Born in southern Tunisia in 1977, MC Rai proved so adept in the native chaabi folk music tradition that he was performing on local radio stations before his eighth birthday. Like most teenagers, his musical horizons expanded as he grew and his ears soon embraced the sounds of rai music, folk music native to neighboring Algeria, and hip-hop and other modern electronic music.
Now shouting out from San Francisco, MC Rai presents his fusion of chaabi, rai and modern music with Raivolution, a melting pot in which ancient and modern instrumentselectric bass, guitar and keyboards, modern hip-hop and rap production techniques, accordion, African harp, North African lute, oud, African percussion, Arabian percussion, and Gumbrisimmer into exotic, genuinely cross-cultural music.
At its best, Raivolution locks into its rhythms like a pirate radio station bubbling over in Middle Eastern tongues, exotic Arabian and African sounds slashing through frequencies like scythes. Perhaps anticipating musical or generational culture shock, Rai annotates each song title with its background or purpose.
The opening "Oudies Jam ("An introduction to the album via the sounds of the medina streets ) unleashes hot melodic strings that knot, untie and knot again, like mating serpents intertwining under the relentless dessert sun. Strings and vocal chants flail the rhythm of "Hen' Alina ("Traditional Tunisian political song comparing the love of a mother to love of country ) like an Arabian knight whipping his mount.
When, you might ask, is Raivolution not at its best? When rappers jump in ("Toulli Lila features rapper N4SA, with rapper CB from the collective Alphabet Soup on the title track) and clog up the flow of its rhythms.
"Ya Siadi ("A Sufi style song asking holy men to give me guidance with my life ) illuminates the religious foundation that supports so much of this region's traditional music, a dervish communion of percussion and vocals overlaid with a very modern rock sound. Rai follows this with "Sahran, churning rhythms scalded by emphatically modern electric guitar.
In contrast, "Maktoubi glides softly like a ballerina's slippered feet, its vocal adorned by the chiming sound of its stringed instruments like jewels in the dancer's headpiece. And, quite wonderfully, it's not at all difficult to imagine the accordion and "kick-up-yer-feet tempo of "Bisselama as an Irish jig, a motif extracted from and highlighted even more strongly by the strings in the set-ending "Essaif ("A recollection of childhood summers in Tunisia )!
Personnel: Aryeh Frankfurter: strings; Dan Cantrell: accordion; Daniel Berkman: kara (African harp); Farnas Mazira: mondol (North African lute); Gary Carpenter: guitar; Ilia: bass; Jeff Stout: oud, percussion; Jim Wilson: guitar; Marcus Blake: bass; Marguerite Ostrovski: violin; MC Rai: North African percussion; Omar Fadel: oud, guitar, percussion, background vocals; Reda Darwish: Arabic percussion; Rich Armstrong: trumpet; Richard Michos AKA Shiraz Ali Khan: guitars; Stephan Junca: drums, percussion; Susanna Goldenstein: Arabic tambourine; Tim Abdellah Fuson: gumbri, Moroccan clapping; CB: rap; N4SA: rap.