The Dark History of Raï

In Cheb Khaled’s 2012 album “C’est la vie”, the Algerian Raï artist sings about partying all night in ‘C’est la vie’, confesses his unconditional love for a woman named Laila in ‘Laila’, and weeps for the lost immigrants of his country in ‘El Harraga’.

Although it may seem like a mismatched lineup of song topics in one album, Cheb Khaled’s album perfectly embodies the complexity and variety of Raï. A music genre that’s for the people and by the people.

While Cheb Khaled’s story is one of positivity and success, Raï’s background couldn’t be any different. From assassinations to propaganda, this article uncovers the dark history of Raï.

How Raï Started (1920-1949)

History of Rai Oran Algerian 1920
Oran, Algeria (Circa 1920)

It all starts in 1920 in an Algerian port city called Oran. The country was under French occupation –especially Oran which was known as “Little Paris”– and fresh out of World War 1. 

The people of Oran spent their nights in bars and cabarets (which is pretty relatable) to forget their pain. From these nightly entertainers, a group of male and female singers arose that called themselves ‘Shikh’ and ‘Shikhate’.

They stood out from the typical highly refined Algerian music by singing about the raw urban life in vulgar explicit language that appealed to the working class.

This lot called their music Raï, a word derived from the Algerian Arabic word for opinion and advice. 

Their music consisted of end-blown flute and pottery drum tracks accompanied by improvised lyrics influenced by Bedouin tribal chants. 

Much like the African American blues (and other music of the people), Raï was met with refusal and hatred by the upper class (the French) during its beginning.

The abhorrence was more severe for Shikhate who were met with further scrutiny due to their sex and profession which went against Muslim practices.

History of Rai Shikha Rimiti
Shikha Rimit

Despite the resistance against Raï, Shikh and Shikhat continued performing their music with notable figures like Shikha Rimiti growing up with Raï in the 1930s to later perform it in the 40s 

Raï’s Canon Event (1950-1968)

From 1954 to 1962, Algerians were fighting a war against France for their independence. This major conflict led to the death of over 1,000,000 Algerians and the immigration of more than 900,000 European-Algerians (also called Pieds-noirs). 

History of Rai Algeria War 1954
Algeria Independence War (Circa 1957)

For Raï, this meant that those who suppressed its growth (like the elite and high society) were no more. And for the first time since its creation, Raï was openly performed and celebrated. On top of that, Algerians (who just got out of the war) were full of strong emotions like pride, freedom, and grief which fueled songs. 

Artists like Bellamou Messaoud and Belkacem Bouteldja exploded in popularity and were deemed the fathers of Raï during this period.

History of Rai Bellamou Messaoud 1960
Bellamou Messaoud playing the trumpet

Messaoud is also praised for revolutionizing Raï by introducing trumpets and saxophones –given his background as a member of the Ain-Temouchent marching band– that replaced the flutes.

Furthermore, this was also the era when Cheb and Chabat were first introduced as nomenclatures in Raï. It was agreed upon that Cheb and Chabat referred to young pop Raï singers while Cheikh and Cheikhat were given to older Raï singers.

History of Rai Cassette Import
Vintage Cassette

Technology-wise, the 1960s was the period when cassettes became conventional. Raï producers no longer relied on vinyl. Instead, they distributed music via cassette which was infinitely cheaper and easier, thus making it accessible to the common folk (who are the target audience of Raï).

With the country gaining its independence, a new generation of Algerians who never experienced French colonization was born. This generation would later include some of the biggest names in Raï like Cheb Khaled, Cheb Mami, and Chaba Fadela.

The Training Arc for Raï (1969-1979)

The 70s were all about experimentation for Raï. The import of International cassettes exposed producers and artists to different types of genres and styles.

History of Rai Chaba Fadela Ma Hlali Num Cover
Chaba Fadela (Circa 1979)

Western music like Reggae and Blues, Hindi music, and Moroccan artists like Nas el Ghewan heavily influenced Raï. This led to the Accordion becoming the official instrument of Raï – which Chaba Fadela’s ‘Ma hlali num’ utilized in 1979 to become the first Raï song to become a hit across the country.

How Raï as We Know It Came to Be (1980-1990)

The most important breakthrough of Raï began in the 80s. When two musicians Rachid and Fathi (AKA the Baba brothers) transformed Classical Raï into Electronic Raï through passion and money.

Together, they made synthesizers and drum machines the main instruments of Raï and effectively evolved the genre to Electronic Raï — which is the Raï that we know now.

History of Rai Baba Brothers Studio
Rachid Baba cooking with Cheb Khaled

At the same time, their big capital and abundant resources allowed them to start a production studio that further strengthened their impact on Raï.

Although there were many studios popping up in the 1980s, none stood out more than Disco Maghreb. Founded in the 80s by producer, Boualem Benhaoua, it is one of the few remaining vintage Algerian Raï studios – in a way, Disco Maghreb is a museum of Raï history. 

History of Rai Disco Maghreb Boualem Benhaoua
Boualem Benhaoua, the founder of Disco Maghreb

Raï came a long way since its small beginnings in nightclubs in 1920. However, this success was strongly limited to Algeria. It was time for Raï to expand to airwaves across North Africa and Europe. 

As luck would have it, a commercial radio channel known as Medi 1 began airing Raï across Morocco in Tangier in 1982. Given that Morocco was an international country inhabited by various folks from different countries, Raï began to gain traction across North Africa and France.

Soon enough, French-speaking channels and magazines covered Raï (circa 1984). Media coverage eventually led to the organization of two Raï concerts in Paris in 1986 – forever jotting down Raï in history.

Back in Algeria, a storm was slowly brewing. Inflation grew rampant and citizens grew tired so protests frequently occurred. At one point, the Algerian government believed that Raï was to blame for the riots.

As such, the government banned Raï music and artists and made importing cassettes difficult. Despite these obstacles, people continued to illegally spread Raï music. 

It wasn’t until France stepped in and convinced President, Chadli Bendjedid, to embrace Raï music that all the changes were reverted.

But this came at the cost of freedom. The government began to police the production of Raï effectively turning it into propaganda. 

A Second Canon Event (1991-2002)

With inflation and corruption running amok in the country, a religious group known as The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) grew to significant power –similar to how Osho’s cult grew to power.

This group made it clear that they were against Algeria’s president and wanted to make the country better by following the law of god. And their bet paid off.

So after the army canceled the elections in 1991 due to the FIS winning, the group declared themselves enemies of the country and a civil war started.

This war would see more than 150,000 casualties including the assassination of political figures and more importantly, Raï artists – Well maybe not as important, but in our case it is.

I won’t dive deep into politics or Algeria’s civil history since that’s not the main topic of this article. But what you should know is that once the FIS took over, many non-religious activities and places were shut down. Over a few months, musicians found themselves unable to perform due to bans and censorship

History of Rai Algerian Civil War 1991
Algerian Civil War

Those that did dare to stand up against the FIS were faced with death. Such was the case for Cheb Hasni who was murdered by the group after performing a televised concert.

Artists that remained in Algeria fled the country and settled in France and North Africa. This dislocation further popularized Raï in the aforementioned countries. Like Cheb Khaled who took the world by storm thanks to his talent or Cheb Mami who collaborated with Sting to make the iconic song ‘Desert Rose’.

Raï is Healing (2004-2013)

After 10 years of violence and a new president, Algeria recovered from the civil war and resumed its normal activities. 

Raï musicians came back to the country and started to perform once more. Nature was healing. At the same time, some Raï artists like Cheb Khaled or Cheb Mami became renowned icons both nationally and internationally.

More importantly, with fewer restrictions in the country, various kinds of technologies and service providers entered the Algerian markets. Most notably, cheap electronics and the internet. The latter made it infinitely easier to share and spread Raï (and also to start a side hustle). As such music production became accessible leading to the birth of indie Raï.

Raï is Evolving (2014-2022)

WARNING: From this point on, academic and historical Raï coverage becomes scarce. Everything mentioned beyond this point is my theory/opinion based on hours of research (Seriously, this article took me +17 hours of research.)

At this point, Raï reached its peak popularity. Youtube views were in the millions, album sales skyrocketed, and Raï concerts were happening everywhere.

But during this time, a new competitor to Raï was slowly rising up and it was called Rap. Given that Raï was now considered mainstream (radically different from how it started), Millennials and Gen-Z turned to the underground Rap scene for their rebellious musical needs. 

This left a sudden gap in Raï viewership and sales so something innovative needed to happen or else it would fail.

Enter EDM and Europop which topped the charts late 2000s and early 2010s. Emerging Raï artists were looking at these musical genres for inspiration in order to create something that appealed to the youth and sold well.

One Algerian genius known as Cheb Mohamed Benchenet (Benchenet for short) made history by creating his hit song ‘Wayway’ in 2014 which would permanently alter Raï.

With the success of Benchenet’s song, other producers began to replicate Benchenet’s style for success. Consequently, indie Raï songs created from 2014 and above took inspiration from ‘Wayway’.

These songs were familiar enough to be classified as Raï but just different to be something entirely new. As such, it was decided to call this subgenre of Raï music ‘Wayway’.

Defined by its high tempo, party chants, heavy use of drums, and autotune, Wayway borrowed Raï’s drum machines, synthesizer, and vulgar language to create something entirely new.

Wayway even followed Western Pop’s song structure of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Breakdown-Chorus song structure – further eluding to the fact that Wayway is the byproduct of EDM and Raï.

The Rise of Meryoul Culture (The Present)

By the late 2010s, Rap fully took over the North African youth musical charts. It saw global success with international collaborations and concerts.

Back in Morocco and Algeria, an odd cultural phenomenon was happening. A group of youth rebels called themselves ‘Meryoul’. 

Similar to Eastern Europe’s Gopnik, a Meryoul is a member of a delinquent subculture with a working class and suburban background. More importantly, Meryouls claimed Wayway as their music since it deeply resonated with them.

Given that Meryouls weren’t deemed positively in North African societies –mainly due to their association with crime and violence– Wayway was cast with the same negative reputation.

So What Happens Now? (The Future of Raï)

Wayway’s current public opinion brings us to a full circle. We’ve established that Raï started in the 1920s. It was sung by the suburban working class but the rest of society deemed it undesirable and revolting.

In the same way, Wayway started in the 2010s. It is sung by Meryouls (members of the suburban working class) and the rest of society finds it unattractive.

Who knows, in the near future Wayway might just take over as the main song genre of the people. Just give or take a 3rd world war or civil war which should be soon given the political state of the world.

Special thanks to Youssef Chaabi for aiding the research, r/Algeria for providing information about the start of Wayway, and Marc Schade-Poulsen for their book ‘Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Raï’.

Post Credit Section

Pretend this article is a video and this section is the post-credit with rolling credits and all.

While I would love to share some witty jokes and behind-the-scenes stuff like I usually do, I’m taking this opportunity for self-promotion.

I’ll be as direct as possible. This article took me over 17 hours just to research and even more to write and edit. It is by far my biggest and most researched article.

If you want to support what I do, learn more fun facts and BTS stuff about Raï, and receive cultural stuff about Morocco, I would appreciate it if you can follow my newsletter and accounts.

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Also, I would die on this hill but Wayway >> Raï.

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About Me

Abdo spends most of his time either binging Youtube or writing what is on his mind. Hailing from Morocco, this trilingual writer is passionate about video games, entrepreunership, and interesting stories

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