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Raï Here, Raï Now

Jasper James

Photo: Jasper James

Indeed, Mami's last album, Meli Meli, went double gold worldwide, but until his duet with Sting on last year's hit single "Desert Rose" (which they performed during the pregame show at the Super Bowl this year), his American following was very small and almost exclusively Arab. "I was nervous," Mami says, beating his hand on his heart and smiling, "but it was great to play the Super Bowl."

Mami wears his fame lightly, bantering in Arabic with the waitstaff at 404, but when a few English tourists look to see what all the fuss is about he shrinks into the sofa. He's also shy. He'd much rather sing than talk, and occasionally when there's a lull in the conversation he fills it by singing along quietly with whatever's playing over the restaurant's sound system, as though his voice were the one thing he'll always be comfortable with. He began singing professionally at 12, performing at local weddings.

"I accompanied myself on the accordion," Mami explains. "It was all I could afford."

Most raï singers start young, says Abdi, which is why cheb, Arabic for "young man," is a common appellation; the genre's other major talent is Cheb Khaled. Raï means "advice" or "vision," but in Algeria's current political climate (a pitched battle between the military-backed government and various Islamic fundamentalist parties), "will" is a more resonant translation. For the most part the musicians aren't explicitly political, but their lyrics, if not their lifestyles, often run against the Islamic hard-liners. In the last few years two well-known singers, Cheb Hasni and Matoub Lounes, have been killed, and as with many murders in Algeria it's unclear who was responsible. Few raï musicians can live there safely—Mami's recent visit was conducted under heavy security—and those who do stay risk an awful lot for music about love and lost love.

"The songs are about what happens between men and women," Abdi explains. "It's the blues."

"I love Aretha Franklin!" says Mami.

"Al Green!" Abdi counters.

"Stevie Wonder!" Lévy adds.

As we're settling the bill, there's another gap in the conversation: one of Mami's songs is playing. He's listening somewhat distractedly, but the rest of 404 has come to life. "Parisien du Nord" was a huge hit in France—which may not automatically recommend it to American music fans, but with Mami singing in Arabic, overlaid with a French rap about the travails of North African kids in France, it's one of the best pieces of political pop music since early-nineties American hip-hop.

The song ends with a solo riff that turns into an expansive wail. The entire restaurant is quiet for a few seconds before it erupts in wild applause.

"I'm not a politician," Mami says on our way out. "It's like asking a president to sing. But I have to take up subjects like racism, what it's like to be North African in France."

By the time we get to the Hammam Club, the owner is out front to welcome Mami and lead us to a table near the stage, where a 10-piece band is playing through its large repertoire of Maghrebian music. A number of women are dancing together, looking over their shoulders and hoping to catch Mami's eye. Eventually one comes over and asks Abdi's cousin Tchikou for Mami's number; he invents one on the spot.

During a break, the bandleader waves to Mami and announces that they're going to play a set in tribute to Cheb Hasni. Nothing needs explaining; everyone here knows who Hasni was. This is a nightspot for the North African elite—a former soccer star from Morocco, a few lesser-known musicians, successful young businessmen and their dates. They are warm, encouraging us to dance and smoke from the hookah, but we're the only tourists here, and there are no non-African Frenchmen.

I'd noticed the same sense of community on Boulevard Barbès, a largely working-class Maghrebian neighborhood in the 18th Arrondissement, where raï was nurtured in small cafés and music stores long before it exploded internationally. "Raï," Mami says, "is not about politics; it's about daily life."

What's wanted is a city as generous and courageous as raï, a kind of vision. Perhaps the Obélisque du Luxor, given just a year before France took Algeria, should be looked upon not only as a souvenir of the colonial adventure, but as a sort of promise.

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