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Rai: When Art is (no longer) a Movement

by Agung Waskito

This music was born in the middle of the Algerian people’s deterioration due to French colonialism (1841- 1962), which was followed by the rising & falling process in reaching equality of rights and the development of their seeds of national identity. In this era the Algerian people lived within struggle and oppression. Acute poverty, high unemployment and underemployment because of poverty was considered a curse (koukra), the people were removed from their roots, especially the youth who are neglected and without a future.

From Oran, a port city in Western North Algeria and the gateway for sailships of many nations in the Northern Africa Region and the Medditeranian, it is here where Rai first developed. This multiracial meeting over time took role in the development of Rai music in the contemporary Algerian people’s search for identity.

The seeds of Rai were born around the 1920-1930s from various Bedouin musical traditions (qasbah and darbuka/guellal) as well as Arabic (melody, and verses telling of love and life). There are two kinds of repertoires played by pioneering Rai musicians which are Sheikat with their worldly and profane themes; and Meddahat, whose verses are praises towards the Grandness of God, prophets, and local holy men. In many texts eventually Rai’s lyrics appear to continue playing in these two areas.

It is unknown when and by whom the word Rai was used as a name for this music. In socio-cultural life Rai means advice, opinion, words of wisdom given for the purpose of searching for a ‘way’, or to overcome a life problem. Someone would search for rai from a Cheikh (or Syech, master; which is also a designation given for experts in music) because he is considered knowledgeable and full of life experiences. In its use as a musical term it is used in similar fashion. Rai is a reaction in the form of a search for an answer or a way out from the powerlessness of the poor and an expression of concern towards the fate of the youth and the Algerian nation. The Rai musicians mostly come from among the poor who started to play music at a young age as an activity to take their mind off the pressure of problems by igniting their enthusiasm for finding a way out towards a better life. Because of that they know of the suffering experienced as described in the lyrics of Rai music, between poverty, hopelessness, heroism, carnal desires, drugs and alcohol, all the way to critiques of injustice.

As the beginning of their people’s interaction within the dynamics and fluctuations of modern urban life intensifies, slowly Rai begins absorbing elements of Western music (French; piano, violin, orchestration) and continues moving to ‘modernize’ itself (the entrance of the instruments guitar, bass, electric keyboard, drum set, combo format) in keeping up with world developments. Not only adopting physical aspects, Rai music also absorbed many things including genres (rock, jazz, reggae), musical styles (Andalusian, Egypt, Europe) and were somehow able to adapt their contexts into various new aspects and properties without losing their unique local identity attributes (repetitive music patterns, etc.). This was an effort by Rai musicians to consistently place themselves close to the emotions and hardships of their audience, their fellow poor.

But on the other hand, they trigger the anxiety and anger of those from their government, as well as from militant Islamic groups, because these groups consider the behavior of Rai musicians to be immoral, and to have a negative influence on the populace. Hittiste, a term for those youth of Algeria without futures who are dependent on their families even after they had reached adult age, had grown epidemic; but this was not handled any attention from the government nor the Islamists, who neither consider it a serious problem. Because the youth with their social behaviors (addiction, delinquency, prostitution) was considered by both groups as trouble makers (who must be punished), and not as victims of their nations mistakes in history (who must be guided and rehabilitated).

The theme of poverty and its social excesses and the life of youth described in newer Rai music began appearing during the era after their independence. Before that only very few songs would describe struggle, among them from Cheikh Hamada who protested the death sentence given to his son, and Cheika Rimitti who inflamed the nationalism spirit of the Algerian nation’s independence movement.

The push and pull between secularization (government) and religiosization (militant Islam) cause confusion among the Algerian people (particularly among youth) who were in the process of searching for their identity as a modern nation. When in fact secular life (wether realized or not) was born precisely because of how daily life is mired in acute poverty, so much so that social bonds, moral, etc. became irrelevant in daily life. In 1988 an anti-government riot erupted caused by political and economic problems which took victim of so many civilians. In this tragedy, Rai musicians indirectly became the target of government because one of Khaled’s songs “El Harba Wayn?” (meaning To Flee, But Where? in English) became the dissidents’ anthem. From that moment on they received many threats. Rai musicians exiled to France, keeping in mind that between the late ‘70s to the ‘80s the government had banned Rai music. In 1985 the ban on Rai music was uplifted because Khaled’s international career skyrocketed, and it was considered that he could become the spearhead of Algerian cultural diplomacy. The government continued to control the development of Rai music by enacting conditions, that only polite (‘clean’) Rai music was allowed, while the ‘true’ Rai music (which was considered ‘dirty’) kept developing outside of Algeria (particularly in France).

Conflict and political tension in Algeria continued being uncertain due to the conflict between government and the militant Islamists, in addition to the Berber ethnic group who wanted cultural recognition as a part of Algeria. Within this uncertainty of conflict there happened many kidnappings, torture, and murder towards artists and intellectuals among them towards Cheb Hasni (1994), Matoub Lounes (1998), etc.. But on the next time period Rai music in Algeria became an entertainment commodity, a tourism ‘object’ of Algeria. The big Rai musicians (who in general resided in France) continued their career while continuing efforts to ‘pressure’ the government into giving attention to the problem of youths and the poverty of Algerian people.

Time continued passing, never too late, but unfortunately it was only after the end of the first decade of this 2nd millennium did the government and the Islamic militant groups realized the core of their nation’s problem, which is the abandonment of the youth and their people in the pursuit of ideology and power. The debate regarding secular or religious in their governmental system no longer became a main issue. The religious could not ignore how pervasive secular life was among the people. Because the secular life that had by then spread wide was rooted in the acute poverty reaching back to colonial times, and had continued for several generations and cracked the social fabric of Algerian society.

Rock, Reggae, Rai, to name these examples of music among many, are one manifestation of human movement towards their socio-cultural life context. This gives a description, understanding, and inspiration for us of how people struggled to bring to life the function and role of music as a self-reliant supportive system in their social life. Creative potential was deployed to get people to turn their head and realize their foundational life problems that are often left uncomprehended or are avoided.

But in this increasingly ‘globalized’ world, with technology increasingly ‘easing’ human life and the complexities of their problem, what music will be born, as a response to (the problems of) their social life?

Agung Waskito (1957-2012)

Author: Agung Waskito (1957-2012)

An Ethno-musicologist and a former Program Head of Sacred Bridge Foundation in which he was active for 13 years, and contributed to various of its action research program.

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