Algeria is positioned at an unusual juncture with respect to both geography and history. As a Mediterranean state, it's been immersed for centuries in a wash of influences from all over Europe and Africa. As a French colony, it's received a hefty dose of that country's culture (and stays well-connected to its audience). As a critical junction between Morocco and Tunisia, it's been the site of historical waves of expansion in both directions. The influence of Spanish music reflects itself in the incorporation of flamenco themes. The music of West Africa dribbles in across the Sahara, opening up harmonies and introducing detailed rhythms.
In the process of updating its music in the last decades of the 20th century, Algeria gave birth to a form of music called rai, an embrace of Western production, French lyrics, Arabic melodies, West and North African trance music, and bits and pieces of the African diaspora. In Algeria's conservative social atmosphere, such a racy style is controversial to say the least. The Arabic Groove is too fast, too fun, too openly romantic, and quite frankly heretical. That's your introduction to rai. Here's an example.
Un Autre Soleil (Another Sun)
The 20-something Parisian vocalist known simply as Faudel rose to prominence at a frighteningly young age, but he has aged well. His local group Les Etoiles du Rai (The Rai Stars, formed at age 12) earned him enough of a reputation to attract promotion and soon attention from the French media. The Little Prince of Rai signed with Mercury at age 18, and three records later he keeps expanding his repertoire. Another Sun is an optimistic, accessible record that reflects the state of the art in Algerian pop while retaining roots in the rai tradition.
Wrasse's anglophone release of this record translates everything from the title ( Un Autre Soleil ) to the lyrics and the production info, with the exception of three tracks in Arabic. That's just fine, I suppose, because if you speak French you'll get the juice directly from the source. The rest of us can pay attention to the liner notes. The lyrics are reminiscent of bossa nova, in their own particular way. "I Want To Live" goes completely giddy:
I want to live to run on the beach
I want to live to kiss my dreams
To embrace my days
To know love
And the hours that intoxicate
Joy predominates here both in the music and the lyrics. Credit songwriter Patrick Dupont for a significant helping hand with this production.
The opener fuels a bouncing pulse with guitar and accordion vamps, virtually begging you to get up and dance. This is part Arabic groove, part Old World celebration... pure pop. Whatever production, mixing, and programming went into the tune, it works fabulously. The guys behind the controls add a light sheen without heavy-handedness.
Down the road Faudel pursues amped-up minor melodies, lightly accented ballads, belly dancing madness, and flamenco-flavored guitar rhythms and harmonies. By the time the soft "Little One" drifts in at the end of the record, you've ridden a ridiculously fun romp. This tune, dedicated to the singer's young son, rides on minimal synthesized piano/melodica lines and conveys the raw emotion that has made Faudel a star in both North Africa and France. It ought to be the world at this point. He's good.
(Islamic fundamentalists are encouraged to avoid this record. Go pray for Faudel instead.)
Deb (Heart Broken)
Souad Massi is the kind of singer you just can't help agree with. Deb (Heart Broken) is her second release, and it spans quite a range: traditional Arabic melodies, prayer music, Old World romance, Andalusian flamenco, and various folk musics beyond categorization. There's no mistake at any point that depite the accessible pop essence of the record, it draws its strength from folk music. Deb is music of the people, for the people, period.
Interestingly enough, not too much rai here. Massi has a remarkably soulful and lyrical delivery, direct and effective. Her guitar playing is relatively simple and rarely in the forefront, though there are exceptions, as on "Le Bien Et Le Mal" ("Good And Evil"), where the singer accompanies herself with gently paced arpeggiated chords. Quiet moments like this feel quite personal.
"Ghir Enta" ("I Only Love You") delves deep into the Portuguese fado tradition, with simple repeating Old World harmonies, lightly decorated guitar lines, and that essential emphasis on emotionalmost to excess, but not quite there. If you don't get a warm romantic feeling from this tune, you might want to hang your heart up forever. One minute later, it's a rip-roaring flamenco jam, complete with light, insistent rhythms, vocals in Spanish, and a party atmosphere. Remember, Algeria isn't too far from Andalusia. Souad Massi knows this quite well. And no sense in keeping things separate. Pick out the good parts, mix them up, and serve on a friendly platter, well done.