Monday, December 18, 2006

Made in Medina by Rachid Taha

Since rai music scrambled up from the slums and street markets of the Algerian port city Oran about 80 years ago, it has remained ineradicably urban, restless, acquisitive, and gregarious. As a lyric-heavy outlet for the female underclass, with slanguage extolling sex and nightlife while aggressively opposing French colonialism, rai was the original urchin rap. Since the European oppressor withdrew, rai's main opponents have been fundamentalists, both Marxists and Muslims. Well before the Armed Islamic Group assassinated love man Cheb Hasni in 1994—and the same gang or others gunned down progressive star producer Rachid Baba Ahmed in 1995—the rebel music was a target for terrorists.

Polyglot Oran was called the "little Paris" of Algeria, so no surprise that of late the important rai action has shifted to the big Paris of France. The only rai performer on the international marquee, Khaled, who recently canceled a major American tour just as he did after the Oklahoma City bombing, has headquartered there since the mid '80s, proving a reliable hitmaker in an almost respectable genre. Only a sturdy fan foundation could support an item like the double-CD 1, 2, 3 Soleils (Barclay), which showcases Khaled, second-generation star Rachid Taha, and young buck Faudel in a 1998 blowout-budget Paris concert featuring full string and horn sections and a foreign legion of guest players. Often the vocal interactions suggest Nashville duets or the Three Tenors, but from "Chebba" and "Le Camel" to "Didi" and "Ya Rayah," the choice material wins out.
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