I’m going to pop up some thoughts about individual world songs once in awhile, thereby placing my blog into that category known on the web as the “mp3 blog.” Rather than pick new things, I thought I’d pull from songs that I have that, for some reason or another, stick with me & serve as an example of what a particular interesting artist is up to.
I’m beginning by talking about the song “Rim Lachoua” by Cheb Mami, the Algerian raï-pop-African punk singer. He’s one of my favorite Middle Eastern singers because his voice is exceptionally sweet and riffs up and down and all over the place. Mami, whose real name is Ahmed Mohamed, (“Cheb” means “young,” and is a common appellation given to Arabic popular singers), grew up singing raï on the streets of Algeria. (Rai, for those who don’t know, is a kind of reggae-ish singing that is a mixture of Arabic, Spanish, French, & African folk forms. Apparently its origins came from bedouin men & then was popularized by women in the early 20th century. Raï translates as “opinion” formally & as “oh yeah!” casually–making it kind of like rock music was supposed to be, right? –Yeah. It was political, sensual street music. Originally, raï was the music of the poor, sung in protest and celebration. Now it’s gotten more mainstream, recorded (of course), and popularized globally as its sound and beats mix in with other pop forms. Cheb Mami is one of the figures who’s had much to do with the music’s spreading popularity, as he’s happy to record with American soul and pop artists like Sting. The album from which our selection “Rim Lachoua” comes is Dellali, produced by the soul/disco wizard Nile Rodgers. While this might seem to dilute the sound, Mami’s approach doesn’t seem to cause objections among other raï performers, and he certainly wasn’t the first to add Westernized approaches. And, to his credit, Mami hasn’t (for the most part) begun singing in English.
Mami began his career by singing on the streets, making his own cassettes, in Algeria. He didn’t get successful until he moved to France in the late 1980’s; over time, he’s become one of the most popular artists in Algeria. (Apparently, he’s the “Prince of Raï” to Cheb Khaled’s “King of Raï,” causing all of those Mami fans a lot of distress.) Rai singers have often had to live in France, since the political and religious conservatives in Algeria find the music to be the corruptor of youth; as time goes on, and camera’s flash, Mami’s music comes to sound more mainstream French pop. And, like fans everywhere, people in Algeria prefer their stars to be hot, meaning that there are lots of beefcakey photos of Mami floating around the cybersphere.
The song “Rim Lachoua” is a good example of a Cheb Mami song on the poppy end. It’s from one of Mami’s earlier albums, Dellali, from 2001. I have a soft spot for a genuinely sweet (but not saccharine) pop song that is just, well, cheerful. I grew up with The Cowsills’ “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” stuck in my head, and I still get all mushy whenever I play Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds (as any person with a hint of life in them would). For some reason, when Cheb Mami’s lovely tenor and this particular upbeat riff comes up my shuffle, I feel better.
I made an attempt to find the English translation for these lyrics (or to find these lyrics at all). No luck. I’m a bit shocked that, with all of the information out there on the internet, these translations aren’t there. I’ve had this experience with other quote-unquote world music songs, especially those in Arabic and African languages. When I found some Cheb Mami songs in the original language and tried to run it through my Google language translator, the software got completely flummoxed. The closest I could get was a French to English (the Arabic to English got me nowhere), but even then, many of the lines were bungled. The particular lyrics from another song from Dellali seemed to have some political undertones, but who can tell? (One of the few sites I found that has Arabic to English song translations is a blog, Arabic Song Lyrics and Translations.)
With world music, I’ve just learned to listen without understanding the words. I get frustrated at times when the intensity of the voice clearly demonstrates that the words matter, but it hasn’t stopped me from loving, say, the sweeps and sails of Mami’s voice.
Cheb Mami’s most recent CD, Layali, seems to be mostly sell-out dance music, some really bad disco of the late 80’s variety. Repetitive electronic beats, chick backup singers, a multitude of American soloists, etc. It’s clearly a bid to get over internationally. It loses that distinctive flavor of a particular place; it loses all atmosphere. If I want Mariah Carey, and I do not, I would buy it. When I hear it, I see French discos in my head. I also noticed that he relies on the backup singers far more, making me wonder if his voice just isn’t as strong & he’s trying to cover it up. (One popular song of this record has the chorus “Come on, baby, let’s go dance.” You don’t even need a translator for that message.) It’s kind of sad to see someone who is so talented and distinctive go the way of all sap & mush.
Cheb Mami’s album Dellali & his other work can be purchased just about anyplace; here’s the link on Amazon.
So: I leave you with another catchy, pretty song from Dellali:Viens Habibi.