Chaabi Music Born out of the French Occupation of Algeria: A History Lesson with Ethnomusicologist, Hicham Chami

Peter Holslin talks with Hicham Chami about growing up in Morocco, Algerian immigrants in Paris, and the music of Dahmane El Harrachi.
By    October 12, 2015


The other day I was at a small music shop on Westwood Boulevard perusing through stacks of Uzbekistani folk and Sufi spirital music when I came across a CD with a handsome Arab fellow on the cover. He was an older man, probably in his late 50s, with a trimmed mustache and a three-piece suit, and he was wielding a banjo while gazing off thoughtfully into the distance. This was quite a find because as the title made clear, he was Dahmane El Harrachi — legend of Algerian chaabi music, mostly unknown to the English speaking world.

The word chaabi means “popular” in Arabic, and while it has different musical connotations depending on region, in Algeria chaabi refers to a tradition of urbane folk music that combines the regional poetic repertoire of melhun with soulful Andalusian-style arrangements of darbouka drums, violins, mandole and — yes — banjo. The music came of age in the 1950s and ’60s thanks in large part to the musician and composer El Hadj M’Hamed El Anka, but Harrachi, who was born in the city of Algiers and died in a car accident in 1980, was also a key figure. He spent a lot of his life living as an expatriate in Paris, playing smoky cafes for fellow Algerian migrants and imparting sometimes brutally honest messages with his plaintive melodies and husky voice. “Oh traveler, let me give you a piece of advice / Consider what is in your interest before you sell everything you have,” he sings in his most famous song, “Ya Rayah,” a bitter ode to the immigrant life that was later covered in the ’90s by Algerian star Rachid Taha.

Hicham Chami, a Middle Eastern classical musician and ethnomusicologist at the University of Florida, grew up in Morocco and remembers first hearing Dahmane El Harrachi’s songs in cover form on the classic 1998 live album 1, 2, 3 Soilels featuring rai superstars Taha, Faudel, and Khaled. Chami (who supplied the above translation) says Harrachi came from a generation of Algerian immigrants who felt caught between two cultures as they gave up everything they had in their homeland in pursuit of employment and opportunity in Paris. This legacy is still apparent today in Paris’s vast and neglected suburban housing projects, and I was interested to know more, so I called up Chami and we talked about chaabi, migration, and banjos. — Peter Holslin

How were you introduced to Dahmane El Harrachi’s music? Did you grow up listening to it at all?

Hicham Chami: Back in the late ’90s, there was a fantastic album that came out called 1, 2, 3 Soleils that you have got to be familiar with. It was Cheb Khaled, Cheb Faudel, and Rachid Taha onstage in Paris recorded live. So two of these songs were Dahmane El Harrachi, and just being curious, I started [thinking], ‘Where is this coming from?’ One thing led to another. I ended up with a cassette tape featuring him. We come from a tradition where a lot of things are undocumented and they quote-unquote “belong to the tradition.” And it’s very frustrating.

If you’re a historian or an academic or a scholar and you want to know where this thing is coming from, it’s very frustrating to get, “Author – anonymous. Author – anonymous.” Or, worse, it says it’s “traditional,” and there’s no author whatsoever. So something like “Ya Rayah” to be able to be traced to someone like him… One cassette led to another and then I became a big fan of his.

Can you give me some background on him? He’s from Algiers, right? But then he also lived in Paris for a long time.

HC: He did. He belongs to that, you know, very solid wave of immigration from Algeria and other parts of the Maghreb to France. He did settle in Paris and that’s where he became famous and made a name for himself. Interestingly enough, he catered almost solely to the Algerian community in Paris. He never had the aura of a world artist catering to the West. He was catering to the very poor, blue-collar, Algerian, hard-working people who were basically concentrated in one or two big neighborhoods in Paris.

He wasn’t like a Khaled type figure or something? It never went to this global pop level or anything like that?

HC: No. He also was around way before that became a trend. Let’s keep in mind that he died in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I’m sure that if he was a singer right now, with the Internet, with YouTube, with globalization, he would have more fame. But he was in an age where selling cassettes was the best for someone like him to ever aspire to. Being on TV once in a while, although it would have been difficult for him because he was an expatriate. That’s how fame was measured back then.

“Ya Rayah” is a song that’s very much about the immigrant experience that you just mentioned, right?

HC: Exactly. Integration was a real problem during his lifetime. He also came at a time where Algerian identity was very confusing, even more so among the expatriate community, the immigrant community, and there was a reason for that. We in Morocco had gotten about 40 years of French occupation. It was called a protectorate. We just let them in, and then we kicked them out in ’56… maybe one, two small uprisings and they left.

In Algeria, the occupation lasted for over a century, and at some point there were discussions about considering Algeria as just another province or region of France. What ended in Morocco after uprisings took eight years of a very, very bloody war between France and Algeria. There were Algerians who fought hard for independence, and those who thought, “Hey, maybe we’d be better off if we were to stay under the French, if we were to get some sort of, like, semi-autonomy from France and still be considered a French region.”

In France there were people who were adamant about keeping Algeria as a province or a region, and those who were very happy to let it go because, hey, different culture, different religion, different society altogether, you’re better off just letting them go. That was eight years of solid philosophical debates, but also a lot of blood being shed. It was not an uprising, it was not a revolt, it was not a small revolution. It was eight years of war with armies facing each other, with terrorist attacks, with resistance movements, basically Algerians realizing that “the only way for us to get independence is if we were to bring the war to the French territory.”

Where did Dahmane fit in? He was an immigrant, but in “Ya Rayah,” I feel like the message of that song is very blunt — you’re still an Arab, you’re still Algerian.

HC: Yeah. He’s asking potential immigrants, ‘Hey, where is it you’re heading to? I’m telling you, you will be back. How many other days before you and I took this trip and ended up going back? How many of these human beings end up just wasting their time?’ He’s talking about decades — how many decades are you willing to waste before you realize you do not belong here?

He uses a pretty powerful word — n-d-m — it’s the worst form of regretting. The root is nadama. Which is the word for regretting. It’s all about regret. You come here. You made this plan. You have this vision about being here, and then you come here, and then year after year, decade after decade, you end up regretting the decision and wishing you never made it.

It’s a really harsh song. He’s just being straight up.

HC: Yep, he’s not using any metaphors about it.

I was going to ask you also about chaabi music in general. What’s that all about? What is Algerian chaabi music?

HC: First of all, it’s way different than chaabi in Egypt and chaabi in Morocco. It’s the same word, which is “popular.” But it means completely different things whether you’re on one side of the frontier or the other, whether in Morocco or Algeria, and in Egypt it’s like another animal altogether. Chaabi in Algeria, people see it as something that was heavily inspired by vocal music in Andalusia. On the other side, in Morocco, chaabi is a pure, rural form that has nothing to do with Andalusian heritage. And it’s also the instruments they were using. What’s the instruments that Dahmane uses if you remember?

He uses the banjo, right?

HC: The banjo or mandolin, and it’s funny because last December, I was at a conference in Tunisia, and there was this Algerian gentlemen giving a talk and I asked him a question, I was like, “Do you have any explanation for how the banjo or the mandolin made it to North Africa? Because every single urban popular group we have in Morocco… they have a mandolin, they have a banjo that looks like straight out of the Appalachian trail.”

And Dahmane El Harrachi uses one in his music too. And he was like, “Quite frankly, I have no idea.” The only thing I can think about is that the U.S. [had a] small naval base in Morocco in the ’40s, in the city of Kenitra. I think it was used for not launching attacks but for repairing ships that were damaged during the Second World War in Europe.

Somehow that’s the only thing that we could come up with, and I was at that conference surrounded by probably the three or four people who would know. If anybody on this planet knew, they were in that room, and we looked at each other and we had no idea. So Dahmane El Harrachi used a banjo, yes. He used a mandolin. Where is that coming from? We have no idea.

Who are the people that would be listening to chaabi in Algeria?

HC: In Algeria pretty much everybody. It’s literally part of their treasured national heritage. Now, when it comes to Dahmane El Harrachi specifically, I can undoubtedly tell you that his main audience was the Algerian diaspora in France.

Was Dahmane’s audience pretty working class or did he span different demographics?

HC: Quite frankly, in the ’30s, ’40s, maybe ’50s, there was no sophisticated immigration to France. Most of the Algerians going to France were working class. I’m not trying to say there were no doctors or lawyers, but a really large majority were people who [worked for] French car manufacturers. These are people who would wake up at 5 a.m. and go work in a boring blue-collar kind of outfit, working in the mines. It’s working class, definitely.

Going back to “Ya Rayah,” does it kind of speak to the difficulties that Algerian folks living in Paris might’ve been going through?

HC: Absolutely. It’s literally just about regret and feeling sorry that someone has left everything behind. Not only left everything behind — sold everything they had in order to come to France, and down the road you’re regretting that decision.

Was it a tough life living in Paris as an Algerian immigrant, or as a Moroccan immigrant?

HC: Absolutely. These are people who went to this country with very little education. They were there because their labor was needed, and every single time that happens you have a bit of exploitation taking place. You have people who are working long hours, living in suburbia, and suburbia in France is really different than here in the U.S.

In Paris, living in the suburbs is living in the projects. These are the people who would literally be commuting every day, waking up at 5 a.m., and also, let’s face it, having families that were way bigger than the average French home would usually allow for. These were difficult positions and these are the people who were very nostalgic, who would go in big numbers back home during the month of August, because that’s when everybody’s taking vacation.

There’s a word for them, zmagria, which is a form of “immigrant.” Zmagria is not an endearing term, because you have people who felt they could never belong in France, because of their very poor French language, their culture and everything, yet once they go home, you also feel completely alien to that place. These are people who did not belong here. They belong to their own culture, and listening to Dahmane El Harrachi was everything that home was. It’s the dialect, it’s nostalgia, it’s remembering, it’s also lots of regrets.

Well, is there anything else? Anything I’ve missed?

HC: I guess now that I think about it, it’s very interesting that “Ya Rayah” has always had the same version of the melody. That speaks a lot to his endurance as an artist. Many times you see lyrics being kept but the melodies being changed. “Ya Rayah” persisted for a few decades now and it still has the same beat that was making people dance back then, and it’s still very much encouraging dancing nowadays. It says a lot as far as the fortitude and the persistence of that melody.

It’s such a catchy melody.

HC: Not even that, but the Rachid Taha remix of it kept the same little banjo/mandolin introduction, which is supposed to be improvised. But Rachid Taha kept the very same one. So what started as probably just Dahmane El Harrachi improvising a little tune to get in the mood before he actually attacks the song, became now the part that everybody plays. The moment you hear that first few notes coming, you know it’s “Ya Rayah.”

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!