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Algeria’s Rai music makes UN cultural charts

By AFP - Dec 01,2022 - Last updated at Dec 01,2022

In this file photo taken on November 14, 2000, then exiled Rai star Cheb Khaled sings during a concert in the capital Algiers, for the first time in 13 years (AFP photo)

ALGIERS — Raucous, expressive and revolutionary: Algeria’s Rai music took its place on the United Nations’ list of intangible cultural heritage on Thursday.

“New inscription on the #IntangibleHeritage List: Rai, popular folk song of #Algeria,” UN cultural agency UNESCO announced in a tweet.

Rai, whose biggest stars include Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami, emerged in the closing decades of French colonial rule in Algeria, confronting social taboos and dealing with themes such as love, freedom, despair and the struggle against social pressures. 

It was originally a rural art form, with singers performing poetic texts in vernacular Arabic, accompanied by a traditional band.

But from the 1980s onwards, it surged in popularity, centring around the western city of Oran.

The city hosted Algeria’s first Rai festival in 1985 and the next year the genre reached France, home to a large Algerian diaspora.

That took singers including Cheikha Rimitti to global fame and attracted the attention of major record labels.

In 1992, Cheb Khaled became the first artist from the Maghreb region of North Africa to reach the global Top 50 with his song “Didi”.

But the same year, Algeria descended into a devastating decade-long war between authorities and extremist militants, who assassinated several Rai singers including the star of “sentimental Rai”, Cheb Hasni.

As the violence faded in the early 2000s, Rai began to struggle for its place amid other genres including hip hop and R&B, as well as being hit by scandal with Cheb Mami’s conviction for violence against his ex-girlfriend.

But this year it saw a new breath of life with the phenomenal success of Franco-Algerian DJ Snake’s “Disco Maghreb”, a tribute to the emblematic Oran record company at the heart of the genre.

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