"Si l'Algerie est un laboratoire au sein des pays arabes, la France est un laboratoire pour les pays europeens." -Rachid Taha
Raï (pronounced "rye") is a Spanish flamenco-infused Arabic pop music that mixes melody and percussion. Raï originated in Oran, Algeria, a Mediterranean seaport where Arabic, European and Jewish music and culture have blended for centuries. The British band Sting recorded the international hit "Desert Rose" with a popular raï musician, and America's Quincy Jones has also toured with leading performers of the genre.
Beginning in the early 1900s, raï songs were characterized by their plainspoken words and were most often performed at weddings at which the singer improvised bawdy lyrics about love and drinking. The word raï literally means "a way of seeing," "an opinion" or "advice." It is widely said that in the past, people of Oran would go to a shikh to ask for his raï, or his advice, which he would express in the form of poetry. Today, raï songs tend to have explicit lyrics with social and political commentary.
By the end of the 1960s, raï musicians were mixing accordion, piano and bongos into Algerian melodies played with traditional flutes and drums. In the mid-1970s, the audiocassette enabled music to be recorded and distributed cheaply, and a new generation of pop raï singers and producers proliferated. In 1985, the first official Festival of Raï was held in Algeria, and a year later Algerians in Paris sponsored a raï festival there.
Despite its increasing popularity in Algeria, government-controlled radio stations boycotted the music, claiming raï incited debauchery. As the country's political situation deteriorated through the late 1980s, many raï stars fled Algeria -- most going to France. After a fundamentalist regime took over Algeria in the early 1990s, some raï singers who remained in Algeria were killed or kidnapped by armed Islamist guerrilla groups.
Algeria's current government has been more open-minded about the music. In 2000, Algerian exile Cheb Khaled, often referred to as "the King of Raï," returned to his native country to give his first concert in 14 years. But raï performers still spark controversy around the world. Last year, Khaled, who is Muslim and promotes cross-cultural exchange on the stage, was boycotted by Jordan Islamic fundamentalist groups after he performed in a concert with a Yemeni Jewish Israeli singer.