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refrains of rai

Derek Walmsley

It's hard to resist an album called 1970's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground. You've got the promise of some strange prototype of unheard urban music; the North African connection, only a decade and a bit after Algeria emerged from French rule; plus, the idea of pop operating through underground channels, which sounds a contradiction in terms for Westerners, but is less improbable in the Middle East and North Africa (I'm reminded of the electronica underground in Iran, for instance).

The music is almost as exciting as the title. One refrain on the album is particularly familiar to fans of 90s rave, with one track using a version of the "We are IE" vocal, which found its way, twisted via rave speak, onto Lenny De Ice's proto-jungle classic "We Are E". I'm not sure what the vocal is – it's found across a lot of Rai music, with what sounds like the same lyrics and the same melody. Whatever, the refrain is certainly spine-chilling, and so memorable that the dancehall/urban/mixadelic website weareie, who curate the excellent Blogariddims series, grabbed it for their name (which puns on the Irish connection of the people who do the site).

The audio meme of this vocal secretly linking rai and rave sent me on a frenzy of googling and downloading, trying to figure out other versions of the refrain. I eventually remembered Cheb Mami had done a particularly good track which had it in; a pop song which is like an excerpt from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, with the kind of eerie vocal that graced "Boat Woman Song" from Holger Czukay's Canaxis.

Maybe it's the one Lenny De Ice sampled, but in any case, the track is mindboggling in its own right. The time signatures are so fluid I can't follow them at all, and yet it's entirely second nature to Cheb Mami himself. Some amazing fusions happened when francophone African musicians had to figure out what they were doing on the fly in Parisian recording studios; Cheb Mami's stuff is some of the best I've heard. It's instantly resonant, but complex and elusive too... much like that vocal refrain itself.

It's well worth checking out - and stands its own next to almost any other tune from anywhere on the planet. Cheb Mami- "Douni El Bladi" [RE-UPPED 24/10/08)