PARIS — 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 — contrary, perhaps, to the general public's perception — 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 — 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 — 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.
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.
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 — "El Baraka" — 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 — "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.