Chaabi: The 'People's Music' Of North Africa These days, it's been eclipsed by rai music, rap and Western pop. But long ago, the musical form adapted from Andalusian traditions filled the casbahs of Algeria with poetic melodies, exotic instrumentation and stories of love and loss.

Chaabi: The 'People's Music' Of North Africa

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Traditional rai music from North Africa mixed with infectious African and western beats has turned into a staple of European dance clubs. But Algerian chaabi, or people's music, is no longer widely played.

At a recent visit to Algiers, NPR's Peter Kenyon had the chance to learn about chaabi, which once filled the kasbahs with exotic melodies and stories of love and loss.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

PETER KENYON: As concert venues go, it's not exactly Carnegie Hall. A few dozen folding chairs are set up in a courtyard in front of a modest elevated stage. A half-dozen musicians are crowded around a table groaning with platters of food and pitchers of drink. The crowd is mainly older men, and feet are tapping and heads are nodding along with the rolling, gently propulsive beat.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

KENYON: Listeners with MTV attention spans may have a hard time with chaabi songs which can go on for the better part of half an hour. But in this crowd of a certain age, the music evokes wry and wistful smiles. This concert came on Algerian Independence Day weekend, and perhaps the older members of the audience were recalling the days of their youth when chaabi music used to pour from the smoke-filled corners of the kasbah.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

KENYON: One of the musicians is Halo Abdel Hadi. A few days earlier, he had invited me to his office to talk about the music and about the man known as the father of chaabi music - his father, Hajj Mohammed Al-Anka. Chaabi has been called the blues of the kasbah, and Abdel Hadi says while that's not musically accurate, it does convey how the music was embraced by ordinary Algerians.

Mr. HALO ABDEL HADI (Musician): (Through translator) My father, when he came, he came in a very sensitive period at that time. It was like the rich people got their own music, classical music. But the poorest people, the poorest people didn't have nothing. So he came in between the middle in order to let the people, the poorest, listening to a music that they will - it's coming from them.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

KENYON: This recording of Hajj Mohammed Al-Anka clearly shows the music's debt to the classical music of 15th century Andalusia and also how it bent those traditions to its own ends of communicating everyday songs of love and money won or lost.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

Mr. HAJJ MOHAMMED AL-ANKA (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

KENYON: The sounds of Moorish Spain came to North Africa in force when Spain expelled Muslims and Sephardic Jews in 1492. In Algeria, it continued to evolve - Muslim and Jewish musicians playing side by side, absorbing various influences. It could have gone in a number of directions, but Anka, already a well-known musician and teacher, created the musical structure that came to define Algerian chaabi. Verses of poetry about anything from religion to love to coffee and tea interspersed with instrumental passages performed on stringed instruments such as the mandol, ancestor of the mandolin, and the tambour and other percussion, the qanun or zither, and several other instruments, sometimes including the piano and violin.

These days, chaabi has been eclipsed by rai music, rap and Western pop. But it's still played in a few bars on the weekends and on special occasions such as this open-air Independence Day concert.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

KENYON: Halo Abdel Hadi is teaching the music to young students these days, when he can pry them off the soccer field. He says he hopes chaabi music, which survived a war for independence and a civil war, can pass the test of time and changing tastes.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Algiers.

(Soundbite of chaabi music)

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