How North African Rai Music Survives In The Age Of Jihad

Rai singer Faudel in July 2010
Rai singer Faudel in July 2010
Véronique Mortaigne

PARIS â€" Does the Arab world party? The answer is yes. That's also true in France, where the North African community doesn't deprive itself of pleasures or amusements, and where raï music â€" contrary, perhaps, to the general public's perception â€" is alive and well, albeit in a sphere of its own.

The music used to be ubiquitous in France, which held its first raï festival 30 years ago. The 1986 event took place in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny and encouraged the commercial success of a genre that never burdened itself with moral or religious rigor. The Bobigny festival, supported by the left-wing intelligentsia, introduced the French public to a new generation of raï singers from Oran, Algeria â€" people like Khaled, Cheb Mami, Cheb Sahraoui and Chaba Fadela. Veteran performer Cheikha Rimitti (1923-2006) also appeared.

Three decades later, raï music is still present, though far more discreet. The change is an indicator of how much different ethnic communities are closing in on themselves. To find it, one has to look in its new settings â€" in the "shisha cafes," which in theory don't sell alcohol but nevertheless resist the pressures of a hardening Islam that now considers cabarets to be places of ill repute. Here, "céfrans" ("white people" in French slang) are few, almost absent.

Humble origins

This Bedouin music, sung in the countryside with flutes and drums to liven up village wedding ceremonies, took the cabarets in Oran by storm in the 1950s. Then, after drawing some inspiration from reggae and keyboards, in France and elsewhere it became a symbol of the dancing and rebellious culture of the 1990s, of the children of Algeria's independence.

Raï music was appreciated at the time because it was seen as music from the ghetto. A bad boy with a golden earring, Cheb Khaled played the accordion and sang with flourishes while belly dancing. He used to play in the Parisian northern-African quarter of Barbès but also at the Bains-Douches, one of the trendiest clubs at the time, before recording "Didi" in 1992, a worldwide success that took him to New York and Cairo.

Pop-raï music reached its high point with the 1,2,3 Soleils concert in a Paris sports arena that was transformed into a multicultural dance floor for the occasion. That was in 1998, the same year France's "black-blanc-beur" soccer team won the FIFA World Cup. Khaled, the boss, Faudel, the little prince, and Rachid Taha, hoarse and political, were accompanied by British producer Steve Hillage along with Gail Ann Dorsey, David Bowie's bass player. At the end of the gig, music label Universal organized a memorable party in the Bois de Boulogne park.

The music industry was flourishing at the time, and the Western public's curiosity for exotic world music knew no boundaries. But in the mid-2000s, it all crumbled. The clannish raï business plunged with the decline of audio cassettes. Khaled's image was dented by stories of domestic violence. Cheb Mami was sent to jail for forcing his wife to have an abortion. Faudel lost all artistic credibility when he supported Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007.

From then onwards, the "raï networks" escaped the French public. The young French-north-African DJs took hold of the raï rhythmics and exported it to the Gulf countries or even Thailand, a haven for boxing enthusiasts where many Algerians emigrated in the 1980s and opened Mideast-inspired shisha bars.

Radical reactions

In France too, these lounges multiplied from north to south. Some of them are big enough to hold 1,000 to 1,500 people. "Arab youth aren't accepted anywhere else," says the manager of singer Cheba Zahouania. "There's no alcohol, and sometimes, in the most popular shisha bars, mothers come with the veil. We share all the information on social networks, Facebook and Twitter, and that's where the clientele is recruited for special events, concerts, etc.," he explains.

Zahouania, the now 56-year-old "queen of Algerian raï," wrote one of the early pop-raï hits â€" "El Baraka" â€" which she sang with Cheb Hasni. The song is about a non-married couple making love in a wrecked shack.

Hasni was killed in 1984 by radical Islamists. He was 26. Those were dark years in Algeria, where many artists and intellectuals were killed by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). Female raï singers received death threats. Zahouania and Chaba Fadela sought refuge in France.

"From 1989, I was doing gigs everywhere, from Moscow to Dubai to the United States," Fadela says. "We were the representatives of a culture. The GIA put an end to that. It's a mafia that has nothing to do with Islam."

Fadela is now 53 and still lives in Paris with her children, including "a daughter who became a police officer," she says with pride. She used to sing love songs with her husband Cheb Sahraoui, including "N'sel Fik" (you belong to me), the first international raï hit.

Zahouania now lives in Oran and is very careful when it comes to politics. "There are mosques and cabarets in Algeria, and people are free to choose," she says. "Prayers are something intimate, and being religious doesn't prevent you from singing. It's all a matter of respect. It's not easy to be an artist. I’m happy about what God gave me: timbre, strength."

She doesn’t sing in cabarets anymore, but she still does at weddings and in chic Parisian shisha cafes. Le Select, located just outside the Parisian ring road, is one of these few places where narguile, raï and rap meet vodka, magnum-sized bottles of champagne and illuminated birthday cakes.

A world apart

Shisha cafes vary in size and standing. In Pierrefitte, a northern Parisian suburb, the Jawhara first opened in 2011, amid warehouses and dirt parking lots. The place is impossible to find without a guide. Outside the door and the red sign, a man has installed an entire shop in his car trunk, selling drinks and sandwiches. Alcohol is prohibited inside.

The clientele, mixed and exclusively north African, is here to see the raï star of the moment, 29-year-old Fella Japonia. The artist owes her name to her slightly slanting eyes. Fella Japonia has been singing in Paris for four years. Before that, she spent time in Belgium and the Netherlands. On the weekends, she goes from shisha cafe to shisha cafe, from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. Her deep voice is accompanied by a young DJ. "Your love is a nuclear bomb," she sings.

The lyrics are by her husband, a young plumber. He smiles, but his eyes fill with tears when he explains being stuck between the anti-Muslim sentiment that has taken hold in France after the Nov. 13 attacks and criticism he gets from his own community for being the husband of an artist. "It's not easy," he says. "People talk, people criticize, women are queens, and queens don't show themselves."

Fella Japonia doesn't care. Her voice is powerful. She studied music in Tlemcen, Algeria, and later in Damascus, Syria â€" "before the civil war." She's been to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. People often compare her to the legendary Cheba Zahouania.

Two days ago, a fight broke out outside the Jawhara. A jealous man. A woman was trying to get him to calm down. The improvised shopkeeper closed his car's trunk, waiting for the storm to pass. Fella Japonia and her husband left, headed towards another lounge, this time in Pantin. An artist's life.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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