked up his trumpet. The old music sounded good on this new instrument, and he set about refashioning gasbah melodies for brass ensembles, accordions, guitars and horns. Across town, his peer Belkacem Bouteldja was performing similar experiments, modifying his European accordion so he could use it to jam on rai songs with Arabic quarter-tones. Audiences loved hearing the traditional repertoire unfold across a novel spectrum of voices, and the innovations spread. Horns, accordions and guitars are everywhere on Proto-rai Underground.
The best tunes come from Boutaiba Sghir. His rich tenor soars above a tight rhythm section, and his attitude is nearly as loud: one of his songs translates to I'll Marry Her Whether They Like It Or Not. Another title, Despite Everything, perfectly encapsulates the hittiste stance of disaffection and defiance. (Sghir remains active today. Listen to his 2006 album Ana Aadjebtini Chouia to catch the same great voice surrounded by tasteful modern production.)
Musical content from oral traditions is hardy. It usually survives transplants into shiny new containers. And not just in Oran: around the same time as Proto-rai Underground's bandleaders were transposing in a creative fervour, musicians across Africa kept busy with similar experiments. Innovators modernised not the songs but the instruments they were played on. (Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga music in Zimbabwe and the post-independence output from Guinea's national orchestras are two notable examples regularly compiled on European labels.) The synthesizers and drum machines of Urban Rai continue this trend. Reda Taliana's Robze el Dar adopts the 1970s standard of punchy trumpets over a driving beat while a violin slides around in the Maghrebi style. It's one of Urban Rai's most rural-sounding tracks - except for the robotic Auto-Tune effect applied to Tarik's vocals. Those flashy trumpets, the chunky drum patterns and a wholehearted embrace of ways to make a familiar thing new are all intact today.
Rai is as much of an attitude as a sound that connects one generation of musicians to the next. Whether tied to defiance or dancing (or the times when the two become one), a snapshot of the year or a slightly faded Polaroid of a youthful stance, the word contains many meanings - everything from "point of view" to "yes, man!" As a genre, it relies on updating well-traveled Bedouin soul music, all the while seeking definition in the myriad pleasures and contingencies of the present. In Urban Rai's group track by Zahouania, Bilal and Nessbeal, someone shouts something in English: is it "rock the rai now" or "rock the right now?" Forget it - they've always meant the same thing. Jace Clayton is a writer and musician living and working in Brooklyn.