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With its made-for-the-dance-floor beat, infectious melodies and superstars belting out songs with full-throated gusto, rai music is an undisputed cultural treasure.
The question though is who “owns” this North African folk music that has its roots in the frustrated outpourings of society’s marginalised sections and has expanded to express the angst of shifting, migrating generations.
Music has long united mankind and built bridges between peoples. But rai music has recently turned into a pawn in the intractable diplomatic tensions between Algeria and Morocco. The cultural spat over rai between the two neighbouring nations has been stewing for a while and threatens to boil over to couscous, the North African staple of minute semolina balls topped with a stew.
The opening shot in the latest cultural war was fired on August 29, when Algeria announced that back in March it had officially filed an application to add rai to the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list, citing it as an “Algerian folk music” that has “feminine and poetic expression”. Last year, Morocco officials had announced their intention to add rai to the list, but they never got around to it.
Local media reports immediately seized on the latest twist to the longstanding rivalry between the two nations, one that goes back decades and has occasionally flared into war, such as the 1960s territorial battle popularly called “the Battle of the Sands” between Algeria and Morocco.
Battling the Salafists
UNESCO may be the latest battleground for the Morocco vs Algeria war for ownership of rai, but the conflict is not restricted solely to the UN’s Paris-based cultural agency. At stake is the claim over rai’s origins, an issue – or non-issue – fuelled by a rivalry that has seen intransigence and pettiness among officials on both sides of the sandy border dividing the two nations.
According to Algeria, the popular music genre originated among marginalised groups in or around the northwestern Algerian port city of Oran, a location that helped fuse the Berber, Andalusian, African and Arab traditions that make up rai music.
During the 1990s, when militant Islamists fought a brutal civil war – “la sale guerre” or “dirty war” – against the Algerian state, rai music came under considerable pressure from Salafist groups.
Rai, with its association with dancing, alcohol and just having a good time, was considered “un-Islamic” and musicians in those days faced serious threats. One of the darkest moments in the history of the genre came in September 29, 1994, when singer Cheb Hasni – “the nightingale of rai” – was assassinated by militant Salafists outside his parents’ Oran home.
Those were the bleak years when rai music was dying in public spaces, local recording studios in Oran shut down, and musicians – including top stars such as Cheb Mami, Khaled and Chaba Fadela – fled for France in droves.
But from their new homes in Europe, they kept the music alive as rai remained one of the few simple pleasures for Algerians during those dark years.
Rai emerges from the shadows
Rai has since emerged on the national stage in Algeria, with the authorities promoting the popular genre on radio stations and the annual National Festival of Rai in Oran.
On the other side of the border, Moroccan authorities have also been promoting rai with the annual International Festival of Rai in Oujda.
Music, by its very nature, transcends borders. But try telling that to politicians, bureaucrats and hardcore nationalists. The rhythmic origins of rai can be traced to a flute-percussion genre called Allaoui in Algeria and Raguada in Morocco. “It’s like distinguishing between a singer from southern Belgium and another from northern France,” dismissed Moroccan music critic Nidam Abdi.
Abdi, a renowned critic and historian of rai, underscores the Solomon-esque conundrum with an anecdote: “In 1989, I followed Algerian singer Boutaiba Saidi on tour. We had to pass the Italian border and negotiate at length, to immigration and customs, for two Moroccan musicians, who came from Oujda.”
Nothing more than a ‘chocolate medal’
The spat seems even more pointless since it’s aimed at getting a mention on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List, which, critics charge, is a mere promo stamp to increase tourism.
UNESCO officials originally conceived the list as a means to showcase art forms threatened by time, war or globalisation. But over the years, the Paris-based UN agency has been snowed by the number and variety of applications from member states.
In an article in the French weekly, Télérama, a UNESCO official responsible for the Intangible Heritage List who was interviewed on condition of anonymity, complained that the listing has turned into nothing more than a “chocolate medal”.
The listing has turned into a sort of reward scheme distributed to countries requesting recognition for all sorts of cultural offerings, from the Oshituthi shomagongo marula fruit festival in Namibia to Arabic coffee as “a symbol of generosity” in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.
The list itself is long, very long, and accessible through a search engine on the UNESCO website.
Some of the people who conceived the UN project are among the first to criticise its excesses: “There is a big misunderstanding that this is a representative list,” lamented Cécile Duvelle, chief of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Section, in an interview with Télérama. “It was intended as a communication tool, not a ranking. But member states rushed to appear on the list as if it were an honour roll call. Today, it has become a sort of Miss World contest.”
Recognise the artist, not the art form
UNESCO has another list, a much smaller one, of heritage requiring “urgent safeguarding”. These include coaxing rituals for camels in Mongolia and manufacturing cow bells in Portugal. But the difference between the two lists is not always clear to the general public.
Abdi notes that instead of defending a genre of music as either Algerian or Moroccan, it would have been better if neglected artistic forms such as Allaoui music were promoted. “Take the beher poetry, for instance. It has an improvised poetic metric as beautiful as Baudelaire’s poetry. I know a beher artist. He lives in Barbès [an immigrant neighbourhood in Paris]. His earnings are at RSA [minimum income in France] levels. He should be protected, not rai, which has turned into a form of international entertainment.”
And that’s just the rivalry over rai. The soft war for couscous has not yet begun. Meanwhile, the rai war is likely to rage on until 2018, when UNESCO is expected to make its decision on the latest artistic heritage riling up North Africa.