An Introduction to Rai Music

Cheb Mami in Concert

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Rai music is a popular genre of world music from the Northern African country of Algeria. Rai is pronounced "rye" or "rah-AY" and translates as "opinion". Rai music began in the early 1900s as a combination of popular music and traditional Bedouin desert music.

Rai transformed throughout the 1900s but really came into its own in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when artists such as Ahmad Baba Rachid blended traditional Rai with modern pop sounds.

The Sound

To the unsuspecting listener, much Rai music would sound pretty much like pop music, sung in Arabic, with a clear but not overwhelming World Beat influence. However, the tonal and instrumental influences of traditional Bedouin music, not to mention cultural and religious influences, are really a keystone of the genre.

Cheb, Chaba, Shikh, Shikha

Rai musicians generally refer to themselves as either cheb (feminine chaba) if they are young and playing more modern styles of Rai, and shikh/cheikh (feminine shikha/cheikha) if they are older and playing more traditional styles. These titles are cultural definitions, and they have both positive and negative connotations within the Algerian Islamic culture as a whole.


Rai lyrics are often somewhat bawdy and blunt, describing both the pain and joy of daily life. They are usually in Arabic and French. Translations of Rai songs often read much like lyrics that many would associate with American blues. These lyrics often cause problems between Rai singers and fundamentalist Muslims in Algeria, and many musicians live in exile in France or Egypt.

You May Know Rai From...

Many people are unknowingly familiar with the sounds of Rai, as Sting (formerly of classic rock band The Police) utilized the vocal stylings of Rai star Cheb Mami on his album Brand New Day, and Mami's work was particularly notable on the song "Desert Rose".

Starter Albums

  • Cheb Mami - Lazreg Saani
  • Cheb Khaled - Sahra
  • Cheikha Rimitti & Cheb Khaled - King & Queen of Rai
  • Various Artists - Absolute Rai