Sha‘bī & Tradition
Essays Culture Music

Sha‘bī & Tradition

Sabrina Amrane

The Music of Dahmane El Harrachi and Algérois Identity

Algerian sha‘bī (or commonly recognized by its French transliteration chaabi) is a music genre that came to be in the capital city of Algiers. Dahmane El Harrachi, one of the more prominent household names among sha‘bī artists, was the original singer of “Ya Rayah,” recorded in the late 1960s and then later catapulted worldwide by Rachid Taha’s cover of the song in 1993. Dahmane El Harrachi’s discography has profoundly contributed to a historic collection of authentic sha‘bī melodies, many of which are at the core of what it means to be Algérois. While music is understood to be universal in essence, its genres represent a phylogenetic tree of separate identities. Deconstructing identity and its relation to music requires a close look at local historical, cultural, and social fabrics.

According to Social Identity Theory (SIT), having a strong affinity for a music genre shows characteristics of group membership. Sha‘bī connoisseurs in Algiers call themselves dhawaqun, or people of taste. There are two kinds of sha‘bī: sha‘bī malḥūn, a more traditional style in quarter-tones with extended, narrative-like performances sung by a single person “interspersed with vociferous choral sections involving the ensemble,” as Tony Langlois describes it in his thesis, and sha‘bī ‘asri, a derivative of shorter length pieces (‘asri meaning contemporary).[1] The latter’s appeal to a wider audience perhaps speaks to the very meaning of sha‘bī (‘popular’). The name was coined by Safir El Boudali while introducing Hajj Muhammad El ‘Anqa, known today as the father of sha‘bī, in a radio program.

It should be said, however, that in respect to modernity, sha‘bī remains very distinct from raï, a music genre born in Oran. While raï is known for its studio sound, sha‘bī is traditionally set against an orchestral backdrop, with violins and mandolins (small plucked chordophones) swelling and falling to a piano melody. Sha‘bī borrows from an Andalusian repertoire, and like Tlemceni ḥawzī, among many other genres, employs a poetic register of Algerian Arabic. Jürgen Elsner describes malḥūn as “formally related to the qaṣīda [short narrative poetry] in its strophic structure and equal rhymes over several lines and half-lines of verse.”[2] Sha‘bī also drew from numerous other musical sources, including amdāḥ (religious songs that praise Allāh and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ), Egyptian sharqī and jazz. Even old school raï drew its textual origins from malḥūn, but it has since then taken a very different trajectory.

If sha‘bī and raï were to be compared in a venn diagram, the middle oval signifying overlapping qualities would make reference to a corpus “of very close musical genres which are hard to differentiate on the unique basis of musical criteria” that Nadir Marouf calls nūba.[3] It also includes for instance *gharnātī, ‘arūbī, hawfī, &c. The outer edge circles from which we extract differences would not only enlighten us on subtle technical distinctions between the two genres, but the separate identities these two genres evoke. Raï has a relationship with cultural syncretism that directly mirrors Oran’s position in Algerian history. Historically, Oran provided different polities access to a major port, making it primarily important for trade. Under French colonialism, it saw the most foreign settlers, and it wasn’t until independence that thousands of Algerians from surrounding milieux came to populate it.

The Casbah of Algiers, the cradle of sha‘bī, has a much longer history with indigenous families and the social tides they’ve undergone. One has great difficulty seeing the common denominator between old school raï and contemporary raï, which is perhaps a sign that Oran’s musical landscape has always been subject to radical influence.

While the split between the classical rendition of Andalusi music, preferred by the bourgeois inhabitants of Algiers, and the more popular way of performing such music, preferred by lower classes of newcomers to poor quarters of the city occurred in the 1930s, it does not take a trained ear to realize they belong to the same gene pool. The split between sha‘bī malḥūn and sha‘bī ‘asri didn’t officially take place until the 1970s. In the 1960s, during this transitional period, populist connotations became more pronounced “with a new generation of contemporary song texts known as chansonnettes, including those recorded by El Harrachi.”[4] By the time sha‘bī ‘asri came to a boil, the album Ya Rayah was released. Some even consider that El Harrachi defined sha‘bī ‘asri.

Besides shorter sections in sha‘bī ‘asri, the introduction of new instruments like the Spanish guitar, banjo, and synthesizer has led to changes in the overall profile of the sound. While sha‘bī ‘asri emerged as a more accessible form of sha‘bī in this way, it still retained its allegiance to many traditional instruments (‘ūd, darbūka, qānūn, &c.) and messages of moral significance. Dahmane El Harrachi’s music expressed contextual grievances of exile and nostalgia, sentiments that struck a chord in a particular generation, but it also preserved a timeless quality by lamenting about loss, love, friendship, and betrayal in general. From mournful vocals to uplifting rhythms, Dahmane El Harrachi nearly perfected the wide range of sounds sha‘bī generously offers. While his lyrical genius was appreciated by all, and the scope of his reach certainly went beyond the capital (“How Do I Forget The Good Country” or “Kifash Nnsa Bled al-Khir”—itself an ode to Algeria as a whole), the sha‘bī canon is inherently tied to its local roots, the same way ma‘lūf is attached to Constantine by an umbilical cord.

Even Ruud wrote that, when we listen to a piece of music, “we make various associational moves relating or analogising the musical item” to a particular visual or verbal imagery.[5] While Andalusian music was historically for the elites, sha‘bī was made by and for the working class. Though, it is not uncommon for shuyukh (plural of shaykh, a title given to masters of sha‘bī) to dabble in the genre’s Andalusian ancestor, sometimes blurring the lines between class distinctions, and providing evidence for the shared Arabo-Andalusian heritage of both traditions.

While Dahmane reached the peak of his career after independence, sha‘bī music during the battle of Algiers represented a “dangerous Arabic-language auditory culture that had thus far escaped French surveillance,” Stephen Wilford writes. The evolution of sha‘bī cannot be divorced from its socio-political and cultural history whose cocoon is the Casbah. In “Ya Rayah,” for example, Wilford points out that “El Harrachi’s lyrics implore those leaving the bled [home country] to reconsider their decision.”[6] One ought to know a bit about Dahmane’s bibliography to fully understand the semantic content (the primacy of text is emphasized by sha‘bī lovers), but clues are left in timbre, inflection, and subtle metaphors. Dhawaqun will tell you that there are virtuosos who master the mandūl—the music‚ but have not mastered the poetry.

Born Abderrahmane Amrani, and raised in no other than El Harrach, where he earned his stage name, Dahmane moved to France at the age of 23 and entertained other Algerian migrants in Maghrebi cafés. This was very on brand for sha‘bī—Mustapha Harzoune suggests that this kind of space to perform the genre in itself characterizes Algiers and forms its soundscape. He goes as far to say Algiers would not be Algiers without sha‘bī. A documentary done on the sha‘bī orchestra group El Gusto demonstrates just how much sha‘bī is integral to the Algérois identity. It was impossible to pass by Algiers’ most famous cafés without stopping for some coffee and paying tribute to sha‘bī legends. After many wars, this practice has become more of a sonic memory. The café in Algiers and cabaret in Oran will evidently produce different genres as houses of music.

Many of the migrants in France who desperately wished to be repatriated were from the Algiers region. Dahmane El Harrachi became the face of “immigration sha‘bī.” Christopher Crandall writes, “The insistence that El Harrachi’s voice telegraphs the experience of immigration suggests something about the capacity of the voice to communicate the uniqueness of its host.”[7] Paris, while a temporary cell, was not a wet nurse for El Harrachi’s contribution to oral patrimony. Rachid Taha, on the other hand, chose to venture into new musical terrain by espousing different styles. El Harrachi was loyal to sha‘bī in its natural state, understanding it as a vehicle for tradition.

Dahmane also, in the words of Tullia Magrini, perfected the Algerian notion of meḥna, “a polysemic concept operating a rather explosive alliance in the experiences of pain and pleasure. The root MHN in Arabic evokes the idea of filling something up until it cracks and overflows.”[8] This idea speaks directly to what Thomas Turino saw as the next challenge in music theory, developing one “in relation to what is usually called ‘emotion’—our inadequate gloss for that mammoth realm of human experience that falls outside language-based thinking and communication.”[9]

After the introductory phrase in “Ya Rayah” ends, one of the ūd players, Abdelmajid Meskoud, himself known for the song Jazāir al-'āsima (“Algiers the capital”), “settles into the vocal melody with El Harrachi’s haunting words to the young Algerian emigrant, ‘Oh, traveler, where are you going?’,” writes Christopher Orr.[10] In this song, El Harrachi is disconnected from the world around him, yet the tug on each word he sings traps listeners in an imaginative and auditory conception of home—and, more precisely, forces the children of Algiers like himself to think about how they feel leaving their city. We learn that Algiers pulls them back with great magnetic force.

Turino expounds, “When given indices are tied to the affective foundations of one's personal or communal life-home, family, childhood, a lover, war experiences—they have special potential for creating direct emotional effects because they are often unreflexively apprehended as "real" or "true" parts of the experiences signified.” Each shaykh has unique qualities, vocal utterances and subject matter for instance, that are marks of authenticity for informed listeners. Adriana Cavarero is quoted that, “In contrast to the logocentric philosophical tradition of voice as mere carrier of signifying speech, she proposes that the voice ‘communicates first and foremost. . . the acoustic, empirical, material relationality of singular voices.’”[11] The grain in El Harrachi’s voice is a synecdoche of the migrant and laborer whose bifurcated existence leaves one’s thoughts in Algiers. Using anthropologist Steven Feld’s explanation, there is a reflective move listeners of sha‘bī act on—relating the music to personal and social conditions, intrinsic to identity formation; and an evaluative move—placing this music on a high scale of value precisely because it calls upon that identity.

The first stage of displacement that influenced sha‘bī wasn’t from Algeria to France, it was rural townsfolk spilling into the suburbs of Algiers in the late 1850s. Dahmane El Harrachi became the voice of a second stage of displacement, one that didn’t involve a short boat ride along the coast, sailing from Azzeffoun to the port of Algiers, or a train ticket from Biskra to the bustling Bahja (joy), one of the capital’s many nicknames. It instead meant crossing the Mediterranean sea and landing in the slums.

According to Bachir Hajj Ali, the development of sha‘bī can be traced back much earlier. He claims that it began to take root when the Regency of Algiers was succumbing to French power. Sabrina Zerar and Bouteldja Riche write, “Following the lead of Hajj Ali, Rachid Mokhtari argues that the French occupation of Algeria in 1830 led among other things to the dispossession of the Turkish elite of its ‘singing palaces’. . . With the Turkish patrons’ departure, the classical Andalusi music ended up in front of materially and culturally impoverished popular audiences in cafes and workshops of the disfigured city of Algiers.” Furthermore, the zorna, a wind instrument in North Africa and other parts of the world, “used to be played on a kind of oboe by military bands in the Turkish garrisons” so it seems apparent that a popular genre of music was already deeply entrenched in Algiers’ musical tradition.[12] El ‘Anqa’s many preludes dedicated to zorna supports this idea of an old sha‘bī continuum. The Casbah was a crucial nesting place for the genre to arrive where it is today.

One social function of music is strengthening a sense of community. French citizens of Algerian descent whose parents or grandparents moved forty, fifty, or sixty years ago feel incredibly moved by Ya Rayah. SIT becomes salient in these intergroup contexts. Taha’s take at Ya Rayah may be representative of these children whose relationship to the diasporic condition is very different.

Social identity corresponds to a subgroup of society, or in this case sometimes even meta-society. Surprisingly, there has been a lack of serious academic interest in sha‘bī, perhaps due to the fact that it stands at a blind corner between classical music and modern raï, the latter being popularized in the West by singers like Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami. Algeria’s music culture has in many ways been reduced to a raï/sha‘bī dichotomy of sorts, pitting two of the nation’s biggest cities against each other in healthy competition. While they do deserve credit for being materially and culturally successful, this not only ignores the diverse musical palette that exists in Algeria, but it also removes the crucial local context that blows life into these genres, instead merely pushing them forward as distinguishable features of the country’s personality. These two locales constitute a general public (the superculture), but only give the local identities a superficial appreciation, and of course at the same time, make brush-stroke assumptions about the entire country’s relationship to these two genres.

Turino writes, “The crucial link between identity formation and arts like music lies in the specific semiotic character of these activities which make them particularly effective and direct ways of knowing.”[13] Diwan (also known as gnawa), mostly played in Bechar, was also pioneered by a working class and alluded to Islam (diwan meaning the gathering of followers of a tariqa or religious order). Diwan, on the other hand, was associated with a ceremony enacted by descendants of enslaved peoples. There is a specific political discourse at play that takes into consideration a history of slavery in the region. The two ‘working class’ identities are starkly different once examined, and thus give entirely new meaning to the functionality of the music. These indices are signs of identity dependent on commonality. Meaning can vary from listener to listener, but always within limitation. Most songs are written or memorized with fixed presumptions about the listener’s ‘insider’ status. This is simply because music is created with a particular audience in mind. Diwan, at least for carriers of its tradition, has much more artistic, even spiritual weight in Bechar than would sha‘bī, despite the penetration of a centralized superculture.

To use Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory of music, sha‘bī is the “dicent” to the Algérois community. That is, it is a “sign” understood to represent its “object.” The abstraction aside, musical forms often correspond to a projection of local history and social experience. As iconic as it is, Dahmane El Harrachi’s music doesn’t stop at Ya Rayah, “White Algiers” (Bahja al-baydha), as only one example, is equally integral to this archive of recordings that testify to an intense love for the capital. El Harrachi’s position in the sha‘bī pantheon is in many ways that of a director of a successful film. The script follows a storyline that is sometimes contextual and other times far from tied to the restrains of time, but always one rooted in a stubborn yet sincere Algérois identity.

  1. Tony Langlois, Raï on the Border: Popular Music and Society in the Maghreb, 1996. ↩︎

  2. Juärgen Elsner, “The Forms of Classical Algerian Instrumental Music,” Studies in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1, 1991. ↩︎

  3. Nadir Marouf, Le Chant arabo-andalou: essai sur le rurbain ou la topique de la norme et de la marge dans le patrimoine musical arabe, 1995. ↩︎

  4. Christopher C. Crandall, Come, Ask My Heart: Voice, Meaning, and Affect among Algerian Sha'Bi Musicians in Paris, 2019. ↩︎

  5. Even Ruud, “Music and Identity,” Nordisk Tidsskrift for Musikkterapi, 1997. ↩︎

  6. Stephen Wildford, “Bledi Cockneys: music, identity and mediation in Algerian London,” 2016. ↩︎

  7. Christopher C. Crandall, “Come, Ask My Heart: Voice, Meaning, and Affect among Algerian Sha'Bi Musicians in Paris,” 2019. ↩︎

  8. Tullia Magrini, Music and Gender: Perspectives from The Mediterranean, 2003. ↩︎

  9. Thomas Turino, “Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory for Music,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1999). ↩︎

  10. Christopher Orr, “Pour Preserver La Memoire: Algerian Sha‘bī Musicians as Repatriated Subjects and Agents of Repatriation,”, The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation, 2019. ↩︎

  11. Christopher C. Crandall, “Come, Ask My Heart: Voice, Meaning, and Affect among Algerian Sha'Bi Musicians in Paris,” 2019. ↩︎

  12. Sabrina Zerar and Bouteldja Riche, Love and Islam in Traditional Algerian Music, 2015. ↩︎

  13. Thomas Turino, “Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory for Music,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1999). ↩︎

Featured Image: Photo of Algiers by Toufik Lerari via Wikimedia Commons.

Sabrina Amrane is a student at Emerson College. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.