Raï was commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia and received its premiere on 3 March 2007 in Aldeburgh Church, Suffolk.
Raï (2006) was originally designed to stand alongside Berio’s Folk Songs (1964) and Stravinsky’s Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1954) in a concert and broadcast by the Britten Sinfonia, which highlighted the work of non-American composers undertaken whilst living in the USA. Having, then, recently moved to New York I was interested in the way that Berio and Stravinsky turned back immediately to the Old World upon their arrival in the New. Taking one layer of the ‘old’ (for Berio melody and for Stravinsky text) they added to this their own brand of modernism, influenced by their new surroundings in California.
The word raï, meaning ‘opinion’ in Arabic, is a catch-all description for folk, folk-pop or, now, folk-rock music that has its some of its roots in 1920s Oran, Algeria. Its evolution is as nebulous and complex as the history of the blues in the USA. Indeed raï might best be understood as a kind of Arab blues (singing of alienation, poverty & emancipation), its seed planted under French colonial rule, blossoming after the violent Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).
Its prevalence throughout the world is as diverse and difficult to codify as its better-known American counterpart. Built upon a base of Bedouin folk music and Arab love poetry, raï today partly owes its sound to the eclectic influences of Edith Piaf, Latin-American dance rhythms, East Coast jazz and 80s pop icons like Madonna. In trying to define a ‘sound’ for the genre, one can think of raï as an Algerian textural foundation, to which has been added whatever the prevalent musical trends of the day have happened to be. To me, the clearest features of the style, beyond the resonance of sung and spoken Arabic, are threefold: 1) the use of hand-drums (darbekah), capable of producing several ‘pitches’; 2) ‘gated’ rhythms, which alternately glide in sympathy and grind against the underlying pulse; 3) a doubling of the vocal melody with an instrument (be it a violin or electric guitar).
For some time, I have been interested in the use of texture as an organic, developmental device. In Raï I make use of two goblet drums, varieties of which are found in Persian, Arab & Turkish music, as a driving feature of the work. Their rhythm, often ‘gated’, is doubled throughout the piece on various instruments. Structurally the form is an approximate rondo, with the ‘jabbing’ material of the opening interspersed amongst other contrasting passages, eventually unifying in a fast-paced coda.
I have not tried to write an ethnographic piece here; there are, for example, no transcribed rhythms or ‘authentic’ melodies sewn into the fabric of the work. Rather I have tried to paint a new image onto the underlying raï canvas. For some time now, contemporary dance music in Europe and North America has adopted varied traits of North African and Middle Eastern indigenous music. And so Raï seeks to highlight the symbiotic nature of Arab dance music today with its influence upon and absorption of non-Arab culture.