A chance encounter with an old Chab Hasni cassette transports Robin Yassin-Kassab back to Paris, where the Algerian crooner's soaring voice and plaintive lyrics brought hard men to the verge of tears. Disturbing a sleeping box of old cassettes the other day, my hand brushed an album by Chab Hasni, and memories rushed in, fluent as music, of the Algerians I'd known in Paris in the early 1990s - particularly my friends Qader and Kamel. In Algeria these two had been hittistes. That's a real Algerian word: a French ending tacked onto the Arabic hayit, meaning wall. The hittistes were the youths who spent their time leaning against walls, bored, angry and stoned. They had no jobs and no housing - those who were employed often slept in their workplaces. Otherwise, they spent their time dodging the fearsome police force.
Life as clandestin illegal immigrants in France was not much easier. There too they had to negotiate checkpoints. I remember Kamel spending a fortnight in prison for being stopped "without papers". When at liberty, they peddled hashish in Pigalle and sold the cassettes they stole from shops. (Still, there was honour among thieves. Qader once knocked down a fellow Algerian for stealing from an old man on the metro. "So what if he's French?" he growled. "He could be your grandfather!")
We socialised in their attic room too low to stand up in. It contained too many bodies, a haze of smoke and the steam of endless cups of tea. There was a tape deck always playing one of three musicians: in third place, the Walrus of Soul, Barry White; in second, the swinging voice of international protest, Bob Marley. And, most often, the singer who would bring these tough men to sweet nostalgic tears, Chab Hasni. That's the French spelling of shab, as in shabab - the lads, the boys. So who was the Boy Hasni?
He was born Hasni Chakroun, one of seven children in a working class home in Gambetta, Oran in 1968. In the extreme harshness of the political environment that dominated Algerian headlines after 1992, Hasni's long, soft face and open smile, and most of all his inimitable crooning, became representative of another, more tender, side of the country. In the opinion of Qader and Kamel, Hasni was the supreme, the true and authentic, voice of rai music. The word rai means "opinion" or "perspective" (several Arab newspapers use the word in their titles), but in colloquial Algerian it also means something like "Yes, man!" or the hip-hop ejaculation "Word!" The music's roots are in the centuries old Maghrebi tradition of malhun (sung dialectal poetry), but Rai proper sprouted in Oran in the 1920s. This was a time of rapid urbanisation: Bedouins displaced by European colonists moved in to the city, where their rural music met and mixed with Spanish and French genres, especially cabaret and flamenco. Also in the mix was gnawa, from nearby Morocco, with its drum-based sub-Saharan origins. In the Seventies and Eighties, producers like Ahmad Bab Rachid started incorporating synthesizer and drum machine beats from western pop. The resulting melange of driving rhythms and plaintive voices is one of the most danceable sounds in the world.
Socially, rai is similar to Egypt's populist sha'abi music, exemplified in the Seventies by Ahmad Adawiya and today by Shaaban Abdurrahim. Both genres use city slang and word play in the same fashion, and both are satirical in tone, providing humorous street commentary on the events of the day. Rai's language is durija - Algerian dialect - incorporating Berber expressions, literary Arabic, French and some Spanish: an Orani brew that reflects North African modernism and cosmopolitanism.
Lyrically, rai is a bipolar genre of party highs and inner city lows. It is the Algerian theme music for hedonism, for mixed dancing, for the mahshasha (hashish den) and the bar. But for every verse that praises these escapes, many more bemoan the real world which deserves to be escaped, in a blunt blues that has always been, directly or not, political. So, in the 1930s Rai sang of typhus epidemics in the new slums, in the Fifties of the national independence struggle and in the Seventies of corruption.
Predictably, rai has made many enemies. These include most notably, and in chronological order: the colonial French, the Marxist-nationalists of independence, the regime in its later ideology-free stage and Islamist extremists - all of whom sanctioned and threatened rai musicians. At various times, performances and the recording and distribution of cassettes could only happen "underground". In one ham-fisted attempt to stop rai recordings, the government confiscated all blank cassettes entering the country. Rai remained banned from national radio and television until 1985, when the French culture minister Jack Lang persuaded the regime that the music was good for Algeria's image.
During the 1988 riots over the sorry state of the economy, the song of the barricades was Chab Khaled's al Harba, Wayn? (To Flee, But Where To?), which encapsulates a generation's sense of having no good options, of suffering between the rock of a corrupt military regime and the hard place of intolerant Islamism. In either direction lay the state, whoever managed to control it. Either way: le pouvoir.
"Where has youth gone? Where are the brave ones? The rich gorge themselves, The poor work themselves to death, The Islamic charlatans show their true face... You can always cry or complain Or escape... but where to?" This was the charged atmosphere in which Chab Hasni pursued his brief career. But instead of politics, he focused on love, or lust. "Why, my eye, have you left me alone?" he plainted. "Your absence has lasted too long, my gazelle!" By complimenting such sentimental lyrics with lush instrumentation, he carved out his niche as the Julio Iglesias of rai. Today his catalogue of 400 recorded songs forms the canon of "lover's rai". Soppiness didn't faze a hittiste audience: the hard men of Algiers and Paris were wild for it.
Hasni's titles and lyrics were in Franco-Arabic. Like: Jamais Nensa Ana les Souvenirs (I'll Never Forget the Memories) - two words in Arabic and three in French. To Islamists, such speech mockingly celebrated the depth of French cultural penetration. Hasni could certainly be transgressive. In his breakthrough 1987 hit al Beraka, he sang a duet with Chaba Zahouania about an alcohol-fuelled liaison in a hut. Most of his output was more syrupy gentle, but he also sang about family breakup and migration. In el Visa, a nihilistic narrator wants a visa to see his girlfriend; if he doesn't get it, he sings, "I'll drink myself stupid and smash everything up."
Islamists saw rai as an Arab-Muslim surrender to alien values, but in truth the cultural pollution was two way: France was borrowing from Algeria too. The cous cous restaurant is to France is what the Indian restaurant is to England or the Gulf: an essential part of the scenery. French people of Arab descent, les beurs, brought Arab food, music and words to France. In the early Nineties, you could hear Hasni's cassettes playing in Barbes and Belleville, in the HLM blocks of Marseille and Lyons, in the parks and taxi cabs of Lille and Le Havre and even on mainstream French radio.
Meanwhile in Algeria, social unrest led to the end of one-party rule. Elections were held in December, 1991. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) convincingly won the first round, the military stepped in, cancelling the next ballot and banning the FIS. Civil war broke out, and at least 160,000 people were killed, many for no apparent reason. Girls were killed for wearing the hijab and girls were killed for not wearing it. Journalists of all stripes, policemen, cleaners, teachers and nurses were killed. Whole villages were massacred and burnt in the dark. And the political chaos provided a cover for other forms of violence. Gangsters and feuding families were able to take life without fear of investigation. "To kill your neighbour is the easiest thing to do in Algeria," said Kamel. "Either the government or the Islamists will be blamed. Nobody will ask about it." Qader told me that in the first couple of years of the war he had lost "tens of people, on both sides." That's why my friends were clandestin in France: they preferred being illegal to being dead.
Rai continued to flourish outside of Algeria. Chab Khaled and Chab Mami became huge stars in France. Khaled's Didi was a huge international hit in 1992, and in 1996 his Aisha was France's first number one hit sung in Arabic. Mami even won a large Anglo-Saxon audience after collaborating with Sting on Desert Rose in 2000. Cheikha Rimitti, the gravel-voiced "grandmother of Rai", recorded with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Chab Hasni performed abroad too, but he continued to live in Gambetta. When he received death threats from Islamists, he sent his wife and son to France, but chose to stay in the streets he'd grown up in. He paid for the choice: on September 29, 1994, he was shot twice in the head at close range. He had been walking between the local cafe and his family home - despite his star status, he still lived in his father's house. He was 26 years old.
It seems likely that Hasni was assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, a more savage successor to the FIS. Not everyone believed this theory: it's a measure of the confusion of Nineties Algeria that my friends thought it more likely that the regime had killed Hasni as a sort of double bluff, to make the Islamists unpopular. "Nobody knows who killed Hasni," Qader announced darkly. "Only God knows who does what in Algeria. God have mercy on his soul."
Hasni's funeral was attended by 150,000 people. The great Rai producer Ahmad Bab Rachid was assassinated the following year. Today Algeria is still not prosperous, but it's much more peaceful. Rai flourishes there, to the extent that Paris-based singer Rachid Taha complains that censorship of political songs is now worse in the West than in the Arab world. The last I heard of Kamel he had vanished by night over the Swiss border. And Qader was trying to work out a way to get to Britain. "It's almost impossible to get in," he told me. "But if you manage, there's no more trouble with papers and checkpoints. You can just disappear over there."
I wonder what became of them. They were good men. As I relax at home, listening to the late Hasni, I know I won't forget any of it. Jamais nensa ana les souvenirs. Robin Yassin-Kassab's novel, The Road From Damascus, was published in June by Hamish Hamilton.