1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground


    We’re continually reminded of Africa’s boundlessness as a breeding ground for musical fusions. This time it’s Rai, Arabic for “opinion.” The music flourished in Algeria, with its center in the Northwestern port town of Wahran, where ships brought Flamenco, Moroccan pop, Egyptian classical, and western instruments to a Bedouin musical tradition. The result is a rough-and-tumble danceable folk music, centered by trumpet and supported by jittery hand percussion.  


    As its name implies, Rai involves a lot of ranting about women, drinking, and bad friends (see Groupe El Azhar’s “I’m Still Getting Drunk…Still”). The handgun and lustful girls on the album cover further demonstrate Rai’s reputation for impiety. Since its inception in the early 20th century, Rai was censored for being too indecent, and its musicians were thought of as boozers and outlaws.


    The rowdy trumpet of Messaoud Bellemou–who is known as “La Pere du Rai” (the father of Rai)–shows up often in this collection. On the Bellemou & Benfissa track, “My God! My God! My Friends!,” mournful verses in minor chords are echoed by similarly anguished trumpet riffs. Then a frenzy of drums kicks in and carries the ballad into danceable song, as if trying to shake off the gloom the singer feels.

    The best sounding track, and the only one not to feature the trumpet, is Cheb Zergui’s “I Cuddle Myself.” Cheb Zergui brought the electric guitar to Rai, and judging by his sound, he must have drawn some influence from the serpentine licks of Senegal’s Orchestra Baobao. Just as his wah pedal smoothes Rai’s roughness, his slowed lyrical cadence sounds like it borrowed from yet another musical tradition. 


    Leave it up to Sublime Frequencies to dig up these eight tracks, which were selected by Hicham Chadly and culled from ultra-rare 45s. As with other Sublime Frequencies releases, this album is as much a history lesson as a listening experience, and most of the fun is envisioning the bar and cafe scene in 1970s coastal Algeria.