Dec 04, 2008, 04:29AM

The Battle For Algerian Pop

You’ll have to track down one of the 1500 vinyl-only copies hear it, but Sublime Frequencies’ new collection of North African 70s music is well worth the effort.

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I know very little about Algerian music. In fact I’m not entirely certain exactly where Algeria is located. I was going to do some Googling, provide a brief history of the North African country’s combination of traditional Bedouin desert music and western pop (Rai also translates to “opinion”) and talk about how much more raw it used to be before synthesizers and Sting collaborations. Then I realized, it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever heard of Boutaiba Sghir (featured on this compilation) or Cheb Mami (Sting collaborator), all you need to do is take one look at the cut-and-paste collage cover to 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground to know that the music contained within is unique, funky and ridiculously obscure.

Not that Sublime Frequencies label head Hicham Chadly values obscurity for obscurity’s sake. It seems more like Chadly has delved headfirst into an unbelievable treasure trove: music from around the world that doesn’t fit into the tidy “world music” sections of American record stores. The label’s compilations, like Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar; Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan; and Streets of Lhasa (to name just a few of its nearly 50 releases in the last five years), are as authentic and unpolished as their titles suggest. Mostly culled from 45s, cassettes and radio broadcasts, Sublime Frequencies doesn’t try and educate listeners so much as transport them to a different time and place.

In fact, Proto-Rai Underground has a lot more information in it’s gatefold than most of their releases. The artwork is stunning, and the few paragraphs describing Rai’s transformation are a far cry from the usual collaged bits that make up SF’s sleeves. This is certainly one of the highest caliber releases in an esteemed catalogue.

The story of Rai’s rise and fall doesn’t really describe the music though, and I’m not sure I can either. The rhythms sound Eastern European, are aided by latin-esque blaring trumpets, and countered with distinctly western wah-wah guitar and fuzzy electric bass lines. It’s not really psychedelic, there are also accordions and the occasional organ, but none of the sound effects or studio trickery that psych (as a genre) is known for. The varied instrumentation and mash up of influences doesn’t seem forced—these musicians are too good. They’re not trying to be Jimi Hendrix or James Brown, but they probably look up to them.

It’s hard to pick standout tracks, because the album flows together so well, and while a track taken out of the context of the whole would still be great, one of Proto-Rai Underground’s main achievements is shoe-horning unfamiliar songs into a package that’s easy comprehensible to someone unable to place any of it in a historical context. The seamlessness is aided by the fact that the whole package appears to be made up of four singles by four artists, with both the A and B-sides represented.  

And what might be a deal breaker for some is the icing on the cake for me: The album is only available on limited, high quality vinyl. The wax is thick, and the gatefold sleeve is printed on beautiful, thick card stock; which means that 1970’s Algerian Proto Rai Underground will sell all 1500 copies in the near future. In a way, it’s a bit of a shame that music that has so long been unavailable to all but the most intrepid musicologists will disappear again so quickly. And while some might grumble that the format of choice unnecessarily limits the audience who can enjoy this music, I have a hunch that a CD version stuffed into the racks at Borders wouldn’t get much more attention anyway.

But that doesn’t make this any less of a triumph for Sublime Frequencies. So whether you can grip this one or not, keep an eye out for any past and future releases, with open ear towards the unfamiliar. And if you don’t have a turntable to play it on, for chrissakes get one already!

Buy 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground


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