A Taste of Algerian Music

On July 5th Algerians around the world celebrate 50 years of independence from French colonial rule. With independence came mass emigration, particularly to France, and these Algerians brought with them a rich and vibrant culture steeped in history but also still politically and socially relevant.

Hailing from Africa’s largest country, Algerian music is extremely diverse, but here is a little taste to whet the appetite:

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Andalus – a formal and highly respected style, performed in the above audio clip by Cheikh Raymond, whose death is described by Martin Evans in the July issue of History Today. Andalus arrived in North Africa with the expulsion of the Moors during the Spanish Reconquista. Often championed by the authorities as a symbol of Algerian national identity, it is predominantly the preserve of the elite and educated, and continues to be performed in Algeria and abroad.   

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Chaabi – derived from Andalus and originating in Algiers, Chaabi contains highly poetic lyrics. Very much the music of the people, Chaabi continues to evoke memories of the homeland for the Algerian diaspora and is performed everywhere from Parisian cultural centres (see above) to local London cafes, and looks set to be popularised by the widely-anticipated documentary film El Gusto, which details the reunification of an orchestra of Muslim and Jewish musicians in Algiers.

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Rai – born on the streets of Oran in the early 20th century, this popular  and outspoken genre was seen as threatening and undesirable by the post-independence authorities and many musicians moved to France, introducing it to a European audience. Successful stars like Cheb Khaled saw their early recordings transformed into global hits like Didi and Aicha, and fellow exile Cheb Mami found fame appearing on Sting’s Desert Rose. Despite continuing popularity, critics argue that contemporary rai has been so commercialised that it has lost its edginess and social commentary.

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Berber – the music of Algeria’s Berber region of Kabylie is just one aspect of a distinct local culture, and has often been used to voice aspirations of self-determination. Popular stars have included Idir, the politically-charged Aït Menguellet and outspoken Berber-nationalist Matoub Lounes (controversially and mysteriously assassinated in 1998). Today the music continues to be produced in the diaspora by musicians such as Souad Massi and Akli’d

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Fusion/Rap – the Algerian diaspora has spawned many musicians who integrate their musical traditions with popular ‘Western’ styles. The 1990s saw an explosion of Algerian hip-hop through groups such as Intik, whose legacy is continued by the likes of French superstar Rim’k and Oxford-based rapper Raouf Adear. Fusion artists include Berber singer Iness Mezel and political firebrand Rachid Taha who has produced snarling covers of Charles Trenent’s Douce France and The Clash’s Rock The Casbah, as well as a version of Dahmane El Harrachi’s much loved Ya Rayah.

For more on the country's independence, read Martin Evans' article, Algeria's Jewish Question, in the July issue of History Today, out now.

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