The oldest surviving style of music in Algeria, and throughout it’s neighboring North African countries, is Andalus, which takes its name from the area of southern Spain in which it developed before migrating to the Maghreb. Andalus was developed by Persian musicians, and continued by the local Muslim population who were forced to leave southern Spain during the Reconquista. Andalus is based upon the Nuba, suites of music constructed around musical modes. There were originally 24 Nuba, although only 16 have survived and continue to be performed in Algeria. There are regional variations in the styles of Andalus found in Algeria, with the major Algerian cities each continuing the tradition of different Spanish Andalusian region. There are a number of traditional instruments found in performances of Andalus, including the rabab (a bowed instrument similar to a violin), tambur (tambourine), and darbuka (goblet drum), and throughout the twentieth century western orchestral instruments also began to be used. Andalus is highly respected in Algeria and holds a similar social position to classical music in Europe.
Whilst Andalus remained for many years the music of Algeria’s elite, a poetic style known as Melhûn or Bedoui was performed on the streets of the cities by Cheikhs, respected male musicians and storytellers. The poems, which were often long and complex, were supported by simple musical accompaniment performed on the guellal (drum) and gasba (flute)
In the early decades of the Twentieth century, a genre known as Hawzi developed in Algiers from the local style of Andalus, and was often performed by Jewish musicians and female singers.
Chaabi, which means ‘folk’, is a style of music that evoved in the Casbah district of Algiers in the 19th century from Andalus classical music, and is different from the style which shares the same name in Morocco. It remains one of the most popular musics amongst Algerians, and is often performed at weddings and other gatherings. Like Andalus, it features singing over a small ensemble of musicians playing stringed and percussive instruments, and the lyrics are based upon poetic verses that deal with issues of love, loss and betrayal, leading commentators to compare it with Spanish Flamenco. The more traditional style, called Chaabi-Melhûn, was made popular by the master musician Hadj Mohamed El-Anka, and features pieces which can last between ten and forty minutes. A more popular style of Chaabi developed in the 1950s and involves much shorter songs, and many of these have been recorded and released commercially. Perhaps the most famous popular Chaabi singer was Dahmane El Harrachi whose song Ya Rayah is known throughout North Africa. A documentary film by Irish-based Safinez Bousbia was released in 2011 and tells the story of the ‘El Gusto’ Chaabi orchestra of Algiers, which contains both Muslim and Jewish musicians.
The most internationally famous Algerian style of music is undoubtedly Raï, which became known throughout Europe and America in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to star musicians like Cheb Khaled and Chab Mami, the latter having performed with Sting on his hit Desert Rose. Raï was born in the western Algerian city of Oran, where the music of local street performers mixed with the jazz and other non-Algerian musics, heard on the radio and imported records. Many of the earliest performers of the music that would eventually become Raï were women, and the most famous of these was Chikha Remitti, often known as the grandmother of Raï. After Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, Raï became increasing popular amongst the country’s youth as the musicians introduced electric instruments and were influenced by reggae and other non-Algerian styles, creating a genre commonly known as pop-Raï. The music did not initially find favour with the Algerian authorities because of the crudeness of many lyrics, but this was relaxed in the mid-1980s because Raï had become so popular, both in Algeria and internationally. Many of the leading stars of Raï moved to France during the 1980s, where they recorded albums for major record labels and toured internationally, introducing Algerian music to a whole new audience.
The northeastern region of Kabylie is home to the majority of Algeria’s Berber population, whose culture is based upon a tradition of storytelling, and folk song and dance. Kabyle music is traditionally very rhythmic, with musicians performing on the t’bel (tambourine), bendir (frame drum) and ghaita (a type of bagpipes). Many Kabyle Berbers emigrated to France and music became particularly important to the diasporic community established in Paris, where Slimane Azem became a star. The 1970s saw a number of Kabyle musicians gaining fame, and the song A Vava Inouva, written and performed by singer Idir and based upon traditional Berber poetry, became particularly popular. At the same time, his contemporary Aït Menguellet also became internationally famous, and the 1980s saw the rise to prominence of Lounès Matoub, a politically-motivated singer who demanded recognition for Berber culture in Algeria. Kayblie continues to produce many popular musicians, including female stars such as Souad Massi and Iness Mezel, who have gained commercial success in Europe.
A notable Algerian rap scene developed in the 1990s, particularly within the diaspora in France. Today, Algerian musicians perform both traditional and contemporary musical styles, and continue to fuse together disparate musical styles in the same way as their ancestors, creating a diverse and exciting musical culture.
Written by Stephen Wilford whilst at City University.