International Urchin

Since rai music scrambled up from the slums and street markets of the Algerian port city Oran about 80 years ago, it has remained ineradicably urban, restless, acquisitive, and gregarious. As a lyric-heavy outlet for the female underclass, with slanguage extolling sex and nightlife while aggressively opposing French colonialism, rai was the original urchin rap. Since the European oppressor withdrew, rai's main opponents have been fundamentalists, both Marxists and Muslims. Well before the Armed Islamic Group assassinated love man Cheb Hasni in 1994—and the same gang or others gunned down progressive star producer Rachid Baba Ahmed in 1995—the rebel music was a target for terrorists.

Polyglot Oran was called the "little Paris" of Algeria, so no surprise that of late the important rai action has shifted to the big Paris of France. The only rai performer on the international marquee, Khaled, who recently canceled a major American tour just as he did after the Oklahoma City bombing, has headquartered there since the mid '80s, proving a reliable hitmaker in an almost respectable genre. Only a sturdy fan foundation could support an item like the double-CD 1, 2, 3 Soleils(Barclay), which showcases Khaled, second-generation star Rachid Taha, and young buck Faudel in a 1998 blowout-budget Paris concert featuring full string and horn sections and a foreign legion of guest players. Often the vocal interactions suggest Nashville duets or the Three Tenors, but from "Chebba" and "Le Camel" to "Didi" and "Ya Rayah," the choice material wins out.

If Khaled is Oran-Paris rai and Faudel strictly Parisian, Taha's in-between generation has to be termed Paris-Oran transnational. Rai is only one strain in his music, but his grabby, dirt-streaked ambition is rai to the max. While Khaled has merely sweated out subtle refinements in his recipe of styles since N'ssi N'ssi (1994), Taha ripped free this year with the loose-limbed, modernity-mad Made in Medina. Made in Medina peppers the air with the most in-the-moment rai sounds since producer Rachid introduced Khaled to electronic beats. Vibrant stuff from a 20-year veteran.

Harsh as a particle beam
Photo Courtesy Ark 21
Harsh as a particle beam

Like many purists, hard-line rai fans deplore fusions only to rehabilitate heretics after the world doesn't end and the heresy begins to sound less like sin. From 1980 to 1989, Taha was on the outs with the taste police for leading a self-proclaimed Algerian-French rock band, Carte de Sejour ("Residence Permit"—or "Green Card" in American). The all-you-need anthology of the group's best tracks and Taha's early solo sides, Carte Blanche (Barclay), suggests that the band's problem wasn't concept but execution—not their embrace of rock and funk but the way they played it. (Why do perceptive players from Jakarta to Paris to Mexico City believe the Police are shining incarnations of cool?) Taha committed to rock and rap not as a young fan or an aspiring cosmopolitan but because both forms suited his clipped, conversational singing, whereas rai's dry-heat operatics of held notes and undulating pitches sapped his power and expressiveness. By Diwan (1998) he worked out how to apply his urban cadence to Egyptian chaabi, Moroccan gnawa, and pre-electric rai classics like "Ya Rayah." Diwan's version of "Ya Rayah" adds more than muscled bass and energized pace to the 1993 version on Carte Blanche. One is content to linger in the courtyard of history; the other puts its head down and charges out into the sandstorm of tomorrow.

Initially, British guitarist Steve Hillage's role as the Peter Gabriel/David Byrne producer-impresario of rai seemed an oddment that guaranteed nothing. Here was a hoary art-rocker space hippie with a mild flair for distorto solos (in Gong) and slinky drones (such as Rainbow Dome Musick) burdened with years of faux-techno work so clueless he seemed finished for good (God help us, System 7). Hillage blasts lingering reservations with a fuzz riff harsh as a particle beam to kick off "Barra Barra," the first track on Made in Medina. From there on Hillage's newfound vulgarity is the matchup Taha has always needed. Taha's incessant growling of the title hook-phrase could be a cry of triumph as much as the representation of social chaos it's supposed to be. Likewise, it helps that the angry refrain of "Foqt, Foqt" sounds like "Fuck! Fuck!" and that Taha knows the homonym fits his tale of betrayal. When Hillage and Taha go funky flamenco on the title song, they summon the stacked-heeled spirit of Santa Esmeralda's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" rather than the round-heeled ghost of the Gipsy Kings' "Bamboleo." The Femi Kuti guest vocals and the New Orleans sidemen are entertaining diversions, no more. Although Taha's favorite themes of displacement and personal integrity crop up in the lyric summaries, Made in Medina is really about relentless sonic engagement. The teasing vocals of "Garab" are only there to persuade you to board the escalating swirl of percussion for a frenzied finale.

It's tempting but unwise to extrapolate the future of rai or even Taha from the bountiful Made in Medina. Performer and form are mercurial agents blessed by favorable juxtapositions of pop worlds that might never have recurred even before September 11 unbalanced such relationships in ways no one can fathom or predict. The superlative song sequence does prove that these days the more acoustic, folkloric-sounding material should be tossed in casually like ballad breaks, rather than roots reminders stuck anxiously up front or apologetically at the end. More important, Made in Medina argues that rai should rock the casbah—sock the senses right away, keep the dazzle coming, and not get lost in the import and export of music modes. Brashness is its life breath.

 
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