One of my favourite Arabic songs is the Algerian chaâbi classic, Ya Rayah, which was revived and brought to a new generation of North Africans, Europeans and Arabic speakers by the now almost mythical 1,2,3 Soleils concert of 1998. I heard the original by Dahmane el Harrachi (from the 1970s) on the radio in a taxi in Fez the other day and it prompted me to look into the song a little further.
Ya Rayah can be translated as ‘the traveller’ or ‘the emigrant’ but the song has a poignant meaning, not only for the many who left the Maghreb to seek their fortunes in Europe, but also for those who had to leave their villages and communities to move on in life, to work and support their families. The text is full of longing and regret and wise words about how problems follow you, no matter how far you run. Here is an extract from the lyrics translated into English:
“Oh traveller, where are you going?
Eventually you must come back
How many ignorant people have regretted this
Before you and me.
“How many overpopulated countries and empty lands have you seen?
How much time have you wasted?
How much have you yet to lose?
Oh emigrant in the country of others
Do you even know what’s going on?
Destiny and time follow their course but you ignore it.”
Dahmane el Harrachi’s original sits firmly within the Algerian chaâbi tradition, which developed in the early 20th century based on Arab, Berber and Andalusian roots. (Chaâbi means ‘folk’ and its close links to the Andalusian tradition are evident at the Essaouira Atlantic Andalusia Festival.) In the post-colonial period, Raï music developed in the Western Algerian city of Oran, which is close to the Moroccan border. It emerged as a counter-cultural movement; the means for young (mainly) men to express their frustration and dissatisfaction. As those young men emigrated to Europe, the music and its social significance came with them, particularly to France.
Against this backdrop, the 1,2,3 Soleils concert, which brought together the three biggest raï stars of the time, was a piece of cross-cultural and marketing genius and one might suggest represented the pinnacle of the genre’s reach. Cheb Khaled was the well-established King of Rai, Rachid Taha the genre’s bad boy and Faudel was quickly labelled ‘le petit prince du Rai.’ At the time, Faudel was only 21 and at points in the clip looks overwhelmed on stage in front of the huge crowd. The one-off concert took place in 1998 in the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris, and was followed by a double album produced by British former punk and cross-genre producer Steve Hillage. The featured songs comprised the biggest hits of all three artists and drew heavily on Algerian classics. The album went double gold and Ya Rayah has featured in various forms on the soundtrack of several films, including Something New and 1999 Bollywood Hit, Mann.
In the intervening almost two decades, the careers of all three stars have waxed and waned. Cheb Khaled has managed to keep re-inventing himself. I loved his World Cup 2010 celebration with Magic System, Même pas Fatigué, and he more recently collaborated with Moroccan-Swedish producer RedOne on the summer smash, C’est la Vie, successfully bringing his name back into the households of his original fans via their kids and YouTube. I have seen Rachid Taha live several times in the interim and frankly he has never appeared sober. His last single release was in 2013 (an Arabic version of Presley’s Now or Never) and he toured in 2014 to promote the album Zoom. Faudel went on to a stellar career, with Arabo-French ballads epitomising the hopes and frustrations of France’s second generation beurs (offspring of the original post-colonial North African immigrants) until he expressed his support for Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign and was roundly rejected by the main body of his audience. His autobiography was published the following year and documented his mental health problems culminating in an attempted suicide. According to the French media, 2017 is due to be the comeback year for Faudel, with a new album on the cards produced by none other than RedOne. Meanwhile, his Instagram account documents time spent in Morocco and on tour in the US and Middle East.
In today’s globalised world, youngsters in Oran and Paris are likely to be listening to the same music as those in Marrakech or London and much of it is European mega-dance or reggaeton of Latin American influence, although the big satellite music channels ensure that Arabic pop gets good coverage. The 1,2,3 concert and album epitomised the Zeitgeist of the late 90s: North African immigration to Europe was peaking and although inter-community understanding and integration was advancing, the second and third generation immigrants were still experiencing problems and tensions. For one evening, everyone came together, but thereafter so many bubbles burst. Still today, however, the original lyrics of Ya Rayah have a significance for all those who find themselves far from home.