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Cheb Hasni forever

Gunned down but not forgotten


Paris 

29/09/2009 - 

On 29 September 1994, Rai singer Cheb Hasni was gunned down on his doorstep in Oran. Fifteen years on, the legendary Nightingale of Rai has not been forgotten. Hasni's romantic Rai songs still echo through the streets of Oran, defying the years as they once defied their censors.



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." 

Local boy


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.

Omri Omri

 


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?
Khaled Bendouda: Generally, Rai singers don't write their own lyrics. The singer comes up with an idea for a theme - the housing crisis, visa problems or a relationship issue - and then he leaves the songwriter to develop the idea. The thing with Hasni was he'd actually experienced difficult situations in his own life. He'd been betrayed in love. Hasni would sit down and explain his own vision of things and then I'd write the lyrics. Often a Rai singer's involvement begins and ends with him coming into the studio to record vocals. But Hasni had his own ideas about composition. He'd often sit down at the synthesizer and we'd work together. Hasni had a real gift for interpreting the lyrics. That's what made his songs so powerful and universal.

Do you remember the day he died?
Yes, he was killed on a Thursday, around 11.30 in the morning. We were all in total shock. Hasni was a star, but everyone in the Rai world was one big family. We were fascinated by him and many of us envied his success... The news of his death spread like wildfire and it felt like the whole of Algeria turned up in Gambetta, the neighbourhood where his family lived. Women came from all over Algiers, from the east, from the Sahara, from Morocco, even from the U.S.…

And you continued writing Rai songs after his death?
Rai will never give up and give in. This is our act of resistance - even unto death! If I'd been killed, someone else would have taken my place. And so on and so on until the end of the world. Rai is the Algerian people and if you love the Algerian people, you work for the Algerian people no matter what the circumstances. While the terrorists were busy making bombs, I was making Rai!

Eglantine  Chabasseur

Translation : Julie  Street