Reviews June 4, 2014
1970s Algerian Folk and Pop

Most people know Algerian music because of raï. One of the Arab world’s most celebrated sounds, it first emerged as a regional folk style in the 1930s and has since evolved into a global pop sound, featuring elements of anything from electronic music to r&b. And with all of this history, you can bet that there’s a near-infinite number of raï releases available on the market—ranging from highly produced albums by international pop sensations like Khaled and Rachid Taha to low-bit mp3s of the rawest live jams by local artists you’ve never heard of.

For a true raï obsessive, digging up lost gems of the genre is lots of fun: Khaled alone must have a million live bootlegs out there, and while some are so-so, others rival his official recordings in passion and beauty. The problem with the raï sensation is that—in the English-speaking world, at least—almost every other sound that’s come out of Algeria gets very little attention. Khaled has an amazing voice and a megawatt smile, sure. But what about the acerbic anthems of famed Kabyle songwriter Lounès Matoub? Or the moody movie scores of Ahmed Malek, the “Algerian Morricone”? How come nobody’s putting that stuff out?

1970s Algerian Folk and Pop, a wonderful new compilation out on Sublime Frequencies, serves as a corrective to these longstanding oversights. Put together by Hicham Chadly, an Egyptian crate-digger, producer and indie record label owner, the collection features highlights from a particularly fruitful period in Algeria’s musical history. As the Algerian radio DJ Omar Zelig writes in his liner notes, it was a time when underground 45 rpm singles were selling like hotcakes, a generation of hip musicians was growing, and the socialist government—normally all too eager to crack down on Algerian culture—was turning a blind eye to these new Maghrebi pop innovations.

The collection, packaged with vintage images and detailed artist bios, is Chadly’s second volume of Algerian music for Sublime Frequencies. The first one, 1970s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground (released in 2008), focuses on the early evolutions of what would become known as “pop-raï.” Offering a mix of rough-hewn trumpet jams, wah-wah guitar solos and totally rad song titles (“I’m Still Getting Drunk… Still”), that collection has it all in terms of raw fire. But this new one is notable more for its cosmopolitan flair and rustic beauty.

Algeria, once a French colony, is positioned just south of Europe along the Mediterranean coast, and some tracks here seem geared for a chic crowd. Smail Chaoui’s “N’sani N’sani” is a particularly delightful example, pairing an Arabic vocal melody with a doo-wop rhythm to make a romantic slow-dance number. Les Abranis’ “Chenagh le Blues,” meanwhile, is built around a wiry, interlocking bubblegum-funk groove—which almost resembles something by post-punks Gang of Four, but would sound just as good echoing through a café full of go-go dancers.

The loveliest track on the collection has more of a rural flavor. “A Vava Inouva,” a heart-warming folk lullaby, finds the songsmith Idir singing a duet with a woman. With gentle guitar accompaniment, the song—which became an international hit after it was first released in 1976—is sung in the language of the Kabyle people, a Berber ethnic group hailing from Algeria’s northern mountains. The lyrics come from a poem by Ben Mohamed, and the original title (“A Baba-inu Ba,” or “My father to me”) underscores just how sweet a tune it is.

Alas, there are no tracks by Lounès Matoub on this collection. (It’d be great if someone reissued his music in a nice annotated package one of these days.) However, there are two tracks by Ahmed Malek, the Algerian Morricone. They’re both lo-fi gems: “Hawajez” channels the windswept vibes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme—adding a cosmic twist in the form of a nasally keyboard melody—while “Silence des Cendres” will send a shiver down your spine with its mournful flute and creepy harpsichord arpeggios.

Reading Zelig’s liner notes, you may detect a pang of melancholy. “Why do our pop culture pioneers appear so gloomy today while we found them transgressive back then?” he writes at one point, wondering how this generation of artists managed to escape the grip of the authorities. Throughout Algeria’s post-colonial history, government censorship was just one of the many looming threats for Algerian musicians. Things got really bad in the 1990s, when the country descended into civil war and Islamic militants began targeting popular raï artists with death threats and assassination.

One of the artists murdered was Rachid Baba Ahmed, a legendary Algerian producer and pioneer of the genre, who pushed raï to new heights in the 1980s by introducing electronic arrangements. On 1970s Algerian Folk and Pop, he appears alongside his brother as part of the duo Rachid and Fethi. Their two tracks, “Habit En Ich” and “Ana Ghrib,” evoke a much simpler time, with freewheeling funk grooves and trippy sitar solos. Being a musician in Algeria hasn’t always been easy, but it’s nice to see from these tracks and others that there was a period in the country’s musical history when it wasn’t so perilous to try new things.

Give it a listen: