30 Sep. - 6 Oct. 1999
Issue No. 449
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Focus Features Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Tuning to the hybrid
By Youssef Rakha
Last week Cheb Khaled's second concert in Egypt testified to the idea that the King of Rai is as popular in the Arab world as he is in France. With hundreds of fans flocking to the Chinese Garden in the Cairo International Conference Centre, the concert was not only a success but an emotional release -- one of those rare occasions on which large numbers of Egyptians get together to dance the night away in the open air. Unusually, there were no problems with security. The rapport was excellent and sustained. There was a cool breeze, too, and plenty of refreshments, whether sold or smuggled. The fare included well-known hits and brand-new singles, as well as atypical songs, like Lillah ya Jazayir and Wahran, whose lyrics are written in comprehensible Arabic. Yet the event drew a smaller audience than expected -- a phenomenon attributed variously to inefficient advertising and the fact that many expected the show to be cancelled at the last minute, as had happened twice before. While worthy of attention in itself, the concert exemplifies the growing popularity of rai in Egypt, raising questions about both its viability as a genre still more or less alien to Egyptian culture, and its meaning in an Arab world edging tentatively towards the millennium.
A few months ago the release of the best-selling album, Un Deux Trois Soleils, on which he collaborated with two pillars of Franco-Algerian music, Rachid Taha and Cheb Fadel, placed Khaled alongside the mega-stars of Arabic pop not only in the music stores of Cairo but, more importantly, in the popular imagination. With such hits as Didi and Aisha (the latter noisily demanded, and relished by an increasingly enchanted crowd), Khaled was already popular in Egypt and had performed once before, but seldom was he perceived as an Arab singer or the purveyor of an acknowledged Arabic genre. Egyptians are for the most part just as clueless as Khaled's non-Arabic-speaking European audiences about what his Algerian-dialect lyrics mean, but for the Westernised upper-middle classes, particularly among the young, rai seems to fill a crucial gap. As a hybrid, multicultural product, it addresses their predicament directly. Politically, it stands in clear opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, to which the murder of Cheb Hasni by Algerian fundamentalists last year bears tragic testimony. The chanting traditions of Western Algeria, which were partly influenced by Spanish music and have, since the 1930s, increasingly incorporated Western instruments and effects, challenge regressive ideas of isolation and difference, suggesting an alternative, hip view of Arab culture, confirming its place in the global recesses of an ever more prevalent pop.
Trois Soleils gave rise to ecstatic reviews -- laudatory articles, some of which were written by established journalists, expressing respect for "the true sons of Algeria", who stood by each other and exchanged roles uncompetitively, seeking success for Algerian music rather than personal glory. In his latest film and greatest popular success to date, Al-Akhar (L'Autre), which incorporates a sub-plot reflecting on Algerian politics, Youssef Chahine used a modified version of the tune of Didi to convey the grief following an Algerian student's murder by the fundamentalists. Since then Rachid Taha has given a successful concert in Cairo, while Amr Diab (one of the greatest Egyptian pop stars of the 1990s) appropriated the public's growing admiration for rai by featuring Khaled on his most recent album, Qamarein. Many have said that their duet, Qalbi, is the best song on the album. Others, stressing the tension between Khaled's usual singing style and his (charming) struggle to master a perfectly conventional Egyptian melody, deeply appreciated the fact that he was singing in Egyptian colloquial for the first time. Towards the end of the concert, both the Egyptian and Algerian pronunciations of the word, albi and galbi, were chanted incessantly, forcing Khaled, who smilingly told his audience he did not know the song by heart, to sing as much of it as he remembered.
photo: Salah Ibrahim
Yet it remains true that rai is still essentially a commercial affair and, like McDonald's, everybody likes it. Khaled's songs -- at least some of them -- speak of the struggle for Algerian independence, but it is unclear how, in reality, the astonishing proliferation of rai is in any way helping Algeria surpass its current crisis, or raising its political profile. Does the stamp of pop really allow us to see it as anything more than cheap entertainment with a dash of ethnic colour designed to appeal to Westerners and the Westernised? Perhaps the increasing presence of rai in the Arab world will make it easier to decide.