Blog August 14, 2014
Featured Artists: Borderless Sounds--The New North Africa

In Afropop’s new program, "Borderless Sounds: The New North Africa," we explore everything from the gleeful synths and Autotuning of raï’n’b to the m’rastas of Gnawa reggae and the mythology-based Berber metal scene. Here’s a more in-depth look at some of the innovative artists featured in our show. If you haven’t been hip to what’s happening in North Africa, strap in!

Cheb Hichem

Cheb Hichem, who hails from raï’s birthplace in Oran, takes today’s raucous raï’n’b sound--full of synths, keyboards and Autotuning--and drives it to an even more powerful level that sits on the verge of a chaotic uproar. For more on Cheb Hichem and other raï’n’b artists we featured on the show, check out our raï update from last April.


Khaled is a man that should need no introduction. The fact that he does, for many American listeners, shows just how much mainstream music media has neglected North Africa over the past two decades. Known as the “King of Raï,” Khaled started his career in the mid-'80s, and was the leader of a wave of raï musicians that broke through to international success in the '90s. Khaled also appeared on the original Raï’n’B Fever compilation in 2004, remaining on the cutting edge of raï innovation into the 21st century. Check out our Hip Deep show, "The Story of Raï" to hear Khaled tell the history of his genre.

Cheb Hassen

Beginning his career as raï was in its ascendancy in the mid-'90s, Cheb Hassen has gone on to release over 60 albums. In 2000, he moved to Paris, becoming part of the large Algerian diaspora in France that developed the raï’n’b genre. In the video above, you can see Hassen performing in front of adoring fans for ENTV (Algerian national public television), while backed by some well-choreographed female dancers.

Cheb Amine Wahrani

 Cheb Amine Wahrani, another Oran native, has produced some of the most experimental and adventurous raï’n’b that we’ve heard this year. On Live à Beau Rivage, Amine uses the unmistakable sound of Gnawa drumming, along with the always reliable synth-Autotune combination, to create an entirely unique sound.

Gnawa Diffusion

Gnawa Diffusion is the earliest and most popular Gnawa reggae group (for more about the genre, check out the Afropop primer). The Algerian band was formed in Grenoble, France as the Décennie Noire (Algerian civil war) was beginning in 1992. The band’s leader, Amazigh Kateb, is the son of one of the most legendary figures of Algerian literature, Kateb Yacine, an intellectual compatriot of Sartre and Brecht, whose work extolled an anti-colonial outlook. Amazigh’s name, which means “free man” in the Berber language, is the preferred self-designation for many Berbers. Kateb plays the guembri, a traditional Gnawa instrument, and connects the music and message of Marley to Sufi trance and the writings of his father. Check out our Hip Deep program, "Traveling Spirit Masters," for an introduction to the Gnawa tradition that Kateb and others have merged with reggae.


A Casablanca-based Gnawa reggae band, Darga promotes a pan-African message--connecting North Africa to the rest of the continent and, of course, Jamaica. On “Sidi Abdelkarim,” the band pays tribute to the Moroccan leader of the 1920s Rif War, who used guerrilla tactics to attack the colonial system of the French and Spanish.

Djmawi Africa

Formed in Algiers in 2004, Djmawi Africa has become one of the leaders of a new wave of politically conscious and genre-defying North African bands. Beginning as a Gnawa reggae band, their first album, Mama, shares Darga's theme of united African solidarity through a shared past of music and adversity. Their new record, Avancez l’Arrière has a stronger chaabi influence to it, making them part of a movement of chaabi revivalists that are restoring the folk tradition.

Hamid Ouchène

Hamid Ouchène has moved from Algeria to Paris to Montreal, but his sound remains very much rooted in the tradition of Kabylie, the largest Berber region of Algeria. Born in the village of M’Chedellah, Hamid covers classic tracks by Kabyle singers like Idir and Takfarinas on his mandole. He also shares a pan-African outlook with many of North Africa’s Gnawa reggae groups. We caught his performance at this year’s Nuits d’Afrique, backed by a group of musicians with origins on both sides of the Sahara. You can hear more about the Kabyle tradition Hamid draws from in the Afropop Worldwide program, "Berber Rising II."

Andaz Uzzal

Literally, “metal warriors” in the Berber language, Andaz Uzzal is one of the groups that are most dedicated to combining Berber folk traditions with heavy metal. Like many Gnawa reggae and raï’n’b performers, the band has its origins in a Paris banlieue (suburb), Choisy le Rois. And like Hamid Ouchène, Andaz Uzzal covers tracks by classic Berber singers, such as Idir and Ferhat Mehenni, the celebrated musician, who was also the founder and first president of the separatist political party, MAK (Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie).


Like Gnawa Diffusion, Litham was formed during the Décennie Noire and that context of war is apparent in the video for “El Djamra,” which begins with the sound of gunshots. The band was formed by members of Neanderthalia, North Africa’s first metal band. Redouane Aouameur (AKA Lelahel) played in both bands, and continues to be one of the pivotal musicians in the North African metal scene. Litham’s highly original sound mixed death metal with Arab and Berber folk.


The original Berber metal band Barbaros mixes black metal with Berber folklore, and, like many Berber metal groups, use Tifinagh (the ancient Berber script) to spell out their album titles. Early on in their career, the band formed its own label called Dark Arts, which became the center of a community of similarly minded Berber metal bands.


Although Tunisia has a very small Berber population, Berber metal has made its way to the city of Sousse, just south of Tunis. Formed in 2007, Ayyur has a particularly raw black metal sound. Their name comes from the Berber moon god and their songs reference legendary figures from Berber history, like Kahina, the priestess queen who led the resistance to Arab conquest in the 7th century.


Aisuragua is a one-man Berber metal band from Tenerife in the Canary Islands. L, the man behind Aisuragua, does not perform live, but produces some excellent ambient black metal and connects to the mainland Berber metal scene by also using Tifinagh on his album covers.

El Dey

El Dey mixes chaabi, the folk music that has its roots in traditional Berber music and the classical music of Al-Andalus, with flamenco, the Spanish style that also has origins in the medieval period of musical exchange between Europe and North Africa. The band was formed in 2009 and their debut album, Maria, dropped this year. You can hear more about the flamenco-North Africa connection on our Hip Deep show, “The Musical Legacy of Al Andalus, Part 3: Reverberations.” And read the article by our Algerian correspondent, Karim Mesia, here for more on El Dey and other chaabi revivalists.


Another band that draws on the chaabi tradition, Freeklane is also brand new on the Algerian scene, having released their debut, Lalla Mira, in 2013. Their sound has more of a rock feel to it than El Dey's, and though they aren't part of the Gnawa reggae movement, you can see one of the band members holding a poster of Bob Marley in the video above. The man's legacy runs deep!

Amarg Fusion

Amarg Fusion mixes reggae with the tradition of rwayes, Berber troubadours from the Souss region of Morocco. For some truly outstanding ribab playing, check out the video of their live performance of “Iwighd Adar” above.

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