Walk through the streets of Oran in 2009 and chances are you'll hear Cheb Hasni's 1994 hit Nti, Nti, mon amour blaring out from a local record store. The beats sound just as fresh as they did fifteen years ago and the lyrics have lost none of their risqué charm, Hasni's vocals soaring above the stirring Rai rhythms as he imagines ways of seducing another beautiful blonde.
The Nightingale of Rai
Cheb Hasni was at the height of his fame in 1994. Known as the Nightingale of Rai, Hasni had become a teen idol across Algeria and the singer had built up a particularly fervent following of fans in Oran. However, these were dark times for Rai. Islamic fundamentalists were campaigning to impose their law in Algeria and armed militants were on the rampage, intimidating anyone who defied their rules. A number of Rai singers had already been kidnapped and on 29 September 1994, just before midday, 26-year-old Cheb Hasni was gunned down in broad daylight.
The Algerian Rai world went into shock and hundreds of thousands of fans poured into Oran to join Hasni's funeral procession. Fifteen years on, the singer's brother, Houari, sits at his regular table at the Cheb Hasni Cafeteria, reminiscing about Hasni's modest childhood, his turbulent adolescence and the all-too-short-lived career of the glittering-eyed boy "who sang from his heart."
The pain of Hasni's loss is still vivid, so we change the subject and talk about the local neighbourhood, Gambetta. It was here that Hasni grew up playing football for ASCO, then going on to hone his vocal talent at neighbourhood parties before making his name on the cabaret circuit. The owner of Le Biarritz, where Hasni performed one of his first ever concerts, says "I used to walk through Gambetta a lot and I was struck by this young kid I saw singing on the street. He'd do covers of Khaled songs or Lebanese or Western pop songs. I invited him to perform at a cabaret on the Corniche, then at Le Biarritz. Hasni was amazing. He was always totally straight and honest and he loved his fans."
In 1986, the young Rai singer, aged just 18, caused a huge scandal, teaming up with Cheba Zahouania (a Rai diva almost ten years older) to duet on El Baraka (The Shack.) The song, which went on to become a Rai classic, recounts the tale of a couple forced to "make love in a dirty old shack" because they have nowhere else to go. Beneath its apparently banal lyrics, the song addresses topical issues such as the housing crisis and teenage sexuality and it is regularly covered by the new generation of Rai stars today.
"Rai love" pioneer
Hasni, famous for his light vocals and his lush arrangements, became the pioneer of the "Rai love" movement in the 1990s. His sentimental songs recount stories of impossible love, betrayal and secret romances which go against parents' wishes and society's codes. Hasni became an unofficial spokesperson for the nation's youth, an idol worshipped by an entire generation of Algerian teens. And he took his role seriously, spending days at a time in the studio and recording over four hundred songs in his intense less-than-a-decade-long career.
"Hasni's records are still best-sellers," insists Nassredine, who works in a downtown record store. Fired with enthusiasm, the young sales clerk puts on a cassette by Abdou, one of Hasni's supposed "heirs." But halfway through he admits, "A lot of singers are inspired by Hasni, but nobody will ever have his charisma. Nobody will ever embody love the way he did." And it is clear that nobody will ever quite replace the Rai Love pioneer in Algerian hearts.
|3 questions to Khaled Bendouda|
46-year-old Khaled Bendouda is a respected figure on Oran's Rai scene. Working as a poet, songwriter and composer since 1986, he has written material for all the big Rai stars including Cheb Khaled, Mohamed Nouna and Cheba Zahouania. He penned over 100 songs for Cheb Hasni.
RFI Musique: How did you work on Cheb Hasni's songs?
Do you remember the day he died?
And you continued writing Rai songs after his death?
Translation : Julie Street