This was written for the National:
Disturbing a sleeping box of old cassettes the other day, my hand brushed an album by Chab Hasni, and memories rushed in as fluent as music, of the Algerians I’d known in Paris in the early nineties, particularly my friends Qader and Kamel.
In Algeria these two had been ‘hittistes’. That’s a real Algerian word: a French ending tacked onto the Arabic ‘hayit’ meaning ‘wall’. The hittistes were the youths who spent their time leaning against walls, bored, angry, and stoned. They had no jobs and no housing – those young men who did have jobs often slept in their workplaces. They spent their time dodging the fearsome police force.
Life as ‘clandestin’ illegal immigrants in France was not much easier. There too they had to negotiate checkpoints. I remember Kamel spending a fortnight in prison for being stopped ‘without papers’. When at liberty, they peddled hashish on Pigalle and sold the cassettes they lifted from shops. (Still, there was honour amongst thieves. Qader once knocked down a fellow Algerian for stealing from an old man on the metro. “So what if he’s French?” he growled. “He could be your grandfather!”)
We socialised in their attic room too low to stand up in. It contained too many bodies, a haze of smoke and the steam of endless cups of tea. There was a tape deck always playing one of three musicians: in third place, the Walrus of Soul Barry White; in second, the swinging voice of international protest, Bob Marley. And first and foremost, the singer who would bring these tough men to sweet nostalgic tears, Chab Hasni. That’s the French spelling of ‘shab’, as in ‘shabab’ – the lads, the boys. So who was the Boy Hasni?
He was born Hasni Chakroun, one of seven children in a working class home in Gambetta, Oran in 1968. In the extreme harshness of the political environment which dominated headlines after 1992, Hasni’s long, soft face and open smile, and more exactly his inimitable crooning, became representative of another side of Algeria.
In the opinion of Qader and Kamel, Hasni was the supreme, the true and authentic, voice of Rai music. ‘Rai’ is a word meaning ‘opinion’ or ‘perspective’ (several Arab newspapers use the word in their titles), but in colloquial Algerian it also means something like ‘Yes, man!’ or the hip hop ejaculation ‘Word!’ The music’s roots are in the centuries old Maghrebi ‘malhun’ tradition of sung dialectal poetry, but Rai proper sprouted in Oran in the 1920s. This was a time of rapid urbanisation as Beduins displaced by European colonists moved in to the city, where their rural music met Spanish and French genres, especially cabaret and flamenco. Another element in the mix was Gnawa from nearby Morocco, with its drum-based sub-Saharan origins. The Oranaise singers who rose to give their ‘opinion’ fused all these influences. Rai achieved its contemporary form in the seventies and eighties, as producers like Ahmad Baba Rachid incorporated synthesiser and drum machine beats from western pop. The resulting melange of driving rhythms and plaintive voices is one of the most danceable sounds in the world. In recent years, Rai has demonstrated remarkable flexibility in its various crossovers and collaborations with jazz, rap, funk, reggae and rock.
Socially, Rai is similar to Egypt’s populist Sha’abi music, exemplified in the 1970s by Ahmad Adawiya and now by Shaaban Abdurrahim. It uses city slang and word play in the same fashion, and is satirical in tone, providing humorous street commentary on the events of the day. Specifically, Rai’s language is ‘durija’ – Algerian dialect – incorporating Berber expressions, plus literary Arabic, French and some Spanish. This Orani brew reflects North African modernism and cosmopolitanism.
Drawing on both the Sufi madih tradition, in which women sang to other women at shrines and weddings, and the more ribald heritage of the zindani bar songs long associated with prostitution, women singers have always been prominent in Rai. The ‘grandmother of Rai’ was gravel-voiced Cheikha Rimitti, a remarkable woman who soared, during the second world war, from living rough to national stardom, and then to international repute in the 1960s. As an old lady she recorded with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and was still making records in her eighties. Chaba Fadela and Chaba Zahouania are the biggest female stars of Rai’s younger generation.
In terms of its lyrics, Rai is a bipolar genre, of party highs and innercity lows. It is the Algerian theme music for hedonism, for mixed dancing, for the mahshasha (hasheesh den) and the bar. Many verses praise these ecstatic escapes, and many more bemoan the real world which deserves to be escaped, in a blunt blues that has always been, directly or not, political. So in the 30s Rai sang of typhus epidemics in the new slums, in the 50s of the national independence struggle, and in the 70s of corruption. Like the Calypsos of the Caribbean, Rai is a rich resource for popular historians.
Predictably, Rai has made many enemies. These include most notably, and in chronological order: the colonial French, the Marxist-nationalists of independence, the regime in its later ideology-free stage, and Islamist extremists – all of whom sanctioned and threatened Rai musicians. At various times, recording, distribution of cassettes, and performances had to happen ‘underground.’ In one hamfisted attempt to stop Rai recordings, the government confiscated all blank cassettes entering the country. The music remained banned from national radio and television until 1985, when French Culture Minister Jack Lang persuaded the regime that Rai was good for Algeria’s image.
During the 1988 riots over the sorry state of the economy, the sound of the barricades was Chab Khaled’s al-Harba, Wayn? (To Flee, But Where To?), which encapsulates that generation’s sense of having no good options, suffering between the rock of a corrupt military regime and the hard place of intolerant Islamism. In either direction lay the state, whoever managed to grapple control of it. Either way: le pouvoir.
“Where has youth gone?
Where are the brave ones?
The rich gorge themselves,
The poor work themselves to death,
The Islamic charlatans show their true face...
You can always cry or complain
Or escape...but where to?”
This was the charged atmosphere in which Chab Hasni pursued his brief career. Instead of politics, he focused on love, or lust. “Why, my eye, have you left me alone?” he plainted. “Your absence has lasted too long, my gazelle!” With such sentimental lyrics and a lush instrumentation, he carved out his niche as the Julio Iglesias of Rai. His catalogue of 400 recorded songs forms the canon of ‘Lover’s Rai.’ And soppiness doesn’t faze a hittiste audience: the hard men of Algiers and Paris were wild for it.
Hasni’s titles and lyrics were in Franco-Arabic. Like: Jamais Nensa Ana les Souvenirs, or I’ll Never Forget the Memories – two words in Arabic and three in French. To Islamists, such speech mockingly celebrated the depth of French cultural penetration, as much as the message of the songs was immoral. Hasni could certainly be transgressive. In his breakthrough 1987 hit al-Beraka, he sang a duet with Chaba Zahouania about drunken sex in a hut. Most of his output was more syrupy gentle, but he also sang about family breakup and, in el-Visa, about migration. The nihilistic voice of that song wants a visa to see his girlfriend, and threatens if he doesn’t get it: “I’ll drink myself stupid and smash everything up.”
But if Islamists saw Rai as an Arab-Muslim surrender to alien values, the cultural pollution was two way: France was borrowing from Algeria too. The cous cous restaurant is to France what the Indian restaurant is to England or the Gulf: an essential part of the scenery. French people of Arab descent, les beurs, had brought Arab food, music, and words to the previous colonists. You could hear Hasni’s cassettes playing in Barbes and Belleville, in the HLM blocks of Marseille and Lyons, in the parks and taxi cabs of Lille and Le Havre, as well as on mainstream French radio.
Chab Khaled and Chab Mami became huge stars in France. Khaled’s Didi was an international hit in 1992. His 1996 song Aisha was France’s first number one sung in Arabic. And Mami won a large Anglo-Saxon audience after collaborating with Sting on Desert Rose in 2000.
Meanwhile in Algeria, social unrest led to the end of one party rule and then elections in December 1991. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) convincingly won the first round, the military stepped in, cancelling the next ballot and banning the FIS. At least a hundred and sixty thousand were killed in the civil war which ensued, very many for no apparent reason. Girls were killed for wearing the hijab and girls were killed for not wearing it. Journalists of all stripes, and policemen, and cleaners, and teachers, and nurses were killed. Whole villages were massacred and burnt in the dark, including villages right next to military bases. And the political chaos provided a cover for other forms of violence. Gangsters and feuding families were able to take life without fear of investigation. “To kill your neighbour is the easiest thing to do in Algeria,” said my friend Kamel. “Either the government or the Islamists will be blamed. Nobody will ask about it.” Qader told me that in the first couple of years of the war he had lost “tens of people, on both sides.” That’s why Kamel and Qader were ‘clandestin’ in France: they thought being illegal was better than being dead.
Chab Hasni performed abroad, but he continued to live in Gambetta. When he received Islamist death threats, he sent his wife and son to France. Yet he still chose to stay in the streets he’d grown up in, and he paid for his choice.
On September 29th 1994 Hasni was shot twice in the head at close range. He was walking between his family home (despite his star status, he still lived in his father’s house) and the local cafe when he was killed. He was 26 years old.
It seems very likely that he was assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, a more savage successor to the FIS. Not everybody believed this, though; it’s a measure of the confusion of 90s Algeria that my friends thought it more likely that the regime, le pouvoir, had killed Hasni as a sort of double bluff, to make the Islamists unpopular. “Nobody knows who killed Hasni,” Qader darkly announced. “Only God knows who does what in Algeria. God have mercy on his soul.”
150,000 people attended Hasni’s funeral. The great Rai producer Ahmad Baba Rachid was assassinated the following year. Today Algeria is still not prosperous, but it’s much more peaceful. Rai flourishes there, to the extent that Paris-based singer Rachid Taha complains that censorship of political songs is now worse in the West than in the Arab world.
The last I heard of Kamel he had vanished by night over the Swiss border. And Qader was trying to work out a way to get to Britain. “It’s almost impossible to get in,” he said. “But if you manage, there’s no more trouble with papers and checkpoints. You can just disappear over there.”
I wonder what became of them. They were good men. As I relax and listen to the late Hasni, I know I won’t forget any of it. Jamais nensa ana les souvenirs.