By the time I heard Rachid Taha and his band perform at the Olympia Theatre in Montreal, Id come to see musical syncretismthe mixing of various genresas an operating principle in music, something that music really couldnt do without.
Syncretism: The way of all music
From the dawn of history musical traditions have been developing via contact with neighboring tribes. And yet, such a natural and inevitable process rarely escapes the hue and cry of musical purists who think of their genre as spotless and all-of-a-piece, believing it to have arrived at the dawn of time in the same shape they find it in today.
We get this kind of resistance from haters of fusion jazz, from the folk Nazis who despise electronic instruments, and from the people who hated Van Morrison for singing Celtic songs with a bluesy inflection.
So where were the raï Nazis? Where was the anger when raï artists travelled the world, mixing raï with blues, rock, reggae, and heaven knows what else? Why, when raï artists began leaving Oran for Europe and elsewhere, did no one say, “Wait a minute, theyre mixing raï with hip hopthats not done!”
Roots of raï
Heres an even bigger question: What drove the raï artists to pursue, with such single-minded fervor, opportunities to meld their music with the most engaging world genres they could find? Sure, syncretism happens, but usually it happens slowly, and as if by chance. The raï musicians displayed an unusual taste for collaboration and genre-blending.
Raïs folk roots go deep, but it first began developing its distinctive form in the late 1920s, around the time Jelly Roll Morton was recording most of his albums and Tin Pan Alley was still churning out classic American hits. Raï emerged among the poor in cities like Oran, near the Mediterranean Sea, a region that dishes up a veritable mulligan stew of European, African, and American musical influencesvery much like New Orleans. But Raï didn’t climb to the worlds notice until the 1980s, when the careers of the best-known raï artists were taking off.
Conditions of creative achievement
Remembering that jazz first emerged during the Jim Crow years and might not have been possible if not for the unique social conditions of the postwar south, one cant help but assume that the North African raï artists had some unique cultural condition that explained their achievement.
Sure enough, such a condition exists. Call it “exile.”
If theres any mercy in injustice it’s that it sometimes creates fertile soil for the explosion of genius. North African immigration to Europe and North America enabled the drive to mix raï with other genres, bringing an indigenous music to other countries and also making of that music a means of uniting musicians around the world.
But why did so many North Africans leave their beloved homes? Why did a people so attached to the hearth, to communal life, to family, pull up roots and leave in such great numbers?
Its complicated, but by most accounts it’s Islamic extremism, widely seen as the most destabilising influence in Muslim societies today and the one that has most saliently eroded social orders, damaged economies, and created an atmosphere of fear and despair. (And we think we’ve got it bad.)
Although leaving seemed like the only choice, many immigrants saw their hopes dwindle when, after fleeing to European countries, they found that Islamist extremists had beaten them there. They found that, between the extremists and the racist oppression they experienced at the hands of European society, their lives had only slightly improved.
Beauty from ashes
This kind of dilemma will make anybody sing the blues. And from within the blues emerges a voice so deep, so compassionate, so ancient and beautiful that it’s a pearl of great price, something youre willing to sell your soul for.
When one has an awful life but nothing to go back to, it puts double spurs to artistic creativity. You have two choices: lie down and die or get to work making something amazing to lift you out of your misery.
It was their distinctive cultural backgrounds as well as the experience of exile that drove Rachid Taha, Cheb Khaled, and many other Arab musicians to take the poverty and racial oppression and turn it into artistic influence and collaboration.
Yes, the parallels with American jazz are truly remarkable.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.