Rai Music of Algeria on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage

A few weeks ago, Unesco announced that the Algerian popular musical genre “Rai” has been included in the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

This joyful news was being shared proudly all over social media by every Algerian nationalist.

Algerian culture is very rich going from the food to the clothes to the music, our traditions are very exquisite in qn eccentric way and a very artistic one. You can see that being portrayed in every field but today we’re going to be talking specifically about the musical one.

rai unesco patchwork

What is raï?

Raï : is an Arabic word الرأي aka opinion and it’s a music genre that was created in the thirties of the 20th century, especially to deal with sensitive topics & taboos, Algerians problems in a nutshell.

By singing raï you can give your opinion, and vision about whatever you want, politics, love, freedom, social issues. No censorship needed.

It got so popular and it was mainly sung by older individuals calling themselves Cheikh and Cheikha. Singing poetic texts in the Algerian Arabic dialect, & using traditional instruments ( derbouka, el bendir ).

How did rai start in Algeria?

Men and women from the heart of Algeria, born and raised in rural and small areas, mostly in the ouest of the country, in the alleys of “Oran, Mostaganem, Sidi Bel-Abbès” there was the birth of this revolutionist music, to defy the norm to talk about what would have been too disgraceful to mention in public. 

Raï icons

Let’s start with mentioning how impressive it is that women from conservative communities got to participate in making this kind of music, which brings us to the legendary example :

"Cheikha Remitti"

Remitti was a songwriter even though she never had any formal education, she never learned to read or write. She authored more than 200 songs, recorded some 400 cassettes and released 300 singles in her lifetime. 

She’s known as the woman who broke the glass ceiling by going public with the ailments and desires of the poor. No one had done this before, her songs were considered too audacious since they were too intimate and even mentioned drinking.

When she died of a heart attack in May 2006 in Paris at age 83, she was still touring.

“Rai music has always been a music of rebellion, a music that looks ahead” Remitti said in a 2001 interview on the radio program Afropop Worldwide.

Later on, the youth started participating more in making Raï more modern and adding to the music a dancing vibe using new instruments. And here a new word has been attributed to the singers to differentiate them from the elder community ( the founders ) : cheb (male) cheba (female). Starting from there we see the rise of most famous names, the legendary cheb Hasni, cheb khaled & cheb mami. The three of them sang both in Algeria and France and ironically they had a huge audience even though they were criticizing the French regime in the words of their songs. 

Because these singers were sincere, they sang from their hearts and that spoke to the people and reached them.

Cheb hasni :“The King of Sentimental Music”

50 years later, his words still touch every lover’s heart. He sang for love, for torture, for pain. He feared nothing, he even tried to break the social taboos during the beginning of 1990s, when Algeria was under siege from fundamentalists and Islamic extremist cells. And unfortunately, that led to his death on September 30, 1994, at the age of 26 yo an unidentified assailant fired two bullets into Cheb Hasni.

But he never died in his fans’ hearts nor ears, people still cherish his mesmerizing voice and sentimental songs.

He is the symbol of bravery for us.

Cheb hasni oran

RaI Music's Struggle

Rai music had emerged in the late 1970s, but it had been banned from radio stations, because it was regarded as vulgar and shameful due to its portrayal of matters that were taboo, such as alcoholism and drunkenness, sexual relations, and love stories. But the artists never gave up, they fled to France and sang their feelings out of suppression out of criticism.

Raï could never be shut down, it continued being produced whether in Europe or in north Africa and this summer it had a huge popularity all around the world after Dj Snake the French/Algerian musician launched his new piece of music named Disco Maghreb after an old record company in Oran from which most of the Raï stars were launched . 

Eventually it even had to be recognized by UNESCO adding it in the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

In Algeria we dance on Raï, we sing Raï, we flirt using Raï. It’s implemented in our roots and that can never be taken away.

Some of my favorite songs

Fun facts

  • Cheb khaled became the first artist from North Africa to enter the 50 best artists list in 1990 with his song Didi.
  • In 2000 Cheb Mami performed with Sting at the Grammy Awards & In 2001 he performed at the Super Bowl
  • Cheikha Remitti was invited to perform in 20 European cities and several others, including Tokyo.
  • Disco Maghreb by dj Snake reached 108m views on youtube and was danced on, at every wedding in  2022 summer.

Related articles