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Music of Algeria

Algerian music is virtually synonymous with ra´ among foreigners; the musical genre has achieved great popularity in France, Spain and other parts of Europe. For several centuries, Algerian music was dominated by styles inherited from Andalusia, eventually forming a unique North African twist on these poetic forms. Mixed with Ottoman influences, Algerian music came to include suites called nuubaat (singular" nuuba). Later derivatives include rabaab and hawzii.

Sha-bii is, in most Arab countries, folk music; in Algeria, however, it refers to a style of recent urban popular music, of which the best known performer was El Hajj Muhammad El Anka. True styles of folk music include hofii, a form of female vocal music, and zindalii, from Constantine.


Kabylia is a region east of the capital Algiers, inhabited mostly by Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa. Kabylian folk music has achieved some mainstream success outside of its homeland, both in the rest of Algeria and abroad.

In the 1930s, Kabylians moved in large numbers to Paris, where they established cafes where musicians like Cheikh Nourredine added modern, Western instruments like the banjo, guitar and violin to Kabylian folk melodies. Slimane Azem was a Kbylian immigrant who was inspired by Nourredine and 19th century poet Si Mohand Ou Mohand to address homesickness, poverty and passion in his songs, and he soon (like many Kabylian musicians) became associated with the Algerian independence movement.

By the 1950s, Arab classical music, especially Egyptian superstars like Umm Kalthum, had become popular and left a lasting influence on Kabylian music, specifically in lush orchestration. Cherif Kheddam soon arose with the advent of a Kabylian branch of Radio Algiers after independence in 1962. Female singers also became popular during this period, especially Cherifa, Djamilla and Hanifa.

Algerian independence did not lead to increased freedom for Kabylian musicians, and the Berbers soon included often covert lyrics criticizing the Ben Bella government. Many of these musicians were inspired by other singer-songwriters, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Victor Jara and Sylvio Rodriguez. Idir, a Kabylian geology student, sang Kabylia's first major hit, which sold an unprecedented amount in Algeria and abroad, "A Vava Inouva" (1973). Ferhat, known for his politically uncompromising lyrics, and Aït Menguellet, known for his poetic and inspired lyrics, also became popular during the 1970s.

During the 1980s, Kabylian music evolved into sentimental, pop-ballads performed by groups like Takfarinas. Some of the inspiration for this evolution was the popularity of pop-rai internationally.


Singers of rai are called cheb; the tradition arose in cities like Oran and elsewhere in Tlemcen, primarily among the poor. The word rai means literally opinion but is colloquially used as an expletive along the lines of oh, yeah!. Traditionally sung by men, at the turn of the 20th century, female singers became common. Oran is a seaport in Western Algeria, known since the Spanish invasion centuries ago; Spanish troops kept women there to entertain the troops, and the city has kept a reputation for hedonism ever since. In the early 20th century, Oran was divided into Jewish, French, Spanish and Arab quarters. By independence in 1962, the Jewish quarter (known as the Derb), was home to popular musicians like Reinette L'Oranaise, Saoud L'Oranais and Larbi Bensari. Sidi el Houari was home to Spanish fishermen, many refugees from Spain who arrived after 1939. These two quarters were the centers for musical innovation, and the French inhabitants of the city went to the Jewish and Spanish areas for music. The Arabs of Oran were known for al-andalous, a classical style of music imported from Southern Spain after 1492. Hawzi was popular between the wars, and the biggest stars were female singers like Cheikha Tetma, Fadila D'zirya and Myriam Fekkai. Melhun poetry with accompaniment was also popular, sung by male singers in long, white jellabas and turbans (known as cheikhs) who played guellal drums and gaspa flutes. This genre was known as bedoui (from its origin among Bedouin chants) or gharbi. Lyrics came from the poetry of masters like Mestfa ben Brahim and Zenagui Bouhafs, and performers included Cheikh Hamada, Cheikh Mohammed Senoussi, Cheikh Madani, Cheikh Hachemi Bensmir and Cheikh Khaldi. Senoussi was the first to record, in 1906.

French colonization of Algeria changed the organization of society, producing an urban poor of uneducated men and women. Popular bedoui singers mostly collaborated with the French colonizers, though some, like Cheikh Hamada were exceptions. The problems of survival in a life of poverty were the domain of street musicians who sang bar-songs called zendanis. Many of these songs included exclamations of rai! and variations on it, which implies an opinion is being expressed.

In the 1920s, the women of Oran were held to strict code of conduct. Many of those that failed became social outcasts and singers and dancers. They sang medh songs in praise of Mohammed and performed for female audiences at weddings, circumcision feasts and other ceremonies. These performers included Les Trois Filles de Baghdad, Soubira bent Menad and Kheira Essebsadija. Another group of female social outcasts were called cheikhas, who were known for their alluring dress, hedonistic lyrics, and a form of music that combined that of the cheikhs, meddhahates and zendani singers. These cheikhas sang for both men and women, and included Cheikha Remitti el Reliziana, perhaps the most famous cheikha. Other performers included Cheikha Grélo, Cheikha Djenia el Mostganmia, Cheikha Bachitta de Mascara and Cheikha a; Ouachma el Tmouchentia. The 1930s saw the rise of revolutionary organizations, many with a Marxist goal, which mostly despised these early roots rai singers. At the same time, the great voices of Arab classical music were gaining popularity across North Africa, especially Umm Kalthum.

Rai, al-andalous and the Egyptian classical superstars' style was combined in the 30s to form wahrani, a style popularized by Blaoui Houari. Wahrani was very popular, as were American jazz and French cabaret singers like Edith Piaf, especially into the 1940s. Musicians like Mohammed Belarbi and Djelloul Bendaoud added these influences to other Oranian styles, as well as Western piano and accordion, resulting in a new style called bedoui citadinisé. Full-scale revolution began in the mid-1950s, and many of these stars, including Houari and Ahmed Saber, supported the Front de Libération National. After independence in 1962, however, the new Marxist government of the Boumediene regime, and President Ben Bella, did not tolerate criticism from Saber and other musicians, and many were arrested. Rai and Oranian culture was suppressed.

In the 1960s, American rock and roll and soul music was popular, and Algerian bands like The Vulures and The Students arose. The French Yé Yé craze was also popular, and two of the most influential musicians of the later 20th century began their career. Bellamou Messaoud and Belkacem Bouteldja modernized the rai sound and began gaining mainstream acceptance by 1964. Chaba Fadela and Cheb Khaled also began their careers during this period, as rai's popularity was growing across Algeria. Recording technology began growing more advanced, and more imported genres gained popularity as well, into the 1970s, especially Jamaican reggae performers like Bob Marley. Fadela's 1979 "Ana ma h'lali ennoum" is considered the beginning of modern pop rai; the song was a hit across Algeria, and set the stage for rai's domination of national listeners. International success had begun as early as 1976 with the success of Ahmad Baba Rachid.

In the 1980s, rai began its period of greatest popularity. In 1986, the first state-sanctioned rai festival was held in Algeria, and a festival was also held in Bobigny, France. Cheb Khaled was the first international superstar, though his popularity did not extend to the United States, Latin America and certain other areas. His 1988 Cheb album did the most to popularize him and the whole genre of rai. Other prominent performers of the 80s included Houari Benchenet, Raina Rai, Mohamed Sahraoui, Cheb Mami and Cheb Hamid.

International success grew in the 1990s, when Cheb Khaled's 1992 Khaled was a major French hit and also saw success in India and elsewhere. With Khaled no longer in Algeria, new stars began singing lover's rai, a sentimental, pop-balled form best-known for stars like Cheb Tahar, Cheb Nasro and, especially, Cheb Hasni. Later in the decade, funk, hip hop and other influences were added to rai, especially by performers like the French star Faudel and Rachid Taha.