Frontline World

FRANCE: Play it Again, Maurice, May 2003


Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Play it Again, Maurice"

JUKEBOX OF JEWISH-ARABIC MUSIC
Selected by dj Cheb i Sabbah

INTERVIEW WITH MARCO WERMAN
In the Mix

LINER NOTES
Historical and cultural context

LINKS & RESOURCES
North African music, France and Algeria

MAP

REACT TO THIS STORY

   


Cultural images reflecting Maurice El Medioni's heritage
Liner Notes


The story and music of pianist Maurice El Medioni is a mix of Jewish and Arab roots and French and Algerian identity. Learn more about the cultural and political events that have shaped his life and influenced his music.

The Evolution of Raï Music
Algeria and France: A Mixed History
Ethnic and Religious Conflict in France Today


The Evolution of Raï Music

Maurice El MedioniMaurice El Medioni was born in Oran, Algeria, where Arab, European and Jewish influences created the music genre called raï. Today, he lives in France's southern city of Marseilles, a crossroads for many immigrants -- including North Africans, Italians, Turks, Spaniards and Corsicans. Learn about the birth of raï music and its 100-year evolution across borders.

Raï (pronounced "rye") is a Spanish flamenco-infused Arabic pop music that mixes melody and percussion. Raï originated in Oran, Algeria, a Mediterranean seaport where Arabic, European and Jewish music and culture have blended for centuries. The British band Sting recorded the international hit "Desert Rose" with a popular raï musician, and America's Quincy Jones has also toured with leading performers of the genre.

Beginning in the early 1900s, raï songs were characterized by their plainspoken words and were most often performed at weddings at which the singer improvised bawdy lyrics about love and drinking. The word raï literally means "a way of seeing," "an opinion" or "advice." It is widely said that in the past, people of Oran would go to a shikh to ask for his raï, or his advice, which he would express in the form of poetry. Today, raï songs tend to have explicit lyrics with social and political commentary.

By the end of the 1960s, raï musicians were mixing accordion, piano and bongos into Algerian melodies played with traditional flutes and drums. In the mid-1970s, the audiocassette enabled music to be recorded and distributed cheaply, and a new generation of pop raï singers and producers proliferated. In 1985, the first official Festival of Raï was held in Algeria, and a year later Algerians in Paris sponsored a raï festival there.

Despite its increasing popularity in Algeria, government-controlled radio stations boycotted the music, claiming raï incited debauchery. As the country's political situation deteriorated through the late 1980s, many raï stars fled Algeria -- most going to France. After a fundamentalist regime took over Algeria in the early 1990s, some raï singers who remained in Algeria were killed or kidnapped by armed Islamist guerrilla groups.

Algeria's current government has been more open-minded about the music. In 2000, Algerian exile Cheb Khaled, often referred to as "the King of Raï," returned to his native country to give his first concert in 14 years. But raï performers still spark controversy around the world. Last year, Khaled, who is Muslim and promotes cross-cultural exchange on the stage, was boycotted by Jordan Islamic fundamentalist groups after he performed in a concert with a Yemeni Jewish Israeli singer.

back to top


Algeria and France: A Mixed History

graphics Maurice El Medioni emigrated to France along with many Jewish Algerians in the 1960s, an era in which anti-Semitism was mounting in El Medioni's newly independent homeland. Learn more about Algeria, France's colonial rule, and the history that led a generation of North Africans to France.

Beginning in 1830, France ruled Algeria -- Africa's second-largest country, bordering the Mediterranean Sea -- for more than a century. In 1954, Algeria began its quest for independence, and in 1962, at the cost of nearly 1 million Algerian lives, the country succeeded in its quest. However, independence has proved difficult. Political upheaval and fighting have challenged the country throughout its more than 40 years of self-rule.

Although Algeria has always been primarily Muslim, Jews have had a presence in North Africa dating back to Roman times, and after their expulsion from Spain and the fall of Granada in 1492, their numbers swelled. Then, in the 19th century, European clerics and missionaries began to bring anti-Semitism to many parts of the Muslim world, including Algeria. During World War II, when the Germans occupied France and its colonies -- Algeria among them -- the Algerian Jews were persecuted socially and economically until Allied forces landed in the country.

In the years leading up to Algeria's independence, the 1950s into the early 1960s, anti-French riots targeted Jewish areas of Algeria, leading to the destruction of the Great Synagogue of Algiers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. At the end of the war for independence, most of the 140,000 Jews in Algeria -- having survived both World War II and Algeria's quest for independence -- fled the country. Many immigrated to France's southern port and second-largest city, Marseilles.

Today, Algeria is 99 percent Sunni Muslim.

back to top


Ethnic and Religious Conflict in France Today

The country that Maurice El Medioni calls home today has taken in more immigrants in the last 200 years than any other country in Europe. But nationalist fervor, attacks on North African immigrants and anti-Semitic violence are on the rise in France. Learn more about the country's ethnic and religious mix and France's challenge to mend old and new tensions.

France's majority ethnic groups are Celtic and Latin, with minority Teutonic, Slavic, North African, Indo-Chinese and Basque populations.

Although more than 80 percent of France's 60 million people are Roman Catholic, the country has the world's third-largest Jewish population, about 600,000.

A wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe has been manifested most violently in France, where in 2002 more than two-thirds of all reported acts of violence were directed at Jews. During the first three months of 2003, there were 100 serious attacks against Jews reported in Paris and its suburbs alone. Targets of homemade bombs have included classrooms, school buses and clubhouses. The Marseilles Or Aviv Synagogue, built in the 1960s by Jewish families from North Africa, is just one of a number of synagogues that have been set aflame or bombed.

With hostility toward Jews increasing in recent years, many of them are fleeing France to settle in Israel. In 2002, according to Israeli government figures, 2,556 French Jews immigrated to the Jewish state -- double the number of a year earlier.

France also is home to 6 million Muslims -- Western Europe's largest Muslim population -- most of whom came from Algeria and its neighbors, Tunisia and Morocco. In April 2003, millions of French Muslims went to the polls to elect representatives for a national Muslim council that will address issues of education, dress and work.

Relations between France and Algeria, as well as France's relationship with its own Algerian-born population, remain deeply affected by the legacy of the eight-year war of independence, during which the French army used torture in its attempts to squelch the Algerian National Liberation Front.

In October 2001, a soccer game in Paris between the French and Algerian national teams -- the first such match in 40 years -- was brought to a halt when, after the French team scored its fourth goal, thousands of fans swarmed onto the field and French children of immigrants laid down on the grass wrapped in Algerian flags.

One effort to try to mend French-Algerian relations included the government's recent declaration of "Djazair [Arabic for Algeria and Algiers], the year of Algeria," which will be celebrated through more than 2,000 cultural and musical events over 2003.

back to top