In November 2005 the world looked on in shock as the suburbs of French cities erupted in violence following the accidental death of two young men of African descent after a police chase outside of Paris. What became known as the banlieue riots eventually lasted three weeks and consumed 200 million Euros of public and privately-owned property, much of that in the form of burned cars, schools and libraries.
The surprise at such widespread destruction notwithstanding, France has become accustomed to periodic explosions from the banlieue districts outside its major urban areas, where populations of North African and Sub-Saharan African descent feel increasingly sidelined from their country’s economy and social life. Many of the youth involved in riots were born in France, unlike their parents, and thus face a considerably more depressing reality at their birth country’s failure to recognize their presence and potential contributions.
Immigrant communities have traditionally been hotbeds of musical appreciation and a major market for records produced in their countries of origin; in some cases they spawn their own popular music movements. Raï, a music of Algerian origin, has been popularized in France by local communities of Algerians and other North Africans, particularly over the past twenty years through the efforts of a younger generation of musicians known as chebs, or “youth”. Sung largely in Arabic with some occasional interjections in French, Raï is musically based in Arabic love poetry and Bedouin rhythms and melodies. When Raï, which literally means “opinion,” came to France, it took on different topics including criticisms of French government policies and cultural attitudes toward immigrants. An early singer of the genre, Khaled, excelled at using his songs to simultaneously upbraid politicians and local youth for their shortcomings. A phenomenally popular recent cheb named Rachid Taha has done something of the same with his now-classic version of Abderrahmane Amrani’s immigrant’s lament, “Ya Rayah”.
In the below video of the 2006 Raï hit, “Dana Dana,” an ethnically diverse group of youth play drums, violins and breakdance along with the song’s infectious beat. “Dana Dana” is a duet between a Moroccan cheb, Rayan, and a cheba, Rima. It appeared on a popular Raï mix in 2007, entitled Raï’n’B.
The below song is from the same compilation and features a young Raï singer, Douzi, whose voice is subjected to what a Village Voice reviewer recently described as “the T-Pain effect.”
Douzi, “Yalli Nassini”
Despite recent complaints that the French government hasn’t been fulfilling the needs of its citizens from North Africa, it cannot be said that the latter aren’t making their voices heard. In French cities from Paris to Bordeaux to Marseille the rhythms of Raï emit from coffee shops and kebab stands. In past Novo Mundo features I have mentioned record stores in New York where the featured music can be purchased, but the best place to hear new Raï is really in a Paris taxicab. That said, hail enough cabs in Brooklyn and you could get lucky.
[Note: the above photograph of a painting was taken at a 2007 exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn featuring the work of Alexis Peskine, entitled “The French Evolution: Race, Politics & the French Riots.” The banner photo is of a graffiti mural in Bordeaux, France taken in 2006 by me.]