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Cheb Khaled
Cheb Khaled

Algerian classical music belongs to centuries-old Arab traditions, one of which is Andalusian music, harking back to the time when Algeria belonged to Islamic empires stretching across North Africa and southern Iberia. Over the years and especially in the Algiers region, this tradition has developed into the c haabi (popular) style. In the 20th century, this current was revived by the famous M’hamed al-Anka (1907-1978), whose music is still performed. Other traditional styles are the badawi (Bedouin), originating in the desert, and the Egyptian-inspired sharqi (eastern). Strong local musical traditions exist in Kabylia, the Hoggar mountains (near Tamanrasset), and the Saharan town of Timimoun, in the south-west.

Like the rest of the Arab world, Algeria has a tradition of modern classical music performed by famous singers supported by large orchestras. Prominent among them is Warda al-Djazairia (the Algerian Rose), one of the most famous artists of the 1970s. There were influences from elsewhere as well, especially other Mediterranean countries. Raï, the music for which Algeria became famous beginning in the 1980s, emerged as a mixture of Oran nightclub music and modern rhythms. Its popularity derives in part from its lyrics about secret love affairs, wine drinking, and other subjects that were (and still are) unusual or taboo. In the 1980s, this new sound was easily distributed through audiocassettes, which were sold (and often illegally copied) by the hundreds of thousands. The cassette was followed by CDs copied on computers, and DVDs that allowed musicians to add clips of animations to their songs.

As remarkable as its lyrics was the fame that raï acquired on the international music scene. This development went hand in hand with the emergence of raï ‘superstars’ such as Cheb Mami and, especially, Khaled. No longer referred to as cheb (young man), Khaled conquered French concert halls and went far further.

Unfortunately, the Algerian music scene could not escape the violence of the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s. The raï singer Cheb Hasni, one of those who had refused to move to France, was murdered in his hometown, Oran, in 1994; the explicit lyrics of his songs had infuriated Islamist radicals and authorities. Lounes Matoub, one of the great voices of Kabylia, was kidnapped, triggering mass protests in the region. He was released but then assassinated in 1998. Despite the fact that the GIA (Armed Islamic Group, Groupe Islamique Armé) claimed responsibility for the killing, Matoub’s fans blamed the authorities and set fire to government buildings. Given his openly expressed atheistic worldview and his role as a critic of the government leadership, he had enemies in many places.

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