Orchestre National de Barbés is a piece of North Africa stranded in the heart of Paris. In English, the name means The National Barbés Orchestra, implying that Barbés is a nation unto itself. It is a sentiment that few who visit the neighborhood would dispute.
The band’s story started in Belcourt, a working class section of Algiers, Algeria at the peak of the 1980 baby boom. Youcef Boukella’s older brothers listened to rock and bossa nova, people watched Cairo film classics on TV and tuned to Kabyl folk music on the radio. Outside the Belcourt alleyways, there were street peddlers, muezzins, Gnawa street performers, shaabi concerts, and ghetto blasters playing reggae, funk and raï.
“My style of music goes back to my childhood in Belcourt,” explains Youcef Boukella. In 1985 he was offered a slot playing bass for the first Arabic-language rock group, T34. But when Youcef heard what visiting jazz musician Jeff Gardner was performing, that’s when he decided to leave home. Raï was all the rage when he arrived in Paris. He worked with Cheb Mami and Kabyl native Takfarinas at diaspora parties. Safy Boutella introduced him into underground jazz.
Larbi Dida comes from the town of Sidi bel Abbes and is a founding member of Raïna Raï, the rock-raï group that transformed the Algerian rock scene. Recognized by the Algerian media as a historic breakthrough, this group was the first rock group to use raï in its repertoire. Ever since Larba Dida moved to Paris in 1989, his has been one of the great Arabic voices in the French capital.
Aziz Sehmaoui is another pillar upholding Youcef’s vision. Raised in Marrakesh, Morocco this Sufi artist was nourished on a combination of Gnawa Arab-African beats and British-American pop performed in Morocco with various traditional and electric groups (Association Ziriab, Lemchaheb and others). Like Youcef, Aziz attempts to weld the mystical power of healing rhythms with today’s sounds.
Faudel’s has one of the most attractive voices to come out of the vibrant Algerian-diaspora Rai tradition. He is the rising star of Rai music and his style is an incredible homage to the great masters of North African music.
Faudel Belloua was born June 6, 1978 in Paris, France. The son of Algerian immigrants living in France, Faudel Bellula was brought up in a working class suburb in Paris. His mother listened to traditional rai cassettes at home all the time so it became something natural for Faudel. During a visit to his family’s village in Oran (Algeria) he was asked to sing at a wedding. That was his first experience singing in public.
Faudel began at the age of 12 by forming a group, the Rai Stars (Les Étoiles du Raï), livening up neighborhood parties and weddings by singing his favorite songs by Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami over pre-recorded music. This led to meeting other artists and developing his repertoire, and within three years he was opening for MC Solaar and even Cheb Khaled himself.
In 1995 Faudel was featured in two television shows on channel France3: “Saga Cities” and “Les Enfants du Raï”. The following year he was selected to participate in the Festival du Printemps de Bourges. As his popularity increased the record labels came calling. Eventually it was Mercury who signed the 18 year-old to a five-record deal.
Baïda, Faudel’s debut album was an eclectic recording, mixing traditional Rai with rock, hip hop and flamenco.
Cheb Nacim combines contemporary Rai with a traditional music base. Singing in Arabic, he possesses a unique combination of tone and technique that transcends language barriers and genre preferences. His first major concerts took place around the suburbs of Nantes in 1993, in venues such as Quai de la Fosse with Khaled and Cheb Mami and the Triangle in Rennes. Cheb Nacim took part in the tribute concert for Cheb Hasni alongside the biggest stars of Rai, Sahraoui, Faudel, Cheb Nasro, Rachid Taha, Mohamed Lamine and Cheikha Rimitti.
Through his performances Cheb Nacim’s reputation grew considerably and saw him open concerts for L’Orchestre National de Barbes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Faudel at the Hammersmith Palais in London.
In the tradition of the great Rai singers Cheb Hasni, Khaled and others, Cheb Nacim recorded Algerian Rai, an album of passionate Rai songs by Hasni, Dahman El Har-rachi, Abderahmane Djoudi, as well as original compositions.
Souad Massi is a Paris-based Algerian singer-songwriter. With a beautiful voice and a large palette of influences to draw from, Souad Massi is one of the most interesting new singers to come from Algeria. Influenced equally by shaabi music, French chanson, flamenco, 1960s American folk and a variety of African traditional music, this Algerian guitarist and singer makes music that is at once exotic and familiar.
Souad Massi was born August 23, 1972 in Bab en Oued, Algeria, a poor, multi-ethnic neighborhood in the hills above Algiers. Her family had come from Kabylia, the mountainous home of the Berber people, a culturally estranged population in modern Algeria. It is tempting to link Souad’s career to those of socially conscious Kabyl singer/songwriters like Matoub Lounes and Ait Mengeullet. But despite great affection for her Berber roots, Souad has always felt at peace with her blended identity, part Berber, part Arab, part Turkish and Persian-in short, Algerian. Her struggle for identity has centered on her vocation as a musician, not her ethnicity.
Souad’s father was a chartered accountant, who enjoyed chaabi music-urban street pop. Her mother preferred Arabic classical music, but also bent her ear to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. For Souad, films inspired an early passion for music. A self-described “tom boy,” she loved Westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the top of the list. These films led to her to discover country and folk music, Kenny Rogers and Emmy Lou Harris, Loudon Wainwright III, and later Tracy Chapman. Her uncle played flamenco guitar, and Souad also developed a passion for that style, finding its rough, evocative vocal style an intriguing departure from the more genteel Arabic vocal music she grew up with.
When Souad succumbed to depression as a teenager, her musical brother Hassan nurtured her with music, enrolling her in guitar lessons and coaching her at home. She began writing poetry in the tradition of Arabic love poets, and soon put the two together, performing her songs informally for friends.
School took Souad out of Algiers for awhile, first to Taghit, at the edge of the Sahara, where she studied architecture, then to Tizi Ouzou, in Kabylia. Bored without the stimulation of the big city, she returned to Algiers to study at the Institute of Public Works. In the late 90s, she took a job as town planner, and played music at night. She began with a flamenco-oriented group called Trianas d’Alger, but soon left to indulge a newfound passion for hardcore rock music.
She joined a rock band called Atakor and recorded her debut cassette, Souad, with them in 1997. The cassette’s success led to radio and TV appearances. But with fame came danger. Rock groups faced fundamentalist protests and sometimes violence at festivals. At a time when musicians were being targeted for assassination, she was afraid to press her career forward. At the same time, the more she discovered her own voice as a musician, the more the broadcast media became wary of her, and began to censor her simply by neglecting her. Caught between a fearful military government and scornful fundamentalists, Souad felt trapped.
Subsequently, the fateful invitation arrived for Souad Massi to perform a concert in Paris. TV producer Aziz Smati, himself a victim of a fundamentalist shooting, had escaped to France as a paraplegic, and teamed up with radio broadcaster Mohammed Allalou to organize a festival of Algerian women at the Cabaret Sauvage. Once in France, energized in the aftermath of that life-changing debut, Souad recorded her debut CD, Raoui (Island/Wrasse), a set of stylistically adventurous and highly personal songs inspired by a tempestuous, ill-fated love affair. The songs were frankly confessional, and cast an unflinching eye on the darkness she had experienced in her life.
She mostly sang in Arabic, showcasing a voice with stark emotional power and arresting subtlety, but she also sang in French, as on “J’ai Pas du Temps,” a languid rock ballad in which she laments, “It was said to me that life was beautiful/But I find these times cruel/The black smoke took the place of the sky.” Raoui sold over 100,000 copies, and although she was still an unknown in the Middle East and North Africa, Souad Massi quickly became an Arab music pop star in Europe.
Her 2001 WOMEX appearance was a revelation, propelling Raoui (Storyteller) onto plenty of best of lists, and garnering her a nomination in the Radio 3 World Music Awards.
Souad’s unique road to success has left her free to make her own stylistic choices, rather than conform to the established genres for Algerian singers: rai, chaabi, Arab-Andalusian or classical music. On her album Deb (Island/Wrasse), Souad continues her impressive musical evolution embracing flamenco, gypsy rumba, and even Congolese music, while maintaining her identity as a highly personal songwriter. Now based in Paris, Souad Massi has had the time to let her musical sensibility mature, meet other artists and tour extensively.
Rachid Taha has been fusing the music of his native Algeria with the sounds of the West. Born in 1958 in Oran, Algeria, Rachid grew up in France in the poverty-stricken, working-class immigrant community that had sprung up in Lyons.
From an early age, music was his lifeline against the hopelessness of immigrant life. He sang, and also DJ’d in clubs, spinning an international blend of sounds that would presage his career. “I played a real patchwork,” he recalled, “Arabic, salsa, rap, funk, anything you could dance to.”
But the records didn’t say what was in his heart, the conflict of being an outsider, his Algerian roots pulling against the tug of European culture. So in the mid-’80s he formed a band, Carte de Sejour (Green Card). Their music burned with the fire of a young immigrant generation, exploding with the anger of punk on their best-known track, an ironic, politically-charged cover of the patriotic “Douce France.” After three years the band split up, and Rachid traveled to Los Angeles to work with producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt) on his solo debut. Barbes, the result of their collaboration, appeared internationally in 1991, at the height of Gulf War fever. In spite of glowing reviews, the subtle prejudice against all things Arabic at the time left it to sink without trace.
Older, wiser, but even more adventurous, Rachid returned in 1996 with Ole Ole, where massive club beats powered Arabic song, from the raw desert blues of rai to the kick of the Egyptian street pop shaabi, a unique, pan-North African vision melded with the programmed power of the First World.
With Diwan, in 1998, Rachid moved to a more subtle tack. The songs on the record came from his youth, work that had inspired his own music, from the pens of such greats as Dahmane El Harrachi and Nass El Ghiwane. It was, he explained, “my version of John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll album.” Unlike the late Beatle, Rachid’s versions brought the classics very much into the modern age. Beat and samples pulsed alongside string sections and traditional instruments for an album that was a quiet musical revolution. Aided by Steve Hillage’s sympathetic and knowledgeable production, it was a masterpiece that both paid homage to the past and paved the way for the future.
On Made in Medina, his debut album for Mondo Melodia, Taha combined powerful rock with melodies of North Africa. The voice of Afrobeat star Femi Kuti, whose duet with Rachid on “Ala Jalkourn,” brings together North, and West Africa in a seamless blend of unity where voices transcend geographic borders. The album was recorded in Paris, London, and New Orleans, and was produced by veteran musician Steve Hillage.
The 2004 album, Tekitoi, was recorded in Paris, London and Cairo. Some of the themes are war, racism and corruption.
Born in the Algerian port of Oran into a Jewish family in 1928, Maurice El Medioni has led a remarkable life crammed full of music. He played Jewish Andalusian music at weddings, boogie and rumba in bars, introduced the piano into early Rai music, and became a cabaret star in the Paris of the 1960s.
At the age of 77 he played Middle Eastern nostalgic notes on his piano to the opening track of Khaled’s celebrated latest release. His unique piano style never fails to charm. His left hand boogies on the rhythms of the New World, his right hand paints the alluring melodies of the Old. The result is an evocative cocktail of Cuban rhythms, French cabaret chic and Middle Eastern sounds. The swinging melodies rekindle the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Oran of the past, when it was a sparkling melting pot of religions and cultures.
Today he lives in Marseilles and international recognition of his unequaled style is still growing. His music still evokes the cosmopolitan era of Oran in the 1940’s but Maurice El Medioni is also looking forward, fulfilling a dream, on the critically acclaimed Descarga Oriental album with Roberto Rodriguez, of a Cuban interpretation of his music.
El-Kebich composes and performs a type of rai that is both traditional and modern. He has developed a personal musical mix in which he blends different musical styles as well as music from all over the world and creates an exciting and unique musical style which is both innovative and captivating. His music could be described as having influences of funk, jazz, reggae, blues, Latin rhythms as well as folk tunes from various corners of the world. The same applies to the mix of instruments with everything ranging from traditional drums to electric guitar.
The fact that his style has its roots in rai music mixed with a variety of different musical directions, is partly because he is originally from Algeria and partly because he has written and performed music for a number of bands of different ethnic background, such as Down By Law in Italy, New Phases in South Africa, Aquarius in France, Hada Raïna in Sweden, and others.
Khaled Habib presents his musical style with great energy and charm, especially in his live performances. He performs with a number of musicians from different ethnic backgrounds, and on occasion also with two dancers, one flamenco and one oriental.
He has also participated at major northern European festivals such as: Falun Folk Musik Festival, Roskilde Festival, ArtGenda Festival, Stockholm Water Festival, Re:Orient Festival, Folk o Folk Festival, Verlden i Norden Festival, and others.
Khaled Habib’s artistic field extends into the domains of performing and directing his shows, as well as composing music for film and theatre, such as the play Celestina set up at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre ( Dramaten ) under the direction of Robert Lepage (1997-98), and the film Nattbok by Karl Henrik Svenstedt.
Ultima Jam (2003)
Nostalgia (Raimix Music, 2004)
Leila (Raimix Music)
Khaled Habib Live (2005)
Ultima Jam (2007)
Cheikha Rimitti was one of the most influential singers in the development of the popular Algerian music style known as Rai.
She was born in 1923 near Sidi Bel-Abbas, in French-controlled Algeria. She became an orphan at a young age and had a hard and dissolute life.
When she was twenty years old, she became close to a troop of musicians, the Hamdachis, with whom she shared a troubadour’s life, singing in many cabarets and often dancing until her feet could not bear her anymore. In those times, dreadful epidemics spread through the country and put the emphasis on the daily sordid difficulties.
Rimitti drew her inspiration from those desolation scenes and improvised her first verses: her repertoire is mainly based on that which has been lived. ”It’s misfortune that has educated me, words sing silent in my head until I sing them loud, no need to take neither a pencil nor a notebook.”
From those days, she preferred to keep memories of celebrations: ”I celebrated the Saints in Relizane, Oran and Algiers? Celebrations longed a week and people came from all over the country. We invited the greatest singers, like Umm Kulthum and Cheikha Fadela The Great Not only was I singing, but I also was riding horses during the fantasia, with a rifle in each hand, and I was shooting to the sky. Soldiers clapped their hands and the prefect himself congratulated me a few times?”
Her first recording was made in 1952, when Pathe Marconi released a single including the famous “Er-Ra? Er-Ra?”, but it was in 1954 that Rimitti became an absolute reference with her song “Charrak Gatt?”: her contemporaries heard in this song an attack against the taboo of virginity (”he crushes, whips and beats me. I say that I’m going away but I still spend the night / pitiful me, I’ve taken bad habits?”).
Rimitti was ahead of her times, singing in the 1940’s about how hard it was to be a woman and introducing the notion of a sexual pleasure. But her themes went far beyond that: she explored all forms of love, celebrated friendship, tried to explain what it was to become an alcoholic, regretted the obligation to migrate and scolded the moralists. She, who dared singing an ode to the Emir Abdelkader in the Jewish coffee shops, in the middle of the Liberation War, was going to suffer from great accusations, flying from the censors of the National Liberation Front.
Her poetry forced her out of the country in the 1960’s. Since those times, she has written more than 200 songs, constituting a real “sing tank” for her successors, including Cheb Khaled whom has covered “The Camel”, for instance.
She was revered by most Rai musicians. Rachid Taha dedicated her a song, “Rimitti”. Re-discovered a few years ago by the new generation, Rimitti’s songs connected to the reality of 1990’s bloody Algeria, the decade of all dangers (especially for women).
She was awarded the Great Prize of Disc of the Charles Cros Academy, in 2000. But she claimed no title but the one of “Cheikha” (the Senior).
She collaborated with Robert Fripp and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the Sidi Mansour album in 1994, and that inaugurated a new electric form of Rai.
In 2000 she released Nouar. Her most recent recording was N’Ta Goudami (Because Music, 2006).
She died May 15th of 2006 in Paris of a heart attack. She was 83.
Born on November 30, 1960 in the small town of Ain-Temouchent (Algeria), home of Bellamou, the famous trumpet player and forefather of Rai music, Cheb Nasro was the first son after five girls. At the age of two his uncle bought him a darbuka, a traditional drum, and was entertained nightly by Nasro’s playing and singing.
In the western Algerian town of Oran where he was raised, a famous neighbor named Cheb Zahounie would frequently invite Nasro to accompany him in his performance at neighborhood weddings. The neighbors would encourage Nasro to take the stage and sing. He soon grew passionate about performing live. He managed to find another neighbor who brought him to a local venue to entertain a paying audience for the first time. He was 17 years old and was paid five dollars for his first show. He brought the whole cabaret to their feet and the owner quickly offered him a permanent slot at the cabaret.
Within a year, Nasro was offered his first opportunity to record professionally and began to travel and perform with other noted Rai singers at festivals and concert halls throughout Europe.
Cheb Nasro developed a sentimental style of Rai music, similar to another famous Rai singer, Cheb Hasni. Without ever having met, he and Hasni were quickly established by music producers as competitors and developed a rivalry that would last until one fated night in Paris in 1991. Having been booked in the same hotel, they coincidentally left their rooms at the same time, saw each other and decided to go for a coffee. From that night until Cheb Hasni’s death in 1996, they remained close friends and confidantes.
After Hasni’s death, many Rai artists came out publicly to declare they would no longer sing for fear of being targeted by terrorists who disapproved of their music. Nasro contrarily came out publicly to declare his defiance, stating he would continue to sing and honor the life of his fallen friend. Over the next few years he slept with one eye open, even go so far as switching cars on a regular basis and varying his schedule as to not become and easy target. ”I became very skinny from worry and moved around a lot in those days,” Nasro said.
Nasro was the only Rai artist signed with an American label, Ark21/Mondo Melodia. He is one of Rai’s most prolific artist with more than 100 albums to his credit.
Reviens a Moi (Blue Silver, 1995)
Le Meilleur de Cheb Nasro (Blue Silver, 1998) Departures (Ark21, 2002) Lover’s Rai (Rounder, 2009)
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