Crossing the Mediterranean: migration narratives in Algerian raï music

An interview with Cheb Mimo.

By Nour Regaya

On 28 January 2001, Algerian raï singer Cheb Memi took the stage at the Super Bowl, performing his hit song "Desert Rose" alongside British artist Sting. At that time raï, a style of music that originated in Algeria, was enjoying its most successful decade to date, with artists like Cheb Khaled reaching global audiences with his songs "Aicha" and "Didi."

However, just months after Cheb Memi's voice echoed through the Super Bowl arena, Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center. In the post-9/11 era, marked by a growing animosity towards all things Arab, raï struggled to reattain its former international success.

The term "raï" translates to "opinion," reflecting its role as a musical statement and rebellion against political, social, and religious constraints, as noted by music ethnographer Nasser Al-Taee. The genre has strong ties to the port city of Oran, where raï singers, called "Cheb" or "Cheba," meaning young man or woman, sang about lust, love, sex, and alcoholism in the cabarets along the corniche. 

Despite its immense popularity, raï faced strict governmental censorship; musicians operated underground in the early 80s due to disapproval from the Algerian National Liberation Front. A more liberal regime emerged in the mid-80s, paving the way for the inaugural raï festival in Oran in 1985. The festival was then swiftly banned after the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in municipal elections in 1990.

The dissolution of the Islamist party in 1992 did little to alleviate the challenges faced by raï artists as Algeria descended into a period marked by Islamic extremism, known as "The Black Decade." Tragically, the era claimed the lives of prominent raï figures like Cheb Hasni and raï producer Rachid Baba Ahmed, who were brutally assassinated by Islamic militants. Many raï talents faced with persecution sought refuge in France, transforming cities like Marseille, Lyon, and Paris into new epicentres of the genre.

Despite its historical struggles, raï remains popular in the Arab and North African region and is currently experiencing an international revival dubbed the "Raï-naissance." Arte's 2023 documentary series “Raï Is Not Dead” exemplifies and explores this revival. 

I spoke with Cheb Mimo, an Algerian-Tunisian DJ based in London, who hosts the monthly radio show "Shakshouka" on NTS Radio, dedicated to North African music. Our conversation delved into the role of raï in narrating stories of immigration and exile, reflecting on its place in contemporary North African culture and diaspora.

Nour Regaya: How did you start your career in music, and when did you become interested in North African music?

Cheb Mimo: I started collecting records through my family's collection. So I just went to my uncles and aunts and got a few records from them. That's how it started. Then, living abroad, I was always curious about music but was mainly a spectator, going to gigs and trying to buy more records. I was digging a lot of Brazilian stuff. Japanese as well. And then, I moved to Mexico, where the record market is super rich.

When I was 22/23, I listened to some tracks that reminded me of the good things in raï and North African music. People like Retro Cassetta and Habibi Funk, with their reissues, inspired me to start digging in North Africa. I also began researching the story of the tracks, the history of raï music, and the alternative music scene in Tunis in the 70s and 80s, reggae in Libya. Honestly, it was more of a search for identity through music. And it was mainly during COVID, when I had lots of time to myself, that I wanted to learn about my Algerian side through music. When I had enough material, I began doing radio shows. And from radio shows, I got some gigs in London, and there was an exciting reception to the music, and many people were reaching out. It wasn't just about playing music for people to enjoy themselves, but to inspire them to get to know the region musically.

How was raï seen in your family growing up?

It’s interesting because my Algerian side of the family perceived raï badly. My mom is probably starting to like it because I'm now sharing it, but it was never something we listened to openly in our family. We used to listen a lot to “Malouf” [a genre of art music in the Andalusian classical music tradition of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia] and I remember my grandma singing “Medahat” style, like Cheikha Rimitti. My Algerian side of the family is quite traditional. So they kind of neglected raï and thought it was for renegades.

For me, when listening to raï from a Tunisian perspective, I think, “oh, it's super fun, but it doesn't belong to us.” It's not something that comes from our cultural cloth. Whereas for Algerians, I can imagine it's thought of as coming from an “ugly” side of Algerian society.

There's a fear of what people would think if they heard you listening to it. My grandma, when she was young, and my mum as well, were hiding to listen to raï. But then growing up in a super traditional place where the Islamists were prominent, it was pretty dangerous to listen to, because [the regime] was killing artists.

Do you have any memory of listening to raï, maybe as a child or maybe as a teenager in Tunis? 

We all knew the radio hits. Like Cheb Khaled. In cases like “Didi,” some raï artists were getting as big as some French artists. So they were always on the radio. As a child, I saw Cheb Khaled live at the Festival de Hammamet, Tunisia. Cheb Mami was also internationally famous thanks to his feature with Sting.

I didn’t know Cheb Mami sang at the Super Bowl in 2001. That made me realise that raï was 'capital-F famous' at some point. But then, for so many reasons, it seems to have dwindled. Bandcamp published an article last year saying we are amid a raï-naissance.

It was the first article on raï on the platform, which is crazy. 

Even on Refuge Worldwide, there was only one raï dedicated radio show before this interview. I know you have a monthly show on NTS called Shakshouka, where you showcase North African music and play a lot of raï on there. But how do you notice the raï-naissance? Does it depend on the audience you’re playing to?

In Tunis, people come forward to enjoy themselves when you play in a bar or a club. They rarely come for the music. DJs in Tunis change their style completely to accommodate the crowd. But at the parties I organised, people were so complimentary that the music I played was different from that of the regular DJs–it was refreshing to dance to our music. 

In London, it's all about cultural exchange. So, people come because they're curious about this music in this part of the world. And when I play in listening bars, every track I play I would have two or three people coming to ask me: “What's this track? What's the story behind that?” You would exchange words with the audience, and I liked the curiosity of people in London towards something they'd never heard. And they would come back as well, which is nice.

In London, New York and I think Berlin increasingly, people's ears are so curious. These are people who generally listen to music from all around the world. And whenever they hear music from Ethiopia, Cabo Verde, or Nigeria, they enjoy it as an experience. But it's a bit like a bubble. It feels limited because I'm playing in a quiet, vibey listening bar, drinking natural wine etc., and people in the pub next door might not know where Algeria is!

As a child, my dad would always sing “Tonton du Bled” by 113 whenever we were on a road trip. Habibi Funk played it in a gig in Tunis two years ago, and those iconic opening lines sent a roar through the audience. I asked my dad later about it, and he told me about his time as a student in France and how the North African students would go to raï clubs whenever they missed home. And “Tonton du Bled” was essentially a song about driving from Paris to Marseille to take the ferry, the car loaded with gifts for relatives in Algeria.

My dad could relate to that “return” trip while living in France. So it got me thinking about these raï songs about travelling, migration, and the idea of movement from one continent to another, the Mediterranean Sea as this border between two worlds and identities. I don't know if you've ever thought about this aspect of the genre. 

I mean musically, raï has always involved different movements and influences. Because as you know, it originated in the port city of Oran, where many commercial transactions occurred. Many people from Spain, Italy, France, and the Sahara lived there simultaneously. And you can see that in how the genre has evolved and the instruments involved. It has so many different influences, such as Arab-Andalusian music. In the 80s, they modernised it with European synthesisers. For example, Jean-Michel Jarre significantly impacted raï, even though he doesn't know it!

So there are lots of influences that come from all around the Mediterranean. And so when you talk about movement, it's usually south to north, but initially, it was influenced by the northern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Much of raï music is about either being in France and being nostalgic about going to Algeria, or frustrated to be in Algeria and unable to get a visa to get to France.

I’m from a Tunisian family, and many of my dad’s relatives live in France. We call them pejoratively “zmigri” (immigrants). Immigration comes with a veil of silence or mystery. raï gives us a rare narrative of immigration because I don't see it anywhere else in our culture; I think it's also a trauma response to want to let go and not talk about it. But these songs become anthems. Raï is a cultural artefact that helps us understand the North African post-colonialist society.

I mean, raï started very early in the 20th century in the 1920s. And even back then, it was already dealing with immigration. But at that time, it was internal immigration because it came from rural areas and peaked in the 50s and 60s. And it was all about rural folk stories. And then, post-independence, it developed internally; immigration stopped being a central topic until, I would say, the 90s. 

In 1990, the Algerian authorities banned the genre, which helped raï to develop because French producers came to Algeria to get some artists to go to France to perform. And I think that's when raï started to use modern instruments like bass guitar, which made it sound like pop music in Europe. It began to be exported and played in Bobigny, the first festival dedicated to the genre. And Morocco also had a raï festival because it was banned in Algeria then. At that time, you started having songs about nostalgia and homesickness.

In the early 2000s, when “Partir Loin” by 113 featuring Taliani came out, it was played on the radio non-stop, and it still is. I think it struck a chord, with this imagery in the lyrics of the boat that will get you out of your misery, literally the ferry or the clandestine boats that cross the Mediterranean—it’s about the dream of a better life. 

It is one of the most accurate songs for this topic. The line “kharejni men la misere” – "take me out of the misery" – you have to put it in context as well. Algerian society changed a lot after the black decade, and I think that’s the misery he was referring to because the song came out in the early 2000s, and freedoms were restricted; they still are now to a certain extent. If you go to a bar today in Algiers, it would be 95% men. 

I always thought that despite the obvious reasons for wanting to leave Algeria for economic reasons and repressed freedom, the song also works in the reversed scenario, when you feel miserable in Europe, and you are inexplicably homesick for the place you willingly left. It goes both ways. 

Yes, it works that way, even if the artist himself didn’t think of it that way.

I want to go back to “Tonton du Bled,” sung by the same artist. The music video is equally iconic, the journey of an Algerian family from the suburbs of Paris to Marseille and then to Algeria by ferry. The family takes so much stuff back home that the car is weighed down. I completely recognise this from when my cousins would come back to the bled (the home country). There was a fantastic exhibition at the Mucem in Marseille, dedicated to these cars, the Renault 112.

Thinking about it, this song must’ve been the summer anthem of millions of families across the Maghreb. 

Even the ones that took flights!

That's the thing! Even if you can afford the flights, you take the ferry because it facilitates that double life. You can take all your belongings and your car to Tunisia or Algeria, spend three months there, and then return to France with the same belongings.

Yeah, you come full and go back full, but not with the same things. You go there with gifts and return with food, spices, and olive oil.

Follow Nour Regaya and check out Cheb Mimo's NTS residency Shakshouka.