I never really understood Rai music until I started traveling around Morocco on my own and this permanent urban aural backdrop finally got me. Moroccans are a sentimental lot, and emotional too. They cry gently, murmuring "Aah!" or "Ooh!", when they listen to residents of Dancefloor Heaven such as 2Pac, Bob Marley, or Rai's Cheb Hasni. Rai is their regional cheesy dance music, held in high esteem by bootleg Nike-clad Moroccan youths. Most of the stars of Rai are dead except for Cheb Khaled, the debonair Algerian King of Rai. Or, as one cassette I bought would have it, "Khaled, Rai of King."
When I hang out in the barrios and dives of Morocco with working class Moroccan guys they talk endlessly of Khaled, their heroic idol. His hits like Aisha and Didi are the soundtrack to their pointless and frustrated lives. I bought maybe twenty Khaled cassettes from the stallholders the first time I stayed on Place Djemma El Fna, "The Place of the Mosque At The End Of The World," in Marrakesh. Every time I go to Morocco I get new Khaled; now his stuff is generally available on bootleg CDs there.
Rai was originally an acoustic folk music played by the Berbers of Algeria. In Arabic Rai means "truth". Though the music has now been fundamentally altered by electric equipment, it remains full of emotional truth.
(They're all called "Cheb," male Rai singers. Most of the good ones are Algerian. Most of the living ones keep out of Algeria because paramilitary Islamic elements have threatened to kill them. Clumsy efforts were made by the U.S. entertainment industry to present the Paris-based Khaled as some sort of anti-Islamic hero. Don Was got behind an improbable attempt to turn him into a crossover act. The other major living force in Rai is Cheb Mami but he recorded a duet with Sting and therefore gets negative brownie points.)
Five thousand Moroccan and Algerian youths gather in the Brixton Academy to greet Khaled. I'm surrounded by these North Africans in Brixton's greatest venue. When Khaled finally walks onstage the place erupts into lunacy. One guy, whom I've been talking to, leaps five feet into the air, Sufi-style, from a stand still position. Khaled performs his tunes with an appropriate modesty and sense of decorum, as becomes a true master. He has a small paunch, looks like a particularly prosperous North African restaurateur. He has the aplomb of Freddy Fender and the common man-touch of Johnny Cash.
I bring five Algerian homies back to my apartment to hear some Rai, Master Musicians of Joujouka, and hip hop. One of them is Karim, the guy who leaped five feet into the air. Karim, who has a lime green mohawk, is crazy about one of my Hamri paintings, Joujouka In The City.
"Why you like our music?" he asks me legitimately enough. "Why you not have your own civilization?"
Joe Ambroses's book, Moshpit Culture, extreme travel writing from within the moshing subculture, is published by Omnibus Press.