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V/A - 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground

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Artist: V/A

Album: 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Oct. 20, 2008

By the time Rai music filtered into the World Music™ marketplace, it had already undergone a few generations of evolution and sonic transformation. Shaped by the same economic pressures and technological opportunities that made reggae go digital and caused Cambodians to turn their backs on guitars and drums in favor of mushy-sounding synths, Rai’s popularizers ditched acoustic instruments in favor of electronics that sounded like they had been bought second hand at a suburban Parisian garage sale. As the music’s popularity spread, production values improved until Cheb Mami was (ahem) elevated to the status of exotic seasoning on Sting’s “Desert Rose”. In other words, things went from cheap and slick to offensively bland slick.

This is not the Rai that compiler Hicham Chadly wants you to hear. The eight songs on this LP were culled from 45s pressed in the ’70s, when Rai was a minority sound favored by Algerian audiences hungry for music that reflected a yen for drinking, cheating, and (if they were lucky) driving. The lyrics were unusually frank, which got the music banned from the radio. The sound was raw, with urgent vocals, blaring trumpets that veer in and out of synch, and driving hand drums over a carpet of harmonium drones. It’s as far removed from that Sting video as Howlin’ Wolf is from Robert Cray.

Bellemou & Benfissa kick things off with “Li Maanduche l’Auto,” a driving performance about someone who’s not in a position to get behind the wheel (not that the average Western music enthusiast will be able to tell, since none of the singing is in English). Groupe El Azhar’s “Mazal Nesker Mazal,” overflowing with North African machismo, explores the same intoxicated territory. Boutabia Sghir’s three tracks on the flip side tap the same vein, with elastically pitched trumpets declaring the melodies over a stressed-out percussion section. When translated, Sghir’s song titles impart a sense of romantic desperation, but nothing as overt as Cheb Sergui’s tale of self-comfort “Ana Dellali” (or “I Cuddle Myself”). Its proto-dub bass and snaky wah-wah guitar wind their way through the by-now-familiar percussion. It’s the best song on the compilation, and if Sergui’s got an album full of stuff this good, I’d love to hear it.

Sublime Frequencies has definitely caught on to the lure of vinyl, and this record is one convincing snare. Both the gatefold and the LP are satisfyingly heavy; the cover is a lurid and brightly colored collage of leisure suit-clad performers and more scantily-attired women. The record is nicely pressed, with the only surface noise issuing from the original 45s. If only all records had looked and sounded like this in the ’70s and early ’80s, CDs might never have gotten off the ground.

By Bill Meyer

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