The way popular Algerian singer Cheb Hasni was assassinated at the age of 26 one would have thought he was either a political threat or maybe an underground crime boss. On the evening of 29 September 1994, he was walking home after a recording session when commandos of the Armed Islamic Group fired two bullets into his head execution style. It happened not far from his parents’ house in the western Algerian port city of Oran. Before the assassination, he had been receiving death threats in the post from extremists, and his wife had moved to France with their son.
Born Hasni Chakroun, he added “Cheb” or “youth” to his name in the style of raï (women singers add “Cheba”), the Algerian pop music for which he was famous. The word raï means “opinion”, as in “I’m going to give my view”. Raï originated in the 1920s in working-class Oran, which, like many port cities, are cosmopolitan, cultural melting pots with relaxed morals. It was a fusion of Bedouin desert music, Spanish flamenco, gnawa folk music from neighbouring Morocco and French cabaret. It later absorbed Western and other global styles.
Raï was first performed by women in the bars of Oran. Sung in either the local Arabic dialect or French, its “lyrics can often be bawdy and blunt”, writes Culture Trip, as they “express emotions of lust, passion, lamentation and powerlessness”. The songs are “raw, gritty and sometimes vulgar, and they do not shy away from controversial language”. Drawing a parallel with hip-hop, The Rough Guide to World Music said both styles “use the language of the street to express opinions of the street”, “antagonise the values of ‘decent’ society” and are most favoured by “the dispossessed”.
Hasni was a good example and sold millions of albums and cassettes. Loved for his light, saccharine vocals and romantic lyrics, he was dubbed “the Julio Iglesias of raï”. But his controversial song about drunken intercourse in a dirty shack, El Berraka (The Shack), was clearly too much for fundamentalists in an Algeria caught in a protracted civil war between the military regime and Islamist rebels.
Music as threat
As the Rough Guide said, being a musician in Algeria has meant taking your life into your own hands, even if you don’t sing overtly political songs. Respected raï producer Rachid Baba-Ahmed was killed a few months after Hasni. A few years later, Berber singer Matoub Lounès was also assassinated.
Algeria has been drenched in blood since the French colonised the North African country in 1830. During the anti-colonial liberation war in the 1950s and early 1960s, more than one million people died. After the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) won the struggle against France, Algeria gained independence in 1962. But, as FLN leader Yacef Saâdi said in the film, The Battle for Algiers, “It’s only after we have succeeded that the real difficulties begin.”
Music, especially rebellious raï, has always been taken seriously either as a threat (like in Hasni’s case) or as inspiration for political action. In 1988, the king of raï, Cheb Khaled, came out with the song El Harba Wine (“To Flee, But Where?”), which became the soundtrack for students protesting against the rise of food prices. Their dissent was suppressed violently.
But raï in all its iterations has also been used to observe, comment, interpret, provoke and even taunt. Few did it better than outsider punk-rock singer Rachid Taha (1958 – 2018). He was born near Oran while the independence war was at its height. At the age of 10, his family moved to Lyon in France where, like his dad and other immigrants, he worked in dead-end manual jobs.
Taha started DJing at a nightclub he called Les Refoules (The Rejected). There he played an eclectic set including Arabic pop music, hip-hop, salsa, punk and rock, which would influence the style of music he would make, first with his band Carte de Sejour and then as outspoken solo artist, when he moved to Paris in 1989.
“No musician grasped the concept of hybridity quite like Taha – the idea that decades of cultural exchange between France and its former colonies would create generations of diasporic heartbreak,” Moroccan-born US-based writer Hind Berji wrote in an insightful Taha obituary for The Turban Times last year. “To the novice, his work might come off as discord, a patched-up concoction of genres from his old DJing days, but he was strategic in both his original compositions and the songs he chose to cover.”
A clash of sound
With one of the covers, The Clash’s 1982 hit Rock the Casbah, released in 2004 under the title Rock el Casbah, Taha was particularly strategic. It reclaimed the song on two levels. Firstly, for Taha. He often told the story of how he gave The Clash’s Joe Strummer a copy of his band’s demo tape after a concert in Paris in 1981. Rock the Casbah, a departure for The Clash with its Maghrebi sound, came out the next year. Taha was convinced his recordings inspired The Clash. “How else could they have come up with it?” he asked with a grin in a New York Times interview in 2005.
Be that as it may, his cover gave the North African rebel a chance to recoup the song from a band that he performed with later in his career – his version was even used in the Strummer biopic. So no hard feelings either way.
Rock the Casbah was a satire of an oppressive Arab ruler – with sheiks ploughing through the desert in Cadillacs and clamping down on “degenerate” disco dancers. To the radical Strummer’s horror, the US military used the song as a rallying cry when they invaded Iraq in 1991, mistakenly thinking it had an anti-Iraq sentiment.
By translating and recording Rock el Casbah in Arabic, Taha reclaimed the song from the American military not only for himself, but also on behalf of fellow lefties The Clash. Opening with a Moroccan flute, kicking into an Arab techno dance beat, accompanied with an Egyptian string ensemble and the usual punkish guitar, bass and drum, the Taha version energised an already great punk-rock classic. It also fitted seamlessly in how Taha’s “rock ’n’ raï” had developed into, as Berji wrote, “a repertoire of critiquing the fallible nature of Arab politics and the Western caricatures and Orientalist ideas that misunderstand it”.