A Desert Rose with Roots in Raï
by Ron Iverson
Hostess Rosie O’Donnell introduced the next act at the 2000 Grammy Awards: “I am sorry to announce that there will be a delay in the program. We are not quite ready yet. Sting is backstage having Tantric sex…Well…Looks like they are ready now, folks—Sting and Cheb Mami!”
This performance of Sting’s “Desert Rose,” the second song from his new CD Brand New Day, brought Middle Eastern-influenced music to 170 million viewers in over 156 countries, the widest Western audience to date. It also introduced the general American audience to the talents of Algerian raï star Cheb Mami, who has already experienced great success in Europe and the Middle East.
Cheb Mami’s high tenor voice is heard in the solo opening of the piece, weaving a rich tapestry throughout over Sting’s Western lyrics and rock instrumental foundation. He sings in Arabic of longing and lost love in the bayati maqam, with the beautiful ornamentation and intense feeling characteristic of Middle Eastern music. Simon Shaheen, well-known Arabic violinist from New York, arranged the music for the string section, and was the lead violinist. The musicians who played with Shaheen were Jihad Racy, George Hamad, Joseph Chamaa, Mike Zamir and William Shaheen, and Zafer Tawi played doumbek. Riq, duff, , zills, and zaghareets were also in evidence. Although the song’s foundation is Western popular music, Mami’s contribution gives it a quality of Arabic authenticity. The song is the second single from Brand New Day, and a “Desert Rose” music video is currently airing on MTV.
I was fortunate to be able to arrange an exclusive interview with Mami the day after the Grammys. His manager, Algerian Michel Levy, helped translate from French, and added his own knowledge of Algerian culture and raï music to the conversation. Mami told me that his collaboration with Sting began because of Sting’s interest in Middle Eastern music. Sting was writing “Desert Rose” as a duet, and he was on a search to find a raï singer to provide authenticity. He went to several concerts of major raï singers before he heard Mami’s performance at a concert in Paris. After the show, Sting went backstage and asked Mami if he would help him with the song. He sent Mami a demo tape, and Mami worked at home for two weeks until 3 or 4 in the morning, developing his soaring vocal part. Sting didn’t tell Mami what the song was about when he shared the melody with him, waiting to see what would come from the collaboration. Sting told CNN, “I’m singing about longing—romantic, philosophical longing. He (Mami) came back a week later with some lyrics and started to sing them, and they sounded great to me. I said, ‘What are you singing about?’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m singing about longing.’ So that proved to me that the music was telling the story, not the other way around.”1 The song was recorded in Italy, and after the CD was released, Mami accompanied Sting on a world tour.
Mami’s worldwide odyssey had humble beginnings. Khélifati Mohamed was born July 11, 1966 in Graba-el-Oued, a very populated part of Saïda, 200 kilometers south of Oran, on the high plateau of Western Algeria. His family was poor, and by age twelve he was singing for spending money at weddings and circumcision ceremonies. He knew early on that music was his calling, but it was difficult for his parents to accept at first, especially because he was away from home at night so much. He captivated his audiences with his high voice and spontaneous and inspired outpourings, earning him the affectionate nickname Mami, “the youngster.” As his biography on the Ark 21 website states, “There was no room for doubt—Mami had received the key of a music born from the divine Oum Khalsoum and the merry Oran, learning its secret from the spells they wove.”2
Raï permeated the youth culture of Algeria at that time. The name arose from the tradition of wise men in Algerian villages who gave their ra’yy (advice, opinion, view, notion, “my way,” “Tell it like it is!”). Traditional raï had originated during the 1800’s in Oran, with roots in Sufi and other poetry, and a female cult, the zawiyya. Rooted in traditional folk music common to the Oran-Tlemcen region sung by male singers (sheikhs), it was adopted and expanded by urban female singers in Oran (sheikhas). Its development can also be traced to the Bedouin song form melhoun. It had a place and feeling in Algerian culture much like the blues in America, and early music was typically a soulful, solo voice over darbouka and reed flute. Rimitti, one of the earliest and most influential singers among the Oran sheikhas, is still performing (see article page 12). During the 1950s and 1960s, younger musician-singers adopted elements of flamenco, jazz, Eastern Arab pop music, and Euro-Pop, and more modern, electrified instruments began to be used. Many of the new, younger generation of singers use the prefix Cheb or Cheba (“young”) to distinguish themselves from the older generation. Some musicians refer to the newer, European-influenced version “pop raï” to distinguish it from the older, indigenous tradition from which it derives. A significant event in the development of pop raï was the meeting between trumpet player Massaoud Bellamou and jazzman Safi Boutella in 1974. A few years later, the new raï generation began using keyboards and rhythm boxes. What is now known internationally as raï music is a phenomenon of the late 1970’s and the cassette revolution.
During Cheb Mami’s childhood, raï was the music of choice of Algerian young people. Because raï music was not allowed to be played on the one Algerian television station, which was owned by the State, artists became known through the distribution of locally produced cassette tapes. When he was fifteen, Mami entered a talent contest on national television called “Voice of Tomorrow.” Although he came in second, it was generally acknowledged that he was the clear winner, especially obvious since the first-place contestant was the daughter of the head of the panel of judges. The audience booed when she was announced as the winner, and cheered wildly when Mami performed and was awarded second place. After that show, all of the music producers in the country, including Boualem (the producer of “Disco Maghreb,” the main label of Oran that had produced most raï successes in those years), were on the phone to him, trying to get him to agree to record with them. One week later he was recording his first cassette. Over the next several years, he recorded ten cassettes, each of which sold between 100,000 to 200,000 copies, one selling over 500,000 copies. Although he became very popular and well known among the Algerian people, he was still not recognized by the national media because of the ban on raï by the government-controlled radio and television stations. In 1985, he made his first official public appearance at the first raï festival in Oran.
In spite of Mami’s success, the sale of cassettes did not bring him much money, and in 1985 he went to Paris to play in the clubs to earn cash to buy his band more equipment. His intention was to return to Algeria soon to continue his music there. In 1986 he sang at the first raï festival outside of Algeria at Bobigny in France, resulting in a great deal of media attention. Because of the worldwide acceptance of raï after the Bobigny Festival, the Algerian government reversed its position and began to embrace raï as its own, allowing it to be played on national radio and television for the first time. Mami met Michel Levy at Bobigny, and decided to extend his stay in France. In December 1986, Mami sang in a recital at the Olympia, a famous concert hall in Paris.
In 1987 Mami returned to Algeria to complete his two-year military service requirement, which interrupted his singing career, although he said the army was generous in allowing him to continue to sing for other soldiers and in cabarets. When he returned to Paris in May 1989 to sing again at the Olympia, it was clear that he was the hottest rising star of the new raï. More venues and tours followed in close succession: New Morning in December 1989; Bataclan in May 1990; Festival d’Anoulême; New York; Québec; Italy; Netherlands; Germany; l’Auditorium des Halles in January 1991; Switzerland; Spain; the Festival of Roskilde in Scandinavia; and England. He came to Los Angeles in 1990 to record his first album, “Let Me Rai,” and returned in 1994 to record, Saïda, which reached gold status in France. Douni el bladi followed in 1996. His latest CD, Meli Meli, was recorded in Paris in 1999, and reached platinum status in France, with several of the singles from the CD reaching #3 on the French national charts.
Raï is now a worldwide phenomenon, and most of the major raï singers live outside of Algeria, primarily in France. Mami continues to live in Paris and tours internationally, but he still feels close to his homeland. This was demonstrated by his return for military service, the naming of his first CD after his hometown Saïda, and the inclusion on his latest CD of “Bledi,” (My Country). Based on an ancient Mexican theme with Andalusian origins, “Bledi” tenderly describes Algeria and its various regions, a “tribute to a country torn apart by civil war.”3 Another song on the same CD, “Azwaw 2,” features a song based on a poem by and sung with Kabyle poet Idir, who sings in Qabayil, the “Berber” (Latin for “barbarian”) language of the Maghreb region (which includes the coastal mountain regions of Northern Algeria).
Much has been said in the media about the rebellious, anti-authoritarian nature of raï, but Mami insists that this is not true of current raï singers. An air of controversy has hung over raï throughout its history, but there are as many opinions about raï as the name would imply. Since the early 1900’s, raï lyrics have been racy and bold, sometimes laced with social and political criticism, tinged with wantonness and individualism. Some songs had hidden meaning critical of fundamentalist Muslims. Raï came to symbolize a lifestyle of freedom, cynicism and anti-authoritarianism. Militant Islamists began their campaign against raï singers after the start of the civil strife in Algeria. Some say that militant religious leaders called for a fatwa against raï singers, and that Cheb Hasni was assassinated and another singer kidnapped and released because of it. Mami and Michelle Levi denied this, however, insisting that these are merely rumors. They pointed out that no one has been able to identify who issued the alleged fatwa or who killed Cheb Hasni.
Mami insists that current raï is non-political. He says that it deals primarily with the problems of everyday life and love. Each singer sings about his own life, and gives his opinion about what it means, how he sees it. He says that because of this, the subject matter of current raï music tends to be different than the old music because life conditions have changed and people are facing different problems.
Mami says that although raï singers are not political, they do deal with important social issues. For instance, he is very concerned about the social conditions, racism, and identity problems faced by the four to five million second-generation Algerian and Arab immigrants in France. Even though they were born in France and speak fluent French, other Frenchmen do not consider them French; yet other Arabs do not consider them to be Arabs. Because of difficulties finding jobs and housing, the vast majority of them live in ghettoes surrounding Marseilles and Paris. The social conditions they face are similar to the conditions African-Americans have had to endure in the United States. Possibly because of the affinity they feel with African-Americans, a strong tradition of rap has arisen there. Raï and rap are both real street forms and share basically the same audience, yet each has a very strong and distinct cultural identity and definite personality. Mami pioneered the marriage of the two genres on “Mama” from his 1994 album Saïda, which garnered him a large new audience among French-Algerian rap fans. For his latest CD, Meli Meli, he collaborated with French-Algerian rap artists Imhotep, K-Mel and K-Rhyme Le Roi on “Parisien du Nord” and “Marseillais du Nord.” Michelle Levy loosely related the story told in “Parisien du Nord”:
You tell me I have the same rights as you, but when you look at me I see in your eyes it is not true, I am not considered to be your friend. When I want to work or rent a house, you don’t have a job for me because of my color, because I am Arabic.
Mami is a Muslim, and says that his music, and raï music in general, does not attack the fundamentalists. When I asked him if raï music has been critical of Islam or was religious, he responded, “Carlos Santana is Catholic, right? Would you call his music religious?” Was this an elusion to the subtle way that good lyrics point to profound spiritual and philosophical truths? Perhaps referring to the origins of raï, Mami included a song entitled “Cheikh” on Meli Meli: “In Muslim tradition, the Cheikh is considered as the wise person, the one who has knowledge, the leader. The patriarch is loved and respected because he is able to give good advice and to calm down fights.”4 In the title song, “Meli Meli,” (What’s Happening to Me), he uses the phrase “mystical attraction” to describe his feelings of love.
Today, thanks to the influence of Cheb Mami and others, raï music has become so popular in Europe that it is synonymous there with Arab music. According to Mami and Michel Levy, even Arab singers who do not sing raï music are promoted as raï singers in France. Although Mami is clearly rooted in the raï tradition, as was further demonstrated in Meli Meli by his use of many traditional Middle Eastern instruments, it would be a mistake to merely classify Mami as a raï singer. He has developed a unique style of singing and song writing, and looks beyond the tradition of raï and the borders of Algeria for inspiration. The blending of numerous traditions is not uncommon in raï, which may account in large part for its international appeal as “World Music.” For instance, on Meli Meli there are influences of Andalusia in “Bledi,” Scottish bagpipes on “Azwaw 2,” and reggae rhythm and sound on “Hatachi.” His affinity for Western popular music is clear in his collaboration with Sting, and Sting’s choice of Mami for the duet is a tribute to Mami’s voice and musical talent. He is very comfortable in the higher ranges, and he demonstrates incredible vocal technique with his accuracy and quick changes. Mami skillfully blends Western popular rock with the nostalgia of Arabic lyrics and the traditional Oriental music line. His song writing demonstrates creativity as well as commercial savvy, and his songs are infectious and very singable.
Both youthful and beyond age, Mami’s music embraces the past as well as the future, untouched innocence as well as the most carefully controlled modernity. Conceived of flesh and offerings, ardor and artifice, his language plays with boundaries and codes it gracefully, combining an ode to the dignity of the individual with the demand for freedom for everyone. It is an urgent hymn to a revitalized humanism.5
3. from CD liner notes.
4. from CD liner notes.
Ronald Lloyd Iverson, Ph.D., served as assistant editor and layout design for Habibi from 1992 to 2002, and continues to assist in the production of The Best of Habibi. He has Bachelors degrees in Sociology (Pomona College) and Religious Studies (UCSB), a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (Cal Poly), and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (Pacifica Graduate Institute). He worked for 25 years as a child custody mediator and evaluator with the Superior Court in Santa Barbara, and is currently a psychotherapist in private practice. Email: email@example.com.