Algerian <i> Rai</i> Music Leaps Language Barrier : Pop: Couple will introduce Arabic music in concerts at Santa Monica Pier and downtown.

Ready for a new international pop sound?

Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui introduce an Arabic flavor to the world music scene here when they bring Algeria’s swirling, danceable rai music to Los Angeles for the first time Thursday. The wife-husband team appear at the Santa Monica Pier at 7:30 p.m. and at the Arco “Concerts in the Sky” series at the downtown Westin Bonaventure Hotel at 12:15 p.m. Both events are free.

The pair will also perform on Friday at Po-Na-Na Souk at the Speakeasy Club in West Hollywood.

Fadela and Sahraoui’s 1985 duet “N'Sel Fik” (“You Are Mine”) was one of the breakthrough songs when pop rai (pronounced rye ), a hugely popular music among Algerian youth since 1980, began attracting attention in the world music community. Most rai records--including Fadela’s “You Are Mine” album and their joint “Hana Hana” LP released by Mango last month--feature an electronic backdrop of synthesizers and drum machines but Fadela and Sahraoui will be performing with a six-piece band Thursday.


“Rai music is meant to be performed live, so there’s no problem adapting to the live scene,” said Sahraoui, 29, through a French interpreter during a phone interview from New York. “Improvisation is a very basic part of rai. Sometimes when I’m singing, I’ll see a friend in the audience and improvise a line to that person into the music.”

Sahraoui, who plays keyboards in the group, answered most of the questions only because Fadela, 28, feels more comfortable expressing herself in Arabic. Fadela, who was born into an artistic family in the port of Oran, began her singing career at 8 and later gravitated towards the pop rai style.

Her late ‘70s single “Ana Ma H'Lali Ennoum” (“I Don’t Appreciate Sleeping Anymore”) helped to crystallize the sound and turn pop rai into a movement. Fadela and Sahraoui were married in 1982 and the latter took a three-year hiatus from her career to start a family. They now have two sons.

The break didn’t affect Fadela’s musical touch--her first record after returning to the studio was “N'Sel Fik.” Fadela is the leading female artist in rai music and dismissed any idea that her career had been restricted by growing up in an Islamic society.

“It’s a misconception that a lot of Americans have that is very amusing to us,” said Sahraoui. “We’re North Africans and life is very, very different in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia than it is in the rest of the Arab nations. The port of Oran, where we live and where the pop rai movement started, is almost directly south of Spain.”

Classic rai music has its roots in traditional Bedouin music and took form in the 1930s and ‘40s when the songs were adapted to an urban setting in the clubs and bars of Oran. The instrumentation included accordion, violin and a 4-foot-long drum called the derbouka .

The early performers were reputedly pretty tough customers with a penchant for risque lyrics that gave rai a bad reputation in Algerian society. Later, music from Spain and France began influencing rai and trumpeter Bellemou Messaoud became a transitional figure in the mid-'60s who helped give rai a more modern sound.

That set the stage for pop rai, which took firm hold in Oran in the late ‘70s as young Algerian musicians updated the sound with electric guitars, keyboards and a shortened version of the derbouka. The younger generation also distinguished themselves from rai veterans by adopting the Cheb (for men) and Chaba (for women) prefixes meaning “young.” The earlier singers had been known as cheikh (male) and cheikha (female), the term for a master.

“We were hearing mostly traditional Algerian music and contemporary French music like Johnny Hallyday,” said Sahraoui. “Elvis Presley was the king in Algeria, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. In Algeria, people call Stevie Wonder a cheikh.

But pop rai didn’t win instant acceptance from the Algerian authorities--the music was banned from radio and television in Algeria until a 1985 festival. Sahraoui and Fadela attributed that to guilt by association with the explicit lyrics of the early rai artists. But Cheb Khaled, the most popular young male singer, has been painted as a wild man performer with a knack for ruffling official feathers a la the late Jim Morrison.

Sahraoui and Fadela are already established on the international circuit, with major tours of Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan under their belts. They looked forward to transcending the language barrier with rai music here in the same way that American pop connected with them.

“It’s a challenge, but there are no borders as far as music goes,” said Sahraoui. “We’re very happy that rai is an international music and that it works both ways.

“Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder, when they sang for Algerians, we don’t understand the words but we love the music anyway. We’re very happy to see that it’s a reciprocal thing, that our music works even though no one understands what we’re saying.”